While it is undeniably true that much of the magic of the Camino is found in the simple rhythms of the daily experience of the path, there is something special about arriving in Santiago de Compostela. In this case, the destination really does matter. All roads truly do lead to the Cathedral and the relics of St. James contained within. Whether or not a visit to the Cathedral and the tomb of Santiago is a motivating factor in undertaking the Camino, pilgrims arriving at the Praza do Obradoiro still experience something powerful when they walk onto that huge square. It brings a sense of completion and accomplishment, drawing one into a greater sense of the community of those who have completed the same journey.
Visiting the Cathedral and the tomb of Santiago was, in fact, an important motivating factor for me, and thus I was determined to arrive in Compostela in time to attend the noon pilgrim mass in the Cathedral. To ensure a timely arrival, I set out on the path that morning at 6:00 AM, the earliest start time by far of my entire Camino. The sun had not risen, and the path through the dense woods of the opening stretch was quite dark. There were very few other pilgrims on the path at that hour, which offered a refreshing sense of calm and quiet.
The route that final day to Santiago was, in my view, far from the most beautiful of the Camino. The path winds past the airport, and the final approach brings one into the urban outskirts of Santiago. It was, however, one of the most thrilling stretches of the path as the urgency of each step only increased knowing that the long-awaited destination was so very close. Despite my fatigue from many days of walking, I made the best time that final day.
The final approach to the Cathedral is a memory I will always cherish. The energy was palpable as music filled the air and pilgrims filled the praza. Some collapsed to the ground in exhaustion and thanksgiving. I simply stopped and stared at the Cathedral, still in some disbelief that I had actually arrived, that I had completed what was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. I lingered on the praza for some time, taking in the reality that there was no more walking to be done, before continuing to the Cathedral for the pilgrim mass.
The Cathedral was already full when I arrived 45 minutes early. I found a place to sit by a pillar in the north transept and quickly fell asleep, the exhaustion of the previous 13 days finally catching up to me. While there was something uniquely special about joining in prayer with the hundreds of other pilgrims who were gathered there that day, there was sadness, too. I knew, of course, that I would not be able to receive communion, but there was still a sense of loss when the time came for my fellow pilgrims to go forward to receive and I remained in my place offering my own prayers. The mass ended with the swinging of the great botafumeiro, an unforgettable memory in its own right.
Walking the Camino is an experience so intense that it demands time and space for reflection. As I sat with friends over lunch that afternoon, I was grateful for their company and the opportunity to reflect with them. I know that not all pilgrims are gifted with such an opportunity. At the same time, I felt a real need for space to connect with others who were completing their journey— to reflect further, to discuss the sadness I felt that this experience of such power and meaning was over, to consider how I would bring the experiences and lessons learned back with me as I returned home.
I believe in the mission of the Anglican Centre in Santiago because I know that every day pilgrims, just like me, arrive in Compostela seeking community and space to process and make sense of the incredible journey they have just completed. To have a place for pilgrims to connect, reflect, pray, and share in the Eucharist is holy work indeed. I know I was longing for such a place.
Pilgrims will continue to walk the Camino and arrive in Santiago. I pray that one day soon the vision of the Anglican Centre will become a reality for all those who in completing their pilgrimage continue seeking and searching.