Impersonating a Pilgrim

When in Rome one must do as the Romans do, and when in Santiago de Compostela this equates to attending the highly anticipated Pilgrim’s Mass, held in the city’s mighty Cathedral. With all the steps I had accumulated during my trip so far (remember Cinque Terre?) I felt it only rational that I, too, should be greeted by God / blessed by Baby Jesus / venerated by the Virgin Mary (or whatever one is granted at this kind of holy…communion?) (I had no idea what happened at Mass, let alone a Pilgram’s Mass; the only Mass I had ever been to prior was when we spent Christmas at my paternal grandparents’ house in Suffolk when I was circa six, and all I remembered about that was the chocolate fudge cake that was handed out to the congregation after all the boring biblical stuff – a delight at any time, especially when it is served at 8.30 am and constitutes breakfast. I hoped that this was one of the immovable aspects of global Mass protocol, and I was willing to forgive the city for its lack of free hot chocolate (see earlier blog post, The Beginning of the Home Straight) had this been the case.)

Arriving at the Cathedral I was greeted by hoards of pilgrims, all dressed totally appropriately in hiking boots and outdoor trousers, looking just the part and wholly spiritually aware. My appearance was a little different. With my faux-leather jacket (faux-fur collar in check), artificially ripped-at-the-knees skinny jeans and slightly soggy classic Nike sneakers I must have looked like some kind of Galician reject, getting steadily more damp from the ankles up as the puddle water seeped in through the holes in my trainers and spread, as if I were a paper towel, infiltrating every inch of me – right up to my barnet – to create a limp and lacklustre lump. I was determined to attend the Mass none the less, and joined the queue in between two groups of walkers whom I swear, had they not been waiting to enter a house of prayer, would have liked to bat my illegitimate butt out of the line with their oh-so-snazzy walking sticks. Yet I remained undeterred.

As the previous session ended and hundreds of blessed souls filtered out onto the streets we were allowed entry for our turn. We shuffled in slowly and silently, the cathedral already bursting at the seams once inside, and I took up position at the back of the hall, standing, for all of the bloody pews had already been bloody taken. Not only could I not see a thing (due to my height, or lack of) I was also unable to understand a single word (due to the recitation being in Spanish). Hey ho. But, luckily for me, with it being All Saints’ Day I was treated to a show from the Botafumeiro, otherwise described as a 53-kg incense pot which is operated by eight men (known as ‘tiraboleiros’, did you know) and swung around via a system of complex pulleys. This I could see. Given that said Botafumeiro is only used in eleven solemnities throughout the year, I felt really rather smug that I was able to watch the hypnotic spectacle. Not that I knew what it signified, but I’d never say no to some swinging incense action.

The Mass continued and as it did there was evermore movement from the Pilgrims. There was ever such a lot of standing up and sitting back down, and I suddenly became mightily glad that I was not, in fact, seated in a pew. Obviously I had no idea what the meaning behind the movement was, but, as I couldn’t see anything in the first place, it did not negatively affect my experience (but equally did nothing to help my overall comprehension). What it did do, though, was remind me of my Primary School days when my ‘culturally Jewish’ mother used to come in and do assemblies on all things Judaism, a fond highlight being her rendition of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” during which she made us stand up and sit down repeatedly throughout. (I was never quite sure why in that instance, either.)

As the more formal proceedings came to a close it was time for bread-eating and signing of the cross, for those that were willing and confident enough to walk to the centre of the stage. I was neither, and felt that taking a bite of bread would be one step too far in Pilgrim-fraudulence, and so made a dash for it before anyone found me out.

The Botafumeiro (left) during Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on All Saints’ Day 2017

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