Robert Ward
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Chapter 5
Lost Pilgrims: the Camino de Santiago

Lost Pilgrims: the Camino de SantiagoOnce long ago, on the Spanish side of the mountains not far from here, two shepherds were driving their flock home at twilight when suddenly a stag appeared in their path. It fixed them a moment with its great, mute eyes, then skipped away down the mountainside and plunged into the forest, its horns flashing beams of light as it fled.

In the days that followed, the stag with the flickering horns continued to appear at nightfall, always stopping to eye the men before vanishing into the woods. Soon they understood that it was asking them to follow, but they hesitated, fearing it would lead them into danger. At last, on the fourth night, they gathered up enough courage to pursue the mysterious beast.

The stag led the shepherds deep into the tangled woods, running always a little ahead, lighting the way with its horns. When the men fell behind it would stop and snort with impatience until they caught up, then again tear off into the dark. After what seemed hours, the stag reached a glade at the heart of the forest, where it came to a halt. As the fearful shepherds drew near, almost near enough to touch the beast’s antlers, it started to pound the turf with its hoof. When it had scraped clear a patch of earth, it caught the men’s eyes, seeming almost to nod at them. Then it wheeled and charged away, never to be seen again.

At once, the shepherds set to digging at the spot the stag had marked with his hoof. The loose soil came away easily beneath their fingers, and soon they had uncovered an arch of stone. They dug a little more and found, nestled in the shelter of the arch, a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary and her son.

Upon that very spot, the church of Roncesvalles was raised to house the miraculous image. And ever since, the people of the neighboring valleys have come in solemn procession each year to pay homage to Our Lady of Roncesvalles.
She is a delicate figure, almond-eyed, Gothic, draped in rich cloth and wearing a crown of burnished silver. She doesn’t look like she came out from under a rock. High above the altar, beneath the lead canopy that billows up and away from her as if from a gust of hot air, she dandles her son in her lap. The priests chant and lecture and go through their motions before her, but she only has eyes for her boy.
It is chilly in the chapel of Our Lady of Roncesvalles, almost as chilly as outside, where the air is heavy with mist. It is eight o’clock, and apart from seven pilgrims (six more have arrived on the evening bus from Pamplona) and the four priests in their sparkling red and white garments, there are few in attendance for evening mass. It’s surprising there are any, for the monastery lies above the highest villages, just below the mountain pass.

The priests look like relics from the early days of the Camino. With the oldest, it’s touch and go whether he makes it to the next amen. The service begins with one of them welcoming the pilgrims who have come tonight from Argentina, Holland, Finland, Canada, Andalusia, Galicia and Madrid. We exchange glances. Hey, that’s us! The sermon starts on a ringing note, as the priest excoriates the most recent atrocity of the Basque terrorists in their campaign of assassinations. Soon, however, he moves on to more general matters of the spirit and this is the cue for my thoughts to go straying down to my feet. There’s always something with the body, isn’t there? The stomach, the neck, the back, the eyes... After a strenuous day’s climbing, what I really want to do now is stretch my legs, lie down, take off my shoes, anything but sit on this hard bench. I know I should be living in the moment, mining the significance of my presence here in this ancient place at the outset of a millennial pilgrimage, but all I can think about is the cramp I’m going to get from sitting in this frigid stone box. The sermon turtles on until, just as I’m making a furtive reach for my shoelaces, the priest says: “And now, will the pilgrims please approach the altar to receive a blessing that has been given since the twelfth century.”

We rise, shuffle to the front of the chapel, form an uneven row. The blessing is a long one. It ends with the words: “May the Virgin, Santa María de Roncesvalles, lend you her maternal protection, defending you from perils to soul and body. May you be worthy, under her mantle, to achieve unharmed the goal of your pilgrimage.
“And pray for us when you reach Santiago.”

In that instant, every light in the church is extinguished save one: the spotlight on Our Lady of Roncesvalles. There she is, shining upon her throne, above the shabby pilgrims who beg for her protection, above the celibate priests who tilt their squat, balding heads to her and sing in old voices, pitch-perfect with devotion, that most yearning of Christian hymns, Salve Regina.

Santa María de Roncesvalles dandles her son in her lap. And pays us no mind at all.

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