Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
And even to anchor at the island
when you are old,
rich with all you have gained
on the way,
that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you
the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never
set out on the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.
– Constantine Cavafy
It was still dark Sunday morning when I first stepped into the Prazo Obradoiro – the wide plaza in front of Santiago cathedral. It was deserted but not silent. A taxi sat motionless in the far corner, idling its engine, waiting for what? After ten minutes it finally departed. The new day began to light the spectacular west facade, but one of its towers was hidden by scaffolding – had I walked 500 miles only to see its glory veiled?
I had told myself along the way to have no script for this moment, no expectations for my journey’s end. But this first glimpse of the cathedral, if not exactly disappointing, was at least bewildering. Where were the tears of joy, the flood of emotions? The cathedral’s great bell struck seven, deep and resonant like the voice of a god, but in a language dark and alien, not addressed to me.
Before the crowds arrived, I drifted around the quiet interior. I placed my hand in the Tree of Jesse, the carved central pillar of the Portico de Gloria, my fingers sinking into the deep handprint left in the stone by the caress of countless pilgrims. I descended to the crypt to kneel before the silver casket containing James’ bones. But I was granted little sense of arrival or completion.
Returning to the plaza, now bright with sunlight, I saw a large group of Portuguese pilgrims, singing, clapping and dancing in a great circle. “Resucito!” they sang. “Alleluia!” Many other pilgrims had joined this joyous perechoresis , and I did the same. My heart began to lift, as I remembered – just in time – that the Camino experience is not a possession to be grasped, but a communion to be danced. Lord, I want to be in that number!
But as the day went on, my Camino still seemed unfinished. I felt rather disoriented, no longer walking toward certain goals, no longer sure how even to spend the afternoon. I went to the crowded pilgrim mass at noon, saw the celebrated “Botafumeiro” (gigantic thurible) swing back and forth between the transepts, exchanged “well done!” with a few pilgrims I recognized from the road. But most of my Camino family had either already arrived and departed, or were still a few days back. I felt a bit lonely.
Late afternoon, I wandered over to the little visited San Martino Pinario, and walking inside felt like falling in love. Set amid its plain walls was the most breathtaking altar, a Churrigueresque ensemble of golden sculpture and ornamentation that worked emotionally in a way that so many baroque altarpieces do not. The declining sun streaming through it from behind intensified the effect. This was not mere showy theatricality, but an overwhelming physical presence that didn’t just symbolize belief. It created it.
Back outside the church, I spent some time making camera studies of the fantastically dynamic staircase that leads down to the entrance from the street (an evocative reversal of the more typical ascent to holy places – here you descend to go deeper). And I suddenly realized I was happy. I would even call it a state of grace. I didn’t earn it, seize it, discover it. It discovered me.
After that, it was enough to wander the old streets and plazas around the cathedral, noticing the pilgrim joy in the faces of strangers, enjoying the sense of celebration that is perpetual in this city of arrivals. I dined with some companions of the road before ending the day as I had begun it, in the darkness of the Prazo Obradoiro. But now the moon shone down upon the ancient stones, and strains of Galician singers filled the air. What more could I ask?
This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.”