“What do you think?” Michael was standing in the center of Burgos Cathedral in northern Spain, and I had just finished walking through the chapels around the outer wall. I was overwhelmed by the opulence and extravagance, so difficult for my Protestant soul to comprehend. Everywhere I looked were elaborate carvings and gilded panels. Michael was a Camino friend, a Scottish neurologist. I smiled. “All I see is bad theology.” Michael laughed, and continued on his way.
I couldn’t get a handle on the place. In the center of this huge building, begun in the year 1221, was an enormous pipe organ and seating for a choir of hundreds. Circling this center section were gaudily decorated chapels, the final resting places of the rich and famous buying their way into heaven, and I was put off by that. I only stayed fifteen minutes in a cathedral people travel great distances to see and study (it is now a museum and a World Heritage site). I went to a street bar and got a beer and some olives. I understood that.
I visited many churches in my walking journey along the Camino Francais. Villages in northern Spain are generally built on hills, with the church on the highest point, and the Camino led you past each church. Many of the villages appeared unoccupied and the church doors were locked. Out of curiosity I wandered into many open churches, usually tended by an old woman who would stamp in your credencial and accepted donations to keep the church going. I noticed that every church, even the smaller ones, had at least one piece of religious art which was their pride and joy, and I pondered that as I walked. Raised as the son of a Presbyterian minister I was uncomfortable with this elaborate artwork and unsure of its place in the practice of the faith.
It is often said on the trail that “the Camino provides.” Many people come on the pilgrimage seeking answers. In my experience the Camino does provide answers, but not necessarily to the questions you asked.
Somewhere along the Way I dropped my backpack against the wall of a small stone church and went inside. The church was old, functional but not elaborate. I dropped a coin in the donation box and sat down on a pew. I didn’t take any photos, instead I had decided to simply be quiet. The only significant piece of art was a crucifix, carved out of wood and painted, showing Jesus in his agony on the cross. Then, in the silence, I suddenly felt surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; the people who had built this very church, paid for it with hard earned cash and freely-given labor, shaped and placed the rocks and timbers with their hands, somehow reached out to me across five hundred years of time. I knew in an instant that this place was not just the center of their community, it was the center of their lives, at the core of their being. Its completion was cause for joyful celebration, and the last addition was the sorrowful image on the crucifix.
And then they were gone.
I went outside, hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders, and continued down the trail. It took a few days for me to begin to understand what had transpired in that church, and by that time I had forgotten where it was. I had talked with Michael at length about one of my characters with multiple personalities. I would have talked with him about that experience, but he was gone too, and I never saw him again.