Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Pilgrims' joy

            The somewhat obscure battle cry of medieval French warriors was Montjoie, a shortened version of the more expansive Montjoie Saint-Denis.  As we know from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Montjoy could also be a personal name.   For pilgrims, the joyful aspects of mountains, if there are any, must be retrospective.  Dante’s vision of Purgatory is that of a steep and steeply ramped mountain.  It feels really good when you quit climbing, and the whole mountain quivers in joy when a soul finally completes the task. 

            Even though our pilgrimage was Camino light and mainly diesel-powered I was accordingly happy, and perhaps even joyous, to arrive at the Monte do Gozo a few kilometers above Santiago.  That means the Mount of Pleasure, roughly speaking, the pleasure being that in earlier, more deforested centuries a pilgrim could from this steep place catch the first sight of the distant towers of the cathedral that had been the object of such long and arduous toil.  The experience was pleasing to me not only in spiritual but also in linguistic terms.   Having recently finished writing a book about an old Portuguese poem, I reacted favorably to the Galician form of the preposition.  It appears that Galician and Portuguese are the closest of cousins.  However I later made the mistake of asking our Galician guide Diego a question about the current state of the Gallegan “dialect”.  Diego is a cheerful and irenic chap, in addition to being witty and knowledgeable, but he rather bristled at the implied slur in the word dialect.  Galician, he assured me, is a language.

            Things are a good deal quieter in Santiago than they were when I was last here.  There is a thinner stream of pilgrims than there will be a few weeks hence, let alone in the height of summer, but the place is still pretty much of a madhouse.  No aspect of the medieval pilgrimage has been more perfectly preserved than its often-impenetrable ambiguity, the rich mélange of naïve spirituality, manifest commercialism, and utterly irreligious high-jinks.  I suppose it is precisely because of the grave difficulty we have in cleanly separating flesh and spirit that the Apostle must remind us that we have our treasures in earthen vessels.

            On our final full day in Compostela we were determined to take in the noontime service arranged especially for pilgrims, a group from many lands, speaking many tongues.  One special part of the Pilgrim’s Mass, a justly famous one, is the censing of the congregants gathered in the Cathedral’s two transepts.  The cathedral chapter has a gigantic thurible—and I mean gigantic--called the botafumeiro.  It works on an elaborate pulley and suspension system requiring several strong and skilled bell-ringers to operate.  The censing of the medieval pilgrims probably had a practical as well as a symbolic motive.  Tramping for weeks on end along dusty roads and through muddy bogs is a considerable challenge to personal hygiene.  I was sitting in the very first row of the south transept, and next to the aisle separating the transept seating into two halves.  It is over that aisle that the heavy thurible swung in its awesome pendulum stroke, swishing and fuming, the bright fire of the coals clearly visible through the ventilations in the silver.  I suppose that one is allowed to ask God for almost anything in a pilgrimage church, but I still felt a little awkward entertaining a mental petition to be kept safe from what seemed to be an all-too-real threat of liturgical decapitation.  My prayer was answered.  Thus passed the only sure chance I shall ever have of exiting this vale of tears in the odor of sanctity, guaranteed.

            It would not be easy to identify a single “high point” of a journey so enjoyable in so many ways.  We saw mile upon mile of varied and beautiful countryside in its spring glory.  Each day we feasted our eyes on architectural and artistic treasures.  We dined liked monarchs.  But near the top, surely, I would have to place the peculiar form of companionship and camaraderie—Chaucer used the word felawschipe—that so swiftly binds together a disparate band of pilgrims briefly and fortuitously thrown together.  I shall not soon forget the fully occupied glazed poultry coop kept in the church of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in testimony to one of James’s more extravagant miracles—the only known example of the sacral de-fricasseeing of a chicken.  But no sooner will I forget the pleasures born of new and unexpected friendship, and of the companionship born of intensely shared experience.

            On Monday night most of us had taken advantage of our coach to drive to Finisterre, the “end of the earth” as it was known in the Middle Ages to such as Chaucer’s Shipman.  That day had begun with bad news.  One of our fellow pilgrims had just learned of a sudden death in his family that would require him to set off for home as soon as possible.  The fleeting nature of human life no less than its preciousness is one of the great themes of pilgrimage.  The art and architecture of the pilgrimage roads to which we had devoted much of the last ten days is largely funereal and memorial.  Our absent friend was very much in our hearts as most of the rest of us gathered on the rude rocks surrounding the Fisterra lighthouse to sip a glass of champagne and congratulate ourselves on journey’s end as we watched a huge sun set beneath the western sea.  How many others, in legend or in history, had seen such a sight?—among them Dante’s Ulysses at the Pillars of Hercules, Henry the Navigator at his wind-swept maritime academy on Cape Saint Vincent, Columbus as he pressed toward the Azores.  But we knew something they could not yet have known, that beyond that setting sun lay our own homeland and our own homes.  There we would now return and, however greatly enriched by our journey, return eagerly.  Perhaps no pilgrimage is really done until all is done.  I thought of the strange old Romance word shouted out by medieval pilgrims to encourage themselves and their fellows not to flag, to keep on moving faster and further: Ultreia!