by Mary Murphy
For over 1000 years pilgrims have been walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and this summer I became one of them. The Camino de Santiago (for short) is a collection of old pilgrimage routes which cover Europe and they all have the Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain as their final destination. This is the story of my camino which began in a town called Sarria, 110k from Santiago.
The Camino Begins
On the evening of my arrival I went out to explore the nooks and crannies of the town of Sarria and while I was out I came across the most beautiful stone church, which I found out later was a leprosy hospital between the 14th and 18th centuries. The door was closed and at first I hesitated about trying the door handle, I half hoped it was locked. However it was open and I stepped down into a small dark room. Looking around I saw some people with their backs turned to me and it took me a few seconds to realise that they were in fact a congregation. I wasn’t really sure whether to stay or go; I kept thinking ‘I’ll go in a minute’ and moved as noiselessly as I could into the back seat on the right hand side. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 10 to 7, remembered it was Saturday and figured mass would be at 7pm. I stayed in my seat, full of curiosity and still undecided if I would stay or go. I didn’t know if I really wanted to attend mass, after all I’d gone out to explore the town. Also I didn’t know how long mass might last, ‘what if it’s an hour and a half and I get caught here?’ In the 10 minutes I waited, more people arrived for mass, all local and although I didn’t know if I wanted to be there I couldn’t leave, to be honest I was afraid I’d miss something.
The church itself felt really intimate, it was like being inside Aladdin’s cave; the room was quite dark with mostly candle light. I tried to figure out the dimensions so that I could really give a sense to others of the size of the place. As the floor was tiled I counted the number of tiles across and they amounted to eleven; eleven normal sized kitchen floor tiles. There were 23 people in the congregation and at that the church was not full but well attended.
Then a man came in and took off his jacket and cap and hung them over a piece of furniture at the back of the church. He said something and people turned around and laughed. Then as he walked up the isle I realised this is the priest and he walked onto the altar and began to put on his vestments before starting mass. How could I leave now?
As the mass progressed I realised that although I didn’t have a word of Spanish I didn’t need it because the rhythm of the prayers is the same, English or Spanish. When it came to Holy Communion I was initially undecided about receiving but I thought it would be a special experience to walk up to the altar in this intimate little church and receive the host. What I didn’t know then was that the priest would actually come down into the congregation and hand communion to each person. Those who wanted to receive remained standing and those who did not sat down. I initially sat but then shot up again when I realised what was happening. In the end I needn’t have worried about how long the mass would take, I couldn’t believe it when I got outside in the daylight and looked at my watch, it was only 7.15pm. This was the start of my camino; I had not gone out looking for mass that night, mass found me.
Each day’s walk was an adventure, walking through places I had never been before, and encountering people along the way, encountering myself along the way, noting how I was feeling, when I wanted to be on my own, when I wanted company, spotting all my emotions. I found something very meditative about walking, just putting one foot in front of the other and finding my own rhythm. I was meeting myself anew each day and as I got to meet and develop relationships with other pilgrims I was experiencing myself differently. Much of our talk was about travel and what I notice now is how important travelling is for me, it’s part of my internal journey on the road to being more fully alive.
At the end of the 4th day of walking we arrived at our hotel in a town called Arzua. I remember feeling disappointed. The hotel didn’t feel restful or inviting, it was loud, with a lot of hard, functional surfaces, bright colours, blaring TV and slot machines so I wasn’t looking forward to spending much time there. Our guide told us about mass that evening in town which was about a 15 minute walk away and it was arranged that dinner would be later. At the time I wasn’t sure if I would go to mass but later I decided I would go, partly as a way to fill in time before dinner.
I set off very tired and not in a very convivial mood with two fellow pilgrims. We were a minute or two late but as soon as I entered the church I knew I was in a special place. The congregation was singing and it was a welcoming and soulful sound. After sitting down I noticed there was a pillar blocking my view of the altar. I couldn’t see the lay person who was doing the first reading so I scooted to the end of the pew to get a better view and for some reason, again without any knowledge of the language I felt completely enthralled. Then the priest spoke and I felt captivated and more peaceful than perhaps ever before in my life and I thought ‘if I die now it’s ok’.
I couldn’t believe how I was feeling and as I went up to receive communion I was aware that each step I took, I took consciously. I felt part of this community of people also receiving communion. I watched the movement and the expressions on the faces of those returning from the altar and I felt there was so much consciousness in each person’s movement and that we were all connected in that moment. I felt in a state of grace.
After communion the priest motioned to us ‘the pilgrims’ to come up to the altar and receive a blessing. We all stood around the altar in a semi circle whilst the priest seemed to search within himself for the words he would use. I have no idea what he said but the tears streamed down my face. For me it was like making my First Communion and I felt loved absolutely. One of the most striking realisations about that night is that this mass is a nightly event and the blessing is also given on a nightly basis, yet I felt as though it was the one and only time it had ever been given.
Telling my story is my way of honouring my relationship with God. This experience has brought me closer to myself and to the awareness that if my heart is open it doesn’t matter how big or small the church or the therapy room is, it doesn’t even matter what language I speak or if I speak. The healing power is in the attitude I hold.
As I’ve reread what I have written I’ve noticed my hesitancy about going into the first church in Sarria and also my indecision about going to mass that night in Arzua and it makes sense to me now because I also feel hesitant about submitting this article for publication. I’ve ‘seen’ for some time that there was a threshold that I needed to cross but I wasn’t crossing it, maybe I’ve crossed it now.
Mary Murphy recently received a Diploma in Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy from the Flatstone Institute and is also a Career Counsellor in private practice in Cork.