Vilamaior to Santiago de Compostela 8 km
It’s hard to think through trail endings. Long anticipated and suddenly appearing, they usually drain away any words that might help make sense of a long, unfolding path. People feel elation when finishing an arduous trek which often brings a compulsion to celebrate, commemorate, and commiserate with those friends soon going back to their non-walking lives, but to think through ends requires time and solitude. I finished the Camino de Santiago today, wandered about the square in front of the Cathedral a bit seeing acquaintances who finished recently. I then went down to get the merit badge–the compostela which testifies to my official pilgrim status. Like diplomas, certificates of completion bring little real satisfaction. Because of its status as a religious pilgrimage, the Camino calls attention to an often unthought part of the end of any trek–the importance of the sacred. I’m not talking specifically about the artifacts here–St. James’s remains–or the Cathedral in all its splendor. Instead I am thinking of how a sense of the sacred serves the walker, how it forms a sense of ending. Entering the city I passed a man, an older peregrino, who beamed, telling me there were dos kilometers left. The back of his neck was deeply furrowed along with a finer cross-hatching of wrinkles. His was the neck of a farmer, someone who had toiled long and hard years in the sun. I imagined that he, like peregrinos from centuries past, had planned in his declining years to make this trip, the pilgrimage of a lifetime. His joy was scarcely contained as he held up a finger and a thumb, signaling the near completion of his walk. Soon he would be embracing St. James. I spent the second half of my Camino walking with a devout Catholic. She was not making the single pilgrimage of her lifetime–she had already walked the Camino Portuguese–but her Camino was an embrace of the calm and peace of sacred spaces. We stopped at tiny, ancient churches. Often I would get caught up in some architectural detail–an interesting framing plan for the roof, some carved ancient wood, or the workings of an old clock–but even I felt the spirit of the place. My feeling for the sacred did not come from religious belief but instead grew from the church’s very design. Exuding both time and timelessness, these places lift visitors out of the hum and buzz of the quotidian into another place. Martin Heidegger writes about “the clearing,” first calling up the space opened by woodchoppers cutting timber, but then, by extension, the possible clearing of thought, to arrive at what had been the unthought. Clearing also is the act of clarification, the cleansing of the doors of perception. To me, Heidegger’s clearing is the encounter with a secular sacred, something walkers of all beliefs and non-beliefs regularly experience. Usually up before dawn, we see the sun rising in a long black distance. Following an ancient footpath, we encounter a turn, a slow sweep of the way, perhaps lined by ancient oaks covered in green mats of moss, vines, decorated at their base with columbine, violets, daisies. A spring flows beneath a gnarled tree-trunk. The path leads into a dark, intensely silent forest. In those moments, quotidian care, the triviality of routine, thought-destroying bureaucracy (periodic peer review), diminish to the nothingness that they are. The walker’s sacred is lived in those clearings. The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is a religious space marking the end of a long pilgrimage. Ends have purpose, signal accomplishment, sometimes define self, but a walker’s sacred is lived in the clearings along the way.
T. Hugh Crawford