Monday, 8 October 2012

Botafumeiro

The trick to seeing Santiago Cathedral is to get there early. It opens at 7.00 am every morning, though it is the back doors that are open, not the big front ones. We got there around 8.15 and basically spent the morning there.

The first thing for me to do was to visit the crypt and pray before the bones of St. James. I´m not entirely sure why, as readers of previous posts will know, but somehow, for me the Camino was not complete until I had done this. There in a small cellar, down a flight of steps was a silver casket containing James´ mortal remains. A young woman prayed before them and then pushed several copies of her CV through the grill to lie before the coffin. Unemployment is high in Spain, and I guess both her faith and her intention were obvious, and I found the sight intensely moving. I knelt there and remembered several things. A parish priest who, at the end of his pilgrims blessing had asked us to pray for his parish when we got to Santiago. Then a farmer tending some strange (to me) crop on a sunny hillside. I smiled and waved to him and he stood, raised both arms and cried out
¡Hola! ¡Bien Camino!¡Rece por mí cuando llegue a Santiago! Hello! Good Camino! Pray for me when you reach Santiago
So before I spent time holding my children, my grandchild, my diocese, my family, before God I remembered that farmer and his nameless crop and the parish of Arzua. Bless them all, my Lord and make of them what you intend.

Who can explain this? There in that little place before the silver box there did seem to be one of those parts of our universe where the veil between this reality and whatever lies behind it wears very thin indeed.It was a place for silence and for more tears.

We went to two masses today. One was the local parish mass. Sitting near the front, I could see the famous thurible, the botafumeiro, hanging from its rope before the altar. It is very large, but it looks decidedly petite beside the gold altar lamp. And both are modicums of minimalist discretion beside the altar, which stretches in all its Byzantine complexity from floor to ceiling of that vast building, encased in gold and silver. Set into the altarpiece is the large gilded statue of St James. The staircase runs up behind it and, quite visible to the congregation throughout the service, the continual stream of pilgrims rises and descends as people take their turns to embrace the saint. it was disconcerting at first but after a while, oddly appropriate.

About a thousand or so attended the mass, I would guess. It was led by an elderly priest, a true showman,  with an opera level voice who led the congregation with such humour and grace that the vast place was humanised.The service was a low mass, gently and sensitively crafted. The strictures against photos and talking were firmly though gently enforced. Tourists were ushered discreetly away for the course of the service. Then at the end, the botafumeiro was swung.

It is used liturgically, apparently, only 8 times a year on the great feasts, or on other occasions if someone wants to pay 400 euros for the privilege of seeing it and so I guess someone in the congregation had a few hundred euros burning a hole in their pocket. While the priest said the final sentences of dismissal at the end of the service, and while the organ thundered out some rousing bit or other, for no liturgical reason whatsoever this piece of ceremonial circus got an airing. Back and forth it tore across the transepts belching smoke like a great tin comet. A forest of hands went up clutching cameras and people oohed and ahhed. When it was stopped after a few minutes a thunderous round of applause went up.

An hour later was the pilgrim mass. Between services I took my opportunity to embrace the saint, trying hard to be gracious as an Italian tourbus party let about a dozen members of their posse into the queue before me. I touched the great gilded icon, looked down through the altarpiece at the gathering congregation and returned to my seat having fulfilled all of the obligations of a pilgrim.  The crowd was bigger this time, my guess would be around the 3,500 mark. The service was led by a nun with a wonderful contralto voice and included input from priests of various nationalities, including an Australian and a Kiwi. I guess they were priests who were also peregrinos, and had been lent an alb for the day and given the invitation to participate. We were blessed, and at the end there must have been someone else with a spare 400 euros for the botafumeiro did its thing again. This time it went a bit longer and I think a bit higher, almost seeming to clip the roof at the end of each swing; and this time, it didn´t seem quite so out of place.

The Cathedral of Santiago is one of the world´s most important Holy places. I must admit, when first looking at its splendour, to wondering what James that most  practical and focused of apostles would make of it all. The immense Byzantine altar and the Romanesque architecture combine to create one of the planet´s greatest pieces of architectural art. It is therefore a magnet for people with many different motivations: the merely curious as well as for those who know it to be a place where the sacred can seep through just a little more easily than usual. I watched a young girl praying before a statue of the virgin in a side altar. A tourist strolled by, and without even pausing to look at what he was photographing, thrust a camera in front of the girl´s face and snapped a pic of the statue. I guess he needs  proof that he has actually been there, and when he gets home he will struggle to remember where he took it or what exactly it is that he photographed. When she gets home she will know the blessings given her in that time she spent with the Mother of God. Both I guess will receive as they have given. The Cathedral of Santiago is big enough, holy enough, gracious enough to be kind to them both.

3 comments:

Elaine Dent said...

Blessings and thanks for taking us with you.

John said...

A moving account of the week, and its destination. Feel like I have been there too. I'm with Elaine.

Wynston said...

Me too!
Safe travel home.