Archive for October 29th, 2018


The Botafumeiro:  Gratuitous Praise of God

The Camino to Santiago has not yet become a distant memory for me.  I successfully completed it last Tuesday, and for several mornings since then I’ve awakened with a start, wondering how many miles I needed to do before the new day’s end.  It’s definitely not been a nightmare, but it’s demonstrated to me how tight a grip a walk of 75 miles can get on a person.

For a long time I’ve had a mantra that I heard ages ago from somebody I’d like to thank.  “If you don’t show up, you can’t play the game.”  It’s been an incentive for getting up on many a morning when I didn’t want to, and it’s helped me get lots of stuff done through the years.  But never did I find it so useful as on the Camino.  At the end of the first day, after walking nearly twelve miles, I and my colleagues were tired but we also had a sense of achievement.  The next morning those twelve miles had become yesterday’s little triumph;  but for the new day they counted for nothing.  So it was that the relentless grind of the daily walks required a fortitude we had not expected.

D1CE0D52-EC1C-442B-84BD-CCD37064E224That’s why I finished the Camino with a profound respect for all those pilgrims who’ve walked it through the centuries before ours.  It was no stroll in the park, and they faced obstacles we can scarcely imagine.  Centuries ago it took months to walk the Camino, and pilgrims faced bad weather, rugged paths, the occasional bandit and virtually no convenience stores or snack bars.  Only the monastic hostels along the way provided predictability.  And perhaps most startling of all, unlike modern travelers on the Camino, their pilgrimage was not complete when they got to Santiago.  They still had to walk home.

People in our group experienced all sorts of emotions along the way, but there was one moment when the light bulb went on for us all.  We had just spent four and a half hours hiking eleven miles through hilly terrain, and we were tired but pleased when we piled into the van to return to the hotel.  On the way back we passed our starting point for the day, and we gasped in unison.  It had taken less than fifteen minutes to get back, and we were stunned at how simple a job it was for the van.  In the blink of an eye we had retraced our steps, and it made shockingly real the difference a car can make.  Medieval pilgrims would have found it unimaginable.

What I recall most strongly is the sheer repetition of one foot after another, for hours on end.  Perhaps because of that I experienced none of the emotional spikes that many pilgrims bring home.  Perhaps previous trips to Lourdes had dampened my expectations.  Even the eventual sight of the cathedral in Santiago seemed unable to crack my stoic demeanor.  But then one thing broke through.

B510CABC-113C-4658-91CB-0642A656CBC7If it’s not the biggest censer in the world, the botafumeiro in the cathedal has to be a contender.  It stands over five feet tall and hangs on a rope that reaches to the ceiling of the transcept.  Its big moment comes at the end of the Pilgrims’ Mass, and as we gathered in front of the altar to feed the beast I could feel the anticipation.  First, one of the attendants shoveled in three scoops of coals, and three of the priests each spread a full cup of incense over them.  Then six guys pulled on the ropes and hoisted it up.  It was mesmerizing to watch as it hurtled back and forth through the transcepts.  And to his credit, the cathedral canon who was the main celebrant at the Mass had prepared us well.  He reminded us that the custom had begun centuries before, when smelly pilgrims had crowded the cathedral.  Pilgrims are no longer so fragrant, he noted, and so today they continue the custom but for a different reason.  “It’s gratuitous praise of God.”  And it worked.  I got goose-bumps as I witnessed a totally unnecessary ritual that brought joy to everyone in the cathedral.  The 75-mile walk had been worth it after all.

I’m not quite sure what all this will come to mean for me going forward, but two things stand out.  Despite my doubts at the end of the first day’s walk, I’m glad I kept at it every day and finished the Camino — on my feet.  It was worth it to show up and be able to play the game.  But the botafumeiro was the icing on the cake.  It reminded me that life is capable of throwing us some wonderful surprises, and all we have to do is show up for them.


+I count myself fortunate that I never tripped up, stepped into cow pies or got any blisters on the route to Compostela.  In fact, the only mishap was when I stubbed my toe on the bed post.  It still hurts, but I’ll get over it.

+On October 24th Brother Mariano Franco Mendez took his first vows as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey.  Joining us for the occasion were some forty people from the Latino community in nearby Cold Spring, where Brother Mariano helps out regularly.  After the Mass they joined us for a festive dinner in the abbey refectory.

+This week the abbey fire department and members of the Arboretum staff and student volunteers did a planned burn of the prairie that lines the entrance road to Saint John’s.  The burn came as a surprise to people driving by, but the procedure is necessary to keep the restored prairie alive and vital.

+The photos in today’s post show the cathedral at Santiago Compostela.  I took all of them save for that of the botafumeiro as it swung in front of the altar.  I’m the guy at center in red, so this was not a selfie.


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