Peace Corps Writers
The Road to Santiago (page 3)
The Road to Santiago
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page 2
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The Coskrans

     We also stopped at every church that was on the path. Many were built for the pilgrims centuries ago. Some were small, dark stone chapels, 800 years old, with simple altars and a few poor pictures or statues. Many had statues of St. James. Like Christine we are not Catholic, but we always paused before St. James to give thanks, to touch his feet or cloak. When there was a mass, we went. When there was a pilgrim blessing, we went.
At Rabanal, in Spain, the 7:00 Vespers and the 9:30 Compline and Blessing of the Pilgrims are sung in Gregorian chant by three Benedictine monks in the tiny twelfth century Church of Our Lady. The voices of the three monks filled that small holy space crowded with pilgrims. There were translations in English, French, German, Spanish, but nobody needed them. The beauty of the Gregorian chant, the company of our fellow pilgrims, and the sacredness of that simple space were enough. We understood.
The last days were hard on Chuck; his knee completely gave out and he wasn’t sure he’d make it. We didn’t talk about that much, but there was the possibility that a strong will and courage wouldn’t be enough to get him to Santiago, so it was with full hearts that we mounted the steps of the cathedral in Santiago on our 58th day and stood just inside the door. The cathedral was packed, a mass had just begun, and we saw a friend almost immediately, Roberto, the older Argentinean brother. “You are here!” he said.
Yes, we were there.
You tell everybody you are walking to Santiago, but it is as if you don’t really expect to arrive. You focus on the walking, on the birds singing, on the steep descent, on the rocky path, on the promise of coffee in the next village, on the hope of seeing somebody you know when you push open the door of the refugio, on finding a boulangerie to buy bread, on the herd of sheep that follow you for hours as you cross the Pyrenees, on finding the church open when you finally stop for the day.

     There are rituals around the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago de Compostela, rituals to remind you of the importance of ritual, of not just arriving and saying, “Well, I made it, here I am.” First you present yourself at the pilgrim office to offer your credenciale in order to obtain the Cathedral’s certificate of pilgrimage, the Compostela. Then you go to the cathedral and place your hand on the Tree of Jesse under the statue of St. James — Sant-Iago. Your hand on the cool marble sinks into the imprint of the fingers and palms of the millions of pilgrims before you. Next you bow before the bust of Mateo, the architect of the great cathedral, and place your forehead against his to gain some of his wisdom. Then, you walk behind the 13th century statue of St. James high on the gold encrusted altar to give him the “hug for the apostle.”
The pilgrim mass at noon begins with a single woman singing a capella, her lovely voice embracing every stone, window, and chapel of the great cathedral. After the homily the priest announces the pilgrims who have arrived since noon of the previous day. “Two Americans — dos Americanos — arrived this day from Le Puy,” he says.
Christine was there. We hadn’t seen her in two weeks, but she was there in the cathedral with her tall, handsome husband, una pelegrina de Suecia had arrived in Santiago from Le Puy that day. She asked us how the fortieth day was for us, said it was hard for her and explained the many Biblical references to forty as a time of struggle. I was moved by her question, by how we search for some larger reference point for our struggle, for some reason for things to be so hard, for something that gives meaning . . . and we are still searching on the day of arrival.
Two days later as we left for Madrid to catch our plane home, we ran into Bartholomew at the train station. We’d dubbed him the great communicator because he talked to us so animatedly and at great length in spite of our obviously limited Spanish. Bartholomew had carried the most elaborately decorated staff of any pilgrim we knew, but he didn’t have it with him that day. “Where is your stick?”
“I left it in the cathedral,” he said, touching his heart. “A gift for Santiago. I must leave it here.”
Of course. The Buddha said, “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path.” And you leave — or give — a part of yourself with every step. It’s true of walking the pilgrimage with the cuckoo sounding at the edge of the forest every day, true of mounting the steps to a holy place, and true of walking out the door of your house every day of your life.
Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67, Kenya staff, 1969–71), and is working on a novel.
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