I approach the Cathedral in the afternoon, practically delirious with thirst. I have been crying all day and I brought very little water, and for someone who is always prepared, I turned out to be Very Unprepared for something I should have seen coming for nearly two decades.
The old town at the foot of the Cathedral is charming – the streets are lined with shops and cafes. But this is Traditional Spain, so most places are still closed until after 16:00h for siesta. I trek down the cobblestoned streets like I have done in so many medieval towns through Europe and I wonder, even in my humbled state, when I became so jaded. When one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another began to blend together in my head. These are First World Problems of the First Order, I think.
As I round the final corner of the Camino and enter the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I am struck by the sound of a solo bagpipe being played. I have forgotten, somehow, that Galicia is considered a Celtic Country – it is not clear to me from my cursory research whether the Celts originated on the Continent and scattered to the Isles, or if the Vikings brought their culture to Northern Spain through trade. All I know is that my red hair hidden under the blonde that I dye it and my inability to stop chasing men from the British Isles is perhaps the best modern evidence of this secret, historic exchange.
Then, there it is: the Cathedral. Papa has promised me that the building will be a wonder of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and he is not wrong. It stands tall and imposing over the square; its stature undiminished by two of its towers covered in scaffolding and netting for repairs. Inside, in the crypt, lies the body of Saint James the Greater. Outside, stands a single piper; a dozen tourists willing to brave the heat; and me. I have no tears left, so I take it all in then I stand silent in the plaza, wondering what to do next.
It is a profoundly lovely but lonely moment – one of the loneliest I have experienced. To come to the end of a journey like this and have no one to call; no one to share it with; no one who will understand that it was only ten miles – but ten miles that took twenty years to understand – is a hard thing to swallow. So I sit off to the side in the square, and I say a prayer, and then I get up to find a café.
As the old town of Santiago is coming to life after its siesta, I find a café and I order tortilla Espanola and a beer, and it is the best tortilla and the best Estrella I have ever had. The beer goes to my head immediately.
In my compromised state, I am thinking about the head and the heart – about how, after twenty years, I should be better about connecting what I am thinking and how I am feeling; about what a martyr I can be; about the headless body in the crypt. I am thinking about Saint James; I am thinking about what it means to Follow.
If you know your New Testament, you know that Jesus calls to James and John to follow him, and they do – immediately. (Matt. 4:21-22). I am wondering what it is like to have faith that strong; to believe so ferociously in the future; to trust someone so deeply. I wonder how Saint James felt when he watched all those miracles being performed – demons cast out; people walking on water; folks raised from the dead. James gave it all up; he followed some crazy-talking dude around on the strength of a mere come-on; he blew up his own comfortable life as the first-born son of a middle-class tradesman and he just…went.
And where did it get poor James? Murdered. Martyred. Beheaded. His body brought back to the site of his Iberian mission; entombed with two others in the belly of a Gothic stone heap with a nice view. And I think he’d probably do it all again, too, just for the chance to take that first leap of faith; to follow.
I order another Estrella, and fiddle with the scallop shell on the red cord attached to my backpack, and a sinking feeling fills my stomach. I am so afraid of following; of losing control. I want the connection, but not the responsibility; I want the benefits, but I don’t want to watch the messy demons exorcised. I want to think I am the James, but actually, I’m the Thomas, or the Peter.
I want ferocious love, but I don’t want to lose my head over it.
I sip my second, ill-advised beer in contemplative silence, realising it has taken me fully twenty years to understand that I have spent all this time chasing something, trying not give up control, not knowing until now that the only way to become a Whole Person again is to lose my head.