Camino de Santiago: Gregorian Chant

June 28, 2014 in Europe, Spain


The interior of the cathedral is crumbling.

I can’t say that I’d even call it a cathedral, more of a chapel built to the scale of the small town that encircles it. The arches are simple. It lacks the gaudiness of it’s gold-gilt big sisters in surrounding villages. There is no baroque alter piece. There are no statuesque saints looking down with a disapproving eye.

A simple Christ on a simple cross hangs in the oval recess behind the lectern. Santiago, in travelers cloak, with his staff and gourd, guards the tiers of candles. The arches are painted, not carved. I can’t quite decide if the carefully divided squares were decorated to feel more like Tibetan prayer flags, or aboriginal dot paintings. Either way, the effect is very… un-Catholic.

Whispers preceded the chanting.

The shuffling of feet of pilgrims and the creak of ancient pews beneath the tired legs of travelers, not so unlike those who must have preceded us by five hundred years, or more. Vespers, in this little town, are sung each evening by a company of Gregorian monks in long robes who line the sides of the simple choir and lift their voices to God at the close of each day.

The sound is, at once, haunting and comforting.

I know enough Latin to get the gist. I went to Catholic schools long enough to understand the significance. I’ve stood outside enough rituals around the world to feel the intention.

The spirit of god filled the room in the voices of these sincere men. Their own belief in what must be manifested it for all of us. I watched the plaster flake from the old stone, and the hand of Santiago extend welcome to the pilgrims. The roses, placed at his feet by some gardener in the village nodded tired heads and dropped petals in pink, lavender, yellow and red in a mosaic of sunshine and sweetness on the cold stone floor, under the watchful eye of the Saviour.

The pilgrim next to me shifted in his seat, pulled out his phone, opened a voice recorder (which I wish I’d had) and pushed the wrong button: “Remember to get the milk!” echoed loud, in English as he dove to stifle his own voice echoing from the phone and off of the ancient walls. Everyone within a two seat radius giggled in the moment of silence between choruses and then the chanting began again, oblivious to the milk.

I closed my eyes and listened. Eternity echoes. Prayers become tangible and our presence together, strangers from a dozen strange lands, lifts heart and thought to heaven. I looked up just in time to see the two candles I’d lit, earlier in the afternoon, come to the ends of their wicks and a long, thin line of blue smoke bend and curl past the unseeing eyes of Santiago towards the eclectically painted arch; as if, before my very eyes my intention reached the ears of god.

By the time the monks reached the Kyrie Eleison the pilgrims were shifting in their seats, eager for a late dinner and an early bed. For my part, I could have sat another hour in the cool dark of the crumbling sanctuary and listened to men who allow themselves the luxury of pure belief sing to the creator and sustainer of their lives. There is magic, to me, in those moments and so much of the essence of the Camino is found in these pockets of ancient belief where god reaches down and man reaches up, finding the answers to the questions the drive us to continue along The Way.