A Birth, A Death, and a Christening

A puddle along the Camino.
Early in my Camino, I had a dream I was pregnant. In the dream, I was surprisingly okay with the idea. I say “surprisingly” because for most of my life I have not wanted to have children.

“Maybe it’s a sign of a new self that you’re birthing,” Mona, a fellow pilgrim, told me. “When you dream about birth, or death actually, they say it can be a sign of a big change — part of your old life dying and something new being born.”

Rain that Christens

That new life got its christening two days before I entered Santiago. It had been raining on and off the entire day, but not heavily enough to warrant me pulling out and pulling on my rain pants. Mona, Julie, and I sat in a cafe looking at our maps. We determined we had just about an hour to our destination for the day — a hotel. With real sheets. And fluffy towels. And maybe, if we were lucky, a hair dryer. We headed out again and it started to pour. I wasn’t going to put rain pants on over my already-soaked pants, so I just kept going. By the time we got to a tunnel I’d had enough. With defeat in my eyes, I slid my pack off and sat it in a dry spot. “I just need some time out of the rain,” I told Mona and Julie. And then the tears came. I was ready for this to be over — this day, this rain, this pilgrimage. Mona and Julie did their best to console me, but I told them to go on without me. I’d meet them at the hotel. Mona worried I’d catch hypothermia. As mothers, the two of them did not want to leave me. But I finally convinced them.

I cried for a few minutes longer. Threw my pedometer into the grasses outside the tunnel. Days ago it had started telling me I was closer to my destination than I really was. I didn’t need its reminder anymore. I felt bad about littering, but figured I’d make it up to the people of Spain somehow. I blew my nose into a sopping wet tissue from my drenched pants pocket. Twenty minutes after entering the tunnel, I left it. Walking out into the rain again, that’s when the idea hit me: this was my christening. Whatever new life I had growing inside me was now out in the world getting baptized.

But wait — what about the actual birth? The physical pain? Looking back now, I had a few ailments, but nothing akin to birthing a child. Thank you God. 

Ten minutes after leaving the tunnel, I came upon our hotel. Ten minutes? Really? I had a nervous breakdown and we were only 10 minutes away from a hot shower and dry clothes? Mona, Julie, and I shared a room and, after drying off and warming up, we shared one of the best meals I’d had on my Camino.

Arrival in Santiago

Light at the end of the tunnel with Mona.
The next day, after enjoying our first breakfast buffet, we walked five miles into Santiago. I’d already had the birth and the christening. What would my arrival in Santiago bring?

Rick was there to welcome us in the square in front of the cathedral. He had gotten there a few days ahead of me. He kept in touch via e-mail and I was touched that he was there to meet us as we entered. We had a celebratory drink at the Parador in the square (a monastery turned five-star hotel) and then worked on finding someplace to lay our heads. We ran into other pilgrims we’d met along The Way — two of whom recommended a Seminary-turned-hotel that had a special rate for pilgrims. It was across from a side entrance to the cathedral, but I would be in Santiago a full 22 hours before I stepped foot inside that cathedral.

The next day, Sunday, I planned to attend the noon Pilgrim Mass. There was great debate as to if they would swing the giant incense burner (the Botafumeiro) at the end of the Mass. Hundreds of years ago, they swung it every day to clear the air of the stench of the pilgrims. Now it was rumored that for a 300 Euro donation you could be sure it would be swung. 

Cathedral visit

At 10 in the morning on Sunday, June 18, I walked into the cathedral in Santiago for the first time. They were holding mass, but that didn’t stop hundreds of tourists from milling around and taking pictures. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that during mass, so walked out.

I returned an hour later to secure a seat. I saw Anne, a fellow pilgrim I’d walked with, in a front pew on the side of the church. She was with her daughter and granddaughter who’d flown in from Brussels to celebrate Anne’s completion of the Camino, which coincided with Anne’s 70th birthday.

I looked around to see seats filling quickly. “Sit here,” Anne said, pointing to the large stone base of a towering column. She’d been to two of these masses already and assured me no one would mind. “It’s the best place to see the incense burner, if they swing it,” she told me. Eventually other pilgrims from my journey joined us — Rick, Julie, Desiree. 

The mass started. It was all in Spanish so I just went through the motions. I made it until just before communion. Though I didn’t know Spanish, I knew enough to understand that the priest was giving his lecture telling the non-Catholics that they couldn’t receive communion, but could get a blessing. I waited until people started standing to receive communion and made my move toward the exit. I was done. I didn’t care if I didn’t see the incense burner swing. I didn’t want to be part of this. I just couldn’t imagine Jesus saying, “I have some bread to share, but only some of you can share it with me.” It’s one of many issues I’ve had with the Catholic Church. 

As I made my way toward the exit, I saw the entrance to the crypt where St. James’ remains are purported to be. Since I’d come all this way, I thought perhaps I should stop in and say a prayer. Maybe it would be quiet in there since most everyone else was waiting for the incense show upstairs. I walked down to find two people kneeling in front of the silver casket praying. Two others stood reverently behind them. Instead of crowding the small room, I stopped on the bottom stair, hoping this would signal the chatty people behind me to quiet down. It didn’t. When a spot became free on the kneeler, I slid in. I said a prayer of thanks and left. It reminded me of my Cruz de Ferro experience — not at all the solemn, sacred place I’d hoped for.

I walked out of the church and thought it would be fine if I never went to Mass again. If they weren’t going to welcome everyone to their table, I didn’t want to be part of it. If I’d experienced a birth and christening, was this a symbolic death?

I saw Rick later that day. “You seem a little down,” he said. “Is Santiago not what you hoped it would be?”

“Actually, it’s exactly what I thought.” I explained that I had prepared myself for this. I knew I’d felt uncomfortable in the big cities we’d walk through and figured Santiago would be no different. I longed for the quiet camaraderie of the trail. I also knew that churches filled with tourists didn’t do much for me. It was the small stone ones — not the large ones whose interiors were dripping in gold — that soothed me. “I knew this was about the journey for me — not the destination. And it’s been a great journey.”

New memories

If my experience in the cathedral at Santiago wasn’t the death, then death surely came a few days after my return to the states. The memory card fell out of my camera somewhere. All my pictures and videos of the Camino, as well as from the last two years of my life, were gone. This hardly upset me. I’m not sure why. Over the years I’ve uploaded pictures to Facebook and to my blog, so I knew I had some. Since I’ve returned, other pilgrims have e-mailed pictures they have of me and our journey together. Maybe this Camino was a lesson in letting go?

Yesterday I met my friend John for dinner. After sharing a meal together, we walked around town and in a store window I found two quotes by the Dalai Lama that spoke to me. They are the first two pictures I took on my new memory card.

This is my simple religion
There is no need for temples
No need for complicated philosophies
My brain and my heart are my temples
My philosophy is kindness

In the end what matters most is
How well did you love
How well did you live
How well did you learn to let go


Thank you to all who have followed me on this journey. May you all be blessed with the ability to “let go” today.