Friday, May 05, 2006

Santiago de Compostela, Day 2.

El Botafumeiro.

Random thought of the day: Tapestries. The first kind of digitized pictures.

Today I woke up to the bells of the Cathedral's Clock Tower, which were rung surprisingly softly and sweetly, as if with deliberate care, knowing that they would be the greetings to morning for the dwellers in the nearby plazas (I'm in a nice little hotel called "Hotel Libredon", for 27 Euros I get a charmingly small room with private bathroom, and I'm located right at the Plaza Fonseca, just half a block away from the Cathedral). After a nice breakfast of churros con chocolate (not quite as good as the ones in Mexico, I must say), I headed over to the Cathedral, and hung out during the Pilgrim's mass in order to try to catch the famous Botafumeiro.

The Botafumeiro is a huge, silver-plated, 50 kg censer, that is suspended off the rafters of the cathedral near the altar into a pendulum with a cord length of about 30 meters, and is swung in a majestic arc spanning the (sideways) length of the cathedral, tradition says, in order to purify the Pilgrims, in more of a literal sense than figurative, for obviously after such a long journey in medieval times, well, they tended to be dusty and dirty and smelly. Now, the men who operate this pendulum (see the movie by clicking on picture or following above link) are called tiraboleiros, and there are two documented instances of them ever losing control of the Botafumeiro: one, during the goodbye mass of Catherine of Aragon, shortly before she was to leave for England to wed Henry the VIIth, and of course, in hindsight, many people then claimed it had been a bad omen, you see what happened to her?, and the second, back in the 1700s sometime, when the Botafumeiro actually flew off the cord and went through the circular window you see in the movie, and ended up in Plaza de Platerias, next door. Cool huh? These medievals sure knew how to have fun!

Anyway, remember I told you that the Santiago de Compostela is famous because here is where they found the bones of the apostle James? Right, but, back in the age of no DNA testing or dental records, how did they know that the pile of bones that they found on the hill were indeed his and not someone else´s (say, a random Roman soldier, for instance, considering that the "discovery" was made back in 899 A.D. or so, and there were a bunch of Roman settlements--Iria Flavia, by the way, was one of them--around the area)? Well, says the legend, that after Santiago/James/Iacobus was beheaded by Herod in 44 A.D. and left without burial, his disciples picked up the body and embarked it on a ship that sailed from Jaffa, which supposedly, after seven days (it was a miraculously fast ship!), arrived in Iria Flavia. Now, Iria Flavia was governed by the Roman queen Lupa, and the disciples upon arrival went to the palace of Castro Lupario to ask her for a place to bury the apostle. She of course, sends them to one of the Roman authorities, who not wholly unexpectedly orders their imprisonment. They are later freed by an angel, and queen Lupa tries to trap them again by sending them to Mount Ilicine to search for oxen, which in reality were fierce bulls, to transport the apostle's body. But in another miracle, the bulls turn out to be tame and meek, after which the disciples bless the mountain and it becomes the Sacred Peak. Lupa then converts to Christianity and gives the area of Libredòn to the disciples, as a burial spot. Others claim that Santiago came to Spain for preaching. The reasons for this claim are also rather interesting: the kingdom of Asturias at around that time (VIIIth century) had its political reasons for associating itself with the apostle, in a move, I imagine, to aggrandize and glorify itself in a rather "nationalistic" pride kind of thing (this is common to a lot of nations/civilizations. Virgil, for instance, claimed in his Aeneid, that Aeneas, founder of Rome, was a Trojan hero, clearly, a more glorious and aggrandizing story than Rome being founded by two savage and wild wolf-boys Romulus and Remus). Then, it simply follows that given that he preached in Spain, he must've died here too. I guess Santiago de Compostela is as good a burial place as any other in the kingdom, then (well, not quite, Iria Flavia was a very important episcopal enclave at around the time, which explains that part a bit). Does this all sound rather fantastic to you?

Fyodor Dostoyevski said in the words of Ivan Karamazov´s Grand Inquisitor, something along the lines that people need mystery, miracle, and authority. This nowhere more evident than here (and not just because of all the implausible stories associated with this apostle, the carrying around of relics, the revering of sanctified tombs of unknown people, the clam shells attached to clothing for reasons that could be very easily confused with the Greek mythology of the birth of Venus). Why, just two blocks away from the Cathedral in this saintly city in 94% Catholic Spain, there is a shop selling candles, spells, and countercharms against the oft feared bruxas (witches), which surprised me a bit, for while this is common in Mexico (and such spells and rituals even tend to include little prayers to the pertinent saints as well as pagan-like rubbing of herbs and chantings), one rather expects it there, what with the pre-hispanic heritage and all, but it was a little bit unexpected for me to find it here, so close to the tomb of the revered Apostle.

Anyway, after arriving and attending mass, the Pilgrims would don new clothes and ascended to the roof of the cathedral, and in a pyre pit called the "Cruz dos Farapos" (the cross of old clothes, for the pit is crowned with a stone cross), they would burn their old clothes, in a symbolic gesture of leaving their past sinful lives behind. Then, of course, after all these ablutions and sanctifications, and partying in gratitude for your journey (for you can only party for a while before you wonder what's next, as I've discovered from staying here a couple of days already), some went on to the cape at Finisterra, which was, at the time, the westernmost point of the known world, hence the name. As to what they did once they reached the end of the world, one can only imagine, but I figure that after looking at the ocean for a bit they just simply turned and headed back the way they came. {shrug}

The Pilgrim's mass was interesting. It starts off with the priest reading off the statistics of the Pilgrims' arrivals for that day (harvested, no doubt, from the Pilgrim's office, which is in charge of officially stamping your Passport, and issuing the Compostela--a spiffy certificate in latin!--, if you've accomplished--and can demonstrate so with the stamps from official waypoint like refuges and churches, as explained before--the required number of kilometers): Pilgrims' country of origin, number of Pilgrims, route name (English Road, Portuguese Road, Primitive Road, Northern Road, French Road, etc), and start city. It was amazing to hear how many people come here and the variety of roads and places, the many different ways (by bike, on foot, a mix of train/bus/foot/hitchike/camp/no camp/luxury hotel, etc), and (even though not explicitly communicated) deducing and supposing the many different individual reasons people find to make it here. And as the priest pointed out, the people there in church that day, bear witness to all of us united in one purpose, meaningful, in many different individual ways, yes, but significant to all, in the underlying sacrifice and humility and good will of it all.

And I thought, with so much kindness and piety (and not just Christian--not only because there are lots of non-Christian pilgrims--or backpackers, I guess would be more proper to say--here, in spite of what you'd expect, but also simply because kindness and piety is common to all religions in the world---even the most fervient atheist can rationalize himself a reason to be compassionate and selfless), why then, does it seem sometimes that there is so much evil in this planet?

Think of human nature as a white sheet of fine linen. It only takes but for the tiniest speck of dirt to spoil the purity and beauty of the whole cloth. It is not that evil is so predominant, but simply that it is so striking, in contrast to the rest of the cloth, that it overwhelms your perceptions and draws your eye to it pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. And when the cloth has been sullied not just with the dirt of questionable deeds, but the blood and bullet holes of wars, and been shredded and tattered in violence and ignorance, and where even every good deed is grayed by an underlying self-interest of greed and profit, so that it is good only at the surface first glance, well then, if you look at this sheet of fabric and the acumulated uglyness and grime throughout the history of man, it no longer looks very white at all.

But think about how much evil would be needed to completely cover in mud and sully the whole of the cloth of humanity through the ages such that you could no longer tell that, underneath it all, it was originally white....why, the horrors this would require is unfathomable! And here's the thing: so long as the cloth remains white in a small corner, or even gray, but so long as there is but just one, that shows that the fabric of human existence was once white at the beginning (and there is one pure and bright white corner created in this fabric every day in the smile of a child!), then I have the hope that one day, I don't know when, or how, or in what circumstance by whom or by how many, this tattered, broken, soiled cloth will be washed and be redeemed, perhaps not to the brightness and purity of the original (for at my age no one is naive enough to think that all evil deeds can be undone, there are wounds that do not heal, and blood does not so easily wash off the hands and consciences of men, when there is nothing that brings back a life that has been wasted), but white nevertheless once more, with less innocence but greater wisdom, for the glory and exaltation of mankind.

Anyway, for all the welcoming atmosphere and the feeling of having arrived "home" that still permeates Santiago and provides solace for the visitor even to this day and age (what with all the happy people, the celebratory atmosphere, and the nice hotels, bars, and restaurants), one has to remember, that while this is the last stop for most of the pilgrims who arrive here, it marks only the beginning of the journey for me, so tomorrow, we press onwards.


Anonymous said...

Grandioso commento sul bene e sul male. Vedo con molto piacere che Santiago di Compostela, questa sorta di pellegrinaggio in fondo compiuto -o Santiago stesso, o San Giacomo- anche a te ha prodotto una speciale e benefica disposizione interiore a meditare, propio su un tema fondamentale della vita. Complimenti.

Anonymous said...

I'm working on my white ( grayish)sheet and discover with pleasant surprise that while I try to bleech a small part, other parts get clearer also. Some as you said are non healing wounds...
But let's work in what we can and hope everyone takes care of their own job: In that way the Big Fabric will be any way better.
May be Facts and Faith in Human Nature ( Kindness) can move harder ( stoner) wills. T.Q.M.