A Pilgrim’s Pit Stop in Santiago de Compostela

pic santiago

As late autumn to winters go, it feels mild to me in Santiago de Compostela, except for when the damp air feels heavier than the overcast skies above. In my wafer thin mac and Kashmiri shawl wrapped around my neck, I stand somewhere between the pilgrims in their trekking shorts and thermal tops and the local Galicians with their heavily padded coats and woolly hats. Occasionally, in this corner of Northern Spain, the dark clouds in the final spell of autumn disperse long enough to reveal a sky blue enough to light up the terracotta tiled roofs with their satellite dishes that dominate my view from the apartment window.

Sometimes on a clear day, from the kitchen window I can see the peak of the ‘Sacred Mountain’ El Pico Sacro . It welcomes the pilgrims walking the camino as they enter the city to pay homage to the remains of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral. There are various testimonies of how his body landed in the Iberian penninsula from Jerusalem. Until the middle ages, Santiago was a centre of pilgrimage, third only to the Holy Land and Rome.

These days, the camino attracts people from all walks of life and from all directions. But I didn’t arrive in Santiago with the pilgrims, not unless you count my 2-mile, thrice-weekly walks to a local osteopath’s clinic. My short walk into the camino was guided by arrows with their yellow-scalloped shell on a bright blue background set into stone pillars and signposts. In place of nordic walking sticks, I used the metal point of my umbrella in its dual use as an aid to my uneasy gait and the constant threat of rain.

And yet, though I haven’t walked the camino, I’m still a pilgrim in my only little way. I keep trodding on with my small carrier suitcase appropriately embellished with a tortoise badge.  When my legs get tired, I rely on budget flights and trains caught at times free from the constraints of a 9-5 life. But the only catch is that I have had to become my own tour guide with no map or guarantee of staying in a destination long enough to call home. And oh how I’ve tried, but the Universe decrees otherwise. It’s difficult to explain to others why I’ve embraced such an uncertain life despite my own fears and insecurities, so I’ve stopped trying. The honest answer is that my body is my guide, not that I always follow its advice. It tells me which direction to go in but it’s not the best of communicators, or maybe I’m not the best listener.

I’m not sure with what intention I came to Santiago, but somehow my body knew. Suffering reveals itself in many different ways, and for one dear Buddhist friend, my body was crying out for healing and she was the only one attentive enough to hear its call. Still, it took me over two years to accept her invitation for healing that bypassed the mind and went straight to the body. So here I am, my mind rebelling the whole time while her team of osteopaths, therapists and body specialists have stretched and reconnected the schisms of separation from long ago.  Doctors, surgeons and physiotherapists may have mechanically cut and forced my legs into the textbook standard of ‘normal‘ but nobody thought to consult or educate the rest of my body. Until now that is. In two weeks, two decades worth of tension locked in a body forced into assimilation and compressed like a spring, uncoiled itself reluctantly.

A torrent of emotions unleashed themselves as memories buried deep in the folds of my muscles resurfaced. Sleepless nights from angry protestors on the streets of Santiago, drunken revellers leaving the bars at 5am and screeching police sirens smashed apart my naive expectation that a place of pilgrimage could be a place of peace. The only moments of grace have come with the sound of rain, the only thing Spaniards hate more than early nights.

I was reminded that sometimes it takes a state of near delirium to reduce our minds into dysfunction and let the body take over the controls from auto-pilot. I wondered if pilgrims walking the camino had the same experience of having their body pushed to the limit in order to cast out their demons. So I walked the cobbled streets of the Old Town continuously in a bit of daze going round and round the same streets with no real purpose or anything to do. Occasionally I would cross paths with a padre or a group of nuns. I came close to seeking refuge in one of Santiago’s many monasteries, but my inner guide shook her head and made it clear that now was not the time to hide and return to my comfort zone.

Struggling with a wall of rigid stances I’ve erected as protection, I have felt the first signs of that wall crumbling. My ambivalence towards motherhood and feminine values have begun to change. I sense the walls built by women in my mothers and grandmothers generation have fortified my own barriers, my inheritance of protection against a harsh world. I often think of all the refugees I’ve met over the last year and wonder if one lifetime is long enough to heal the wounds they’ve acquired in such quick succession. I wonder if their children and grandchildren will be the ones to finally liberate muscle memory with the benefit of time and distance.

Having had a lifelong struggle with the muscles and ligaments in my legs, I often feel trapped by my own body and frustrated by its limitations. In an often recited story in Sufi circles spanning across various traditions, it is said that God made a statue of clay in His image and asked the soul to enter it. The soul refused to give up its freedom in order to enter the prison of a mound of clay. So the angels played Divine music and intoxicated the soul which eventually drifted into the body of clay. Human beings have been searching for freedom ever since.

Yet after two weeks of intense work on my body, I feel lighter, more open and at ease. I’ve learned to uncurl my spine and walk with my head and body aligned. By simply raising my ears and tipping my nose a fraction, my chest is less constrained by my ribcage and I finally have room to breathe again. My heels still don’t touch the ground but that’s ok, I’d still rather be closer to heaven than earth. Maybe in time that will change. As I adjust to my new body I’ve begun to think of possibilities I’ve never envisaged before.

My shoes with their freshly fitted new soles replaced by a local Spanish shoemaker are itching to go to unchartered territories. Mecca and Medina have been calling me for a while but now Jerusalem has added her voice. It began with a soft whisper but now I hear her loud cries. I feel her pain, but I reply that I feel helpless in healing her centuries long heartache. Men have fought over her, tried to possess her body with force, yet none have been able to conquer her infallible spirit. I wait with baited breath for the #MeToo movement to shift its focus to the oppressive domination by patriarchy of many of the worlds sacred sites. Yet men and women with healed hearts and peaceful spirits still go. They walk in the footsteps of Sufi saints like Al-Hallaj who is said to have walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and lit up four hundred oil lamps with his finger.

In need of bit of Divine illumination, I tried hard to connect with the spiritual energy of Santiago but I really struggled. The closest I got to eliciting a reaction was during Sunday mass at the Cathedral. Black cloaked musicians blowing into oboes and trombones preceeded the swinging of the incense-burner, a brass gilded botafumerie, smoking with frankincense all the way up to the ceiling vaults. I wish I could have stuck my head under it. A centuries-old tradition it held a practical purpose in that the antiseptic properties of this ancient incense purified the pilgrims and the air around them. Frankincense is also known for its healing properties as a powerful cleanser of the aura and psychic planes.

Yet psychically, like the ash of incense, I sensed a residual antipathy towards the Muslim Moors in this  North-Western region of Spain. This is not surprising when stories are repeated and retold of Muslim conquerors who destroyed the early church above the relics of St. James, the gates and bells taken to be added to a mosque in Andalucia later reclaimed by a Christian King during the Reconquista. A lasting symbol of the power struggles between Christian and Islamic leaders, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is said to have the captured bells from Santiago de Compostela, now hanging in the bell tower that was once a minaret. For most of modern Spain, it seems that the peaceful co-existence of the Abrahamic faiths in Andalucia in times past is as believable as Franco’s realisation of Spain as a homogenous, monolithic body devoid of any cultural diversity.

Yet for young Muslims like myself caught up between cultures and growing up in a postcolonial era, the historical spirit of co-existence in Southern Spain is kept alive by hopeful hearts willing for peace and reconciliation. In an age of intolerance, it takes a huge amount of willpower and faith to separate spiritual truths from religious interpretations through the lens of political empires. Perhaps the advantage of the rise of individualism is that separation becomes easier, and we can judge for ourselves what rings true.

Near the pulpit of Cathedral de Santiago, stands a statue of Mother Mary dressed in a flowing gown as blue as a turquoise sea. I watched women crowd at her feet before lighting a candle. I thought back to my aunt’s recent experience in Jerusalem.  Walking the streets of Via Dolorosa, she’d watched mostly older women carrying wooden crosses, following in the footsteps of Jesus (AS). I found it symbolic of the many women I know silently working as healers unseen and unheard while they carry invisible burdens before sending them back to the light.

Almost inconspicuously, I have witnessed a flickering of curiosity that has genuinely grown into a flame of love. Side by side with my love of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), my heart expands with Christ the healer (AS) raising the consciousness of humanity with unconditional love. Equally, the women that carried them in their wombs have carved a place for themselves in the chambers of my heart.

Though my perception of Mother Mary and Jesus (AS) do not match the perceptions of Western artists and sculptors, I wonder how differently they were depicted centuries ago. It is said that upon returning to Mecca and entering the Ka’ba, the Prophet  Mohammed (pbuh) ordered all icons to be removed. Except one. An icon of Mother Mary (AS) and Jesus (AS) was singled out and saved. Yet beyond the physical borders in our polarised world, the greatest frontier lies in our heart. I think of Ibn Arabi’s heart that was expanded enough to be imprinted with visions of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (peace and blessings upon them all.)

I thought of this as I celebrated the birth of the Prophet (pbuh) in solitude as I watched the annual Christmas lights brought out by the city men to light up the streets of Santiago. I thought of the symbolic sash of chivalry passed down from Abraham (AS) and Jesus (AS) before being handed to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) by the Christian monk Bahirah. Stories of Jesus (AS) healing the blind and the leper in the Quran have an altogether different meaning when seen through the eyes of the heart. When hearts are blind, they are veiled from the beauty and healing potential of Divine light. Spiritual leprosy is harder to detect, it disfigures souls and spreads disorder undetected while humanity falsely points its finger at the physically disfigured.

Surely the death of ignorance can allow us to come back to life with the breath of knowledge. Perhaps miracles still exist. It is Hanukkah afterall.

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