Sunday, 14 June 2009

Heading for home

For people who don't shrink from walking, the name of Santiago de Compostela has an ever-alluring ring. It is, and has been for ages, the ultimate destination for many a pilgrim and soul seeker. The town is situated in Galicia, near the western edge of the old continent, where few would venture, if not pressed by an urge to atone for sins committed inadvertently, but nevertheless gnawing away at their soul's supports for the better part of a lifetime.

In modern times the beaten tracks of the devout are trodden afresh by young and old alike, the former in a last stand of physical prowess against the drudgery of adult life, the latter to savour anew a taste of youthful freedom after a life of toil, and to erect a monument of personal merit and endeavour to become the beacon for the last stretch of their path through life.

In the minds of some who struggle to jump the remaining hurdles of working life without lasting damage to their physical or mental health, the eddies of longings unfulfilled, goals unobtained, and lingering dreams combine into a maelstrom of yearning to leave it all behind, and set out under open skies. For those Santiago offers a self-evident goal and direction.

Having gone the way of the pilgrim for weeks, if not for months, reaching the palpable end of the journey to non-catholics may feel like an anti-climax. Apart from the touristic attractions of Santiago's medieval city, cathedral, and teeming night-life, to the modern mind attending mass or kissing an altar stone is hardly a way to quench the flame of a burning spirit, or placate a worldly soul with its destiny.

To feel on their face the absolving brush strokes of eternity, to experience the utter finality beyond which it seems senseless to proceed, for several days they tramp on toward the setting sun, to the nominal end of the world, Cape Finisterre. There, on naked rock, gazing over the ocean's grey expanse to where the elements solve into a dim horizon, they are redeemed, and for the first time in many weeks do sense a faint stirring of nostalgia. From there on they're bound for home.

In former ages the way home used to be as long as the way onward. Not seldom the elderly and wary of way, who by their pilgrimage had been cleansed, and thus made trustful candidates for entering the Kingdom of Heaven, surrendered on the way back, never to see home again. The more enduring made for their loved ones as fast they could, and having partaken of the miracle of life from death, took up their former trades as wiser men.

A modern pilgrim treads the road to Santiago in quite a different set of mind. Wielding a telescopic gps-stick to beat the track, and flashing a camera, or iPhone at every detail or panorama on the 'camino', his mind is preoccupied by filling a blog with visual fodder and textual tidbits for friends at home, and fellow pilgrims abroad. A modern pilgrim may join the track wherever he likes. No need to set out from home, nor to return to it the laborious way. Once he has reached his goal, and updated his blog, today's pilgrim boards a train, or a plane, and will be home the next day.

Like we all know, being underway is the essence of the quest. Any goal, once attained, in itself doesn't sustain our existential needs for more than a whisper of breath. That's why there'll always be new goals, to keep us engaged, and on the move, for movement is life. I wonder whether the provisional goal should needs be Santiago for ever. Maybe the pilgrim of our time'll benefit by a reversal of directions, flying to the ancient city, or a substitute, and setting out from there, destination home.

Travelling to the end of the world, and being transported into raptures by its unworldly qualities, may be a great experience; coming home from a journey, and feeling the emotions which belong to a 'home-coming', may be an even greater miracle, and more lasting...

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