Holy smoke

I happen to be at Mucknell Abbey, near Worcester, spending a few days on retreat with the Anglican Benediction community here. It’s all part of the sabbatical that I have been on since the beginning of September. Whilst I was here, however, I asked if I could meet the member of the community who is responsible for the manufacture of incense.  That person is Sister Sally.  So this morning she kindly took time between Offices and her other responsibilities to show me round the shed in the abbey grounds that serves as her workshop (her real workshop is of course the Oratory where the real work of prayer is done).


Sister Sally in her workshop


The reason I’m posting this on the Camino Blog is that it was a box of incense from Mucknell Abbey that we presented at the Pilgrim Mass at the conclusion of our pilgrimage.  On that occasion around 60 members of the congregation from Southwark Cathedral joined the thousand or so who filled the Cathedral to give thanks for the blessings of the pilgrimage. I had the honour of making the invocation to the Apostle on behalf of all the pilgrims who were at the Mass and, as part of that, offering some incense to feed the Botafumeiro, the great beast of a thurible that swings over the heads of the those there!

The Abbey produces six different mixes of incense ranging from pure frankincense to more elaborate and complex mixes. I’ve been in churches that have used incense all my life but never knew how it was made.

Sister Sally introduced me to the frankincense, the raw ingredient, also called Olibanum. The abbey sources theirs from Ethiopia.  It’s collected from the trees by incising the bark and then, as sister described it, the tree ‘weeps tears of incense’. This is dried and it becomes granular. The mixes are created by the addition of other granular and powdery ingredients, like Myrrh and Cinnamon Bark but principally through the use of aromatic oils.


The cupboard of oils


I was shown the secret recipes which had been passed to the community from the monks at Nashdom when they stopped producing it. All the ingredients are mixed together in the correct quantities using old fashioned scales and other non-digital devices and then laid in trays to dry out.  The drying takes 1-2 weeks depending on how damp the mixture is.  In the trays it looks like a dark muesli bar and is quite solid, but then it dries and the granules separate so that it can be weighed, bagged, boxed and shipped.


Bagged and boxed and ready for use


It was fascinating to see and to smell the finished products in the huge tubs that is kept in until its sent out not just to churches in these islands but to America and Australia as well. Sister Sally obviously loved the work that she does.  She commented that she hoped that the Abbot wouldn’t move her to other responsibilities. She says that while she is weighing and mixing she prays for the congregations that will use the incense in their worship.


Sister Sally joyful in work and prayer


Of course the church is divided into those who love incense and its smell and those who think its an abomination. Yet whatever our own personal and sometimes visceral response there is that verse from the psalms which really helps us understand what we are doing when we light the coals and spoon in the incense that Sister Sally has so carefully and prayerfully made

Let my prayer rise before you as incense,
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. (Ps 141.2)

If you would like to buy some of Sister Sally’s incense then you can do so by clicking here. It will enhance your worship and support the brothers and sisters here as their own prayer rises like the incense they make.

Lord, let me prayer rise before you as incense,
my hands be lifted up in a sacrifice of praise.


In the final moments of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, Dorothy, far away from home, comes to her senses and clicking her heals says ‘There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home.’ For those of us fortunate to have a place called home then there is something thrilling about travelling back, about leaving the place where we have sojourned, for a while, and arrive back in the familiar place.

Front door

There’s no place like home


So we left Santiago de Compostela this morning delighted that we had made the journey, delighted that we had walked part of the Camino, delighted that we had shared in the Mass in the Cathedral and, feeling blessed by all of this, ready to come back home.

What stayed with me, and what still stays with me, from the Camino, is the sense that others are still making the journey, that others are still on the way.  As we left the city others were arriving and others were half way there and others were just beginning.  Others were somewhere deciding to make the journey, feeling the tug of God to get on the path, others not identifying God in this but feeling drawn to the Way.  I think all of us who have stood on the Camino and arrived in Santiago feel themselves to be part of that great community of people of ‘The Way’. As Christians we feel that is doubly true, that we are always people on a journey and looking to that greater homeland of which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks.

Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13.14)

Even the home we come back to is provisional and we look to that place at the end of the road, at the end of the way and, until the journey is over, we keep travelling with Jesus as true companions on the Way.

God of our pilgrimage,
refresh and sustain us
as we go forward on our journey,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Holy Smoke

It has been pouring with rain today. But it doesn’t deter the pilgrim and once again the Cathedral was full for the Pilgrim Mass at noon. Yesterday I sat in the nave, today I was in the north transept. Again the team of tiraboleiros arrived and after the Prayer after Communion the ropes were loosened and the great thurible lowered. Again, as yesterday, there was great excitement.  The priests put incense into the Botafumeiro and the huge thing was jerked and swung into action. Throughout the congregation mobile phones were being held up recording the spectacle – mine amongst them. A visiting choir in blue cassocks and sparkling surplices sang as the thurible swept over our heads until, gradually, it was brought back to hang above the sanctuary.

Like votive candles, thuribles and incense seem to be far less contentious than they once were. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales is often attributed as releasing many in church from the fear of lighting candles and praying for the dead. I’m not sure what a relaxation towards incense might be associated with. Is it travelling, going to places where it is accepted as part of worship?  Is it the ‘new age’ willingness to embrace many traditions? Is it something to do with a general sense of wanting to engage our whole selves in life, all our senses? Is it that some new Christians don’t know what they should be offended by?

I was brought up in a church where we used incense every Sunday and at every Feast Day. If you were going to be an altar server than you had to begin, serve your apprenticeship, as a Boat Boy (and they were boys in those days). The Boat Boy was the only one in our church in a red cassock, a tiny one, with a little white cotta and wearing white gloves. You began your apprenticeship when you were three or four.  Your job was to hold the boat, the silver, boat-shaped container for the incense.  The thurifer led you, one of his hands held the thurible the other was on your shoulder to guide you around. All you had to remember to do was to hand the boat to the priest, to bow when the thurifer bowed and to never leave his side. It was a great apprenticeship, a a way of learning ‘sanctuary sense’ – how you behaved in the sanctuary – never crossing your legs, never talking, picking your nose, yawning or looking more than moderately bored.  And of course you quickly became used to smelling incense and not coughing!

For those not from that tradition seeing a thurible emerge, seeing smoke, often leads to a bout of coughing, the fear of ‘popery’ and a sense that this isn’t very CofE. But oten when we are away we feel safe enough to experience something out of the ordinary. We might not order Octopus at home but will happily eat Pulpo in Santiago – and enjoy it! So I hope that the obvious delight on faces at the Pilgrim Mass is not just because of the spectacle but because there is something wonderfully mysterious and engaging about the ‘Holy Smoke’.

I suppose for me, having been brought up in this way, the smell is evocative of worship.  But, I hope, there is something deeper than that.  There is the tradition that it is a form of offering, a sweet smelling savour before the Lord; that the smoke rises as do our prayers and that it is representative of the prayer being offered. There is a sense in which it signifies those ‘holy’ moments in a holy act – the arrival at the altar, the reading of the gospel, the receiving of the gifts, the sanctifying of the gathered people, the Dominical words in the Eucharistic Prayer. But for me there is something more powerful than all of that.


‘The cloud covered the tent of meeting’

In these weeks after Easter we are travelling from captivity to freedom with the children of Israel and reading about the way in which they established the tabernacle in the wilderness, the precursor of the Temple.  In the accounts of that we read this

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40.34-35)

As the Pillar of Cloud had signified the presence of the Lord on the journey, as the cloud on the mountain signified the divine appearing, so with the tabernacle. As Isaiah said in his experience of God ‘and the temple was filled with smoke’ (Isaiah 6.4), so it is with our holy places. Perhaps I need such signs, such ‘physical’ manifestations, such sacraments and sacramentals to support my faith – but I may not be alone.

I looked around the crowded cathedral, looks of delight as the smoke filled the tabernacle.  People had arrived at a holy place and, however we signify it, all our churches are holy places, the goal of pilgrimage each Sunday, each day, and whatever spectacle, of action, word, music, prayer, whatever ordinary experience of a shaken hand, of a warm welcome, of a chat over coffee, of delight at the work of the children, we make the presence of God with us known.

Holy God, come inhabit our space, fill us with an awareness of your presence and sanctify your world and our lives, that we too may be a fragrant offering to you. Amen.

The Way

The final stage of the Cmino takes pilgrims from Monte do Gozo – the Mount of Joy – to the Cathedral itself. Being here in Santiago we couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to actually do some walking and, as this stage is only 4.5 km in length, most of the group decided to attempt that.  So taxis took us out to the mount so that we could share in just a little of what the walkers along the Camino experience.


Setting off

It’s called the Mount of Joy because that is the first place that pilgrims actually get a view of their destination. It reminded me of going off on our summer holiday as a family.  Dad would be driving and we three children would be in the back of the car. We lived in Leicestershire, perhaps the farthest place from the sea and usually we were heading to the south coast, to Torquay or Weymouth or somewhere like that – so they were long journeys in our Ford Cortina! But we hadn’t been going long before a voice from the back would ask ‘Can we see the sea yet? Are we there yet?’ and we’d then begin the game of ‘Who is the first to see the sea.’ There was joy when finally, after all those hours in the car, we actually saw the grey of the sea against the grey of the sky (a typical summer holiday)!

So it’s easy to imagine the joy of the pilgrims when they finally see the great, exotic towers of the Cathedral and know that the goal of their travelling is in sight. We stood by the memorial to Pope John Paul II’s visit and said our prayers and sang the version of Bunyan’s song ‘He who would valiant be.’ It wasn’t going to be a long walk and we weren’t expecting many Giants to fight on the way, but for some of us it would be difficult, for those for whom this would be the longest walk they had done for a long time.

The journey began and slowly and in stages we made our way to the Cathedral. One of the wonderful things about the Camino is the way in which the route is signposted, either by proper signposts with the yellow version of the pilgrim shell, or by the symbol set into the pavement, or on the walls of properties we passed.  We knew all the time which way to follow and gradually others caught up with us, faster walkers, ‘proper pilgrims’.


‘This is the way’

But then, what is a proper pilgrim? We were as determined to complete this walk as they and as determined to arrive at the goal of our journey – the Pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral which takes place every day at 12 noon – as those who’d begun their journey hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away. And we did it and those who had been unable to walk joined us and we were all there with the rest of the congregation that packed the place to celebrate arrival at this holy shrine.

As Communion concluded the eight tiraboleiros arrived.  These are men who make the Botafumeiro swing over the heads of the pilgrims.  As they appeared and it became clear that the great thurible would be swinging there was a sudden and palpable sense of excitement in the congregation. People had been hoping to see this spectacle.  And they weren’t disappointed.  As the cantor sang the thurible shot across the sanctuary and into the transepts.  I understand they help it gain speeds of up to 80 km per hour – and there it is hanging by a rope, over our heads!


The packed cathedral

But the day didn’t end there.  As welcoming as the Cathedral is we couldn’t make our communion with the vast majority there who did.  But we were given a side chapel to use for a Eucharist later in the day.  So we had our Sunday Eucharist on Saturday evening. And as the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles was read we heard these words

‘If he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.’ (Acts 9.2)

It was referring to Saul and his campaign against the followers of Jesus.  But at that stage we were known as people of The Way.  We were defined by the journey – and here we were, that day, people of the Camino, people of The Way. In the Gospel for this Sunday we heard St John’s account of the resurrection appearance on the lakeside and of Jesus’ triple challenge to Peter to ‘Feed my sheep.’ But that reading concluded with a two word command

Follow me’. (John 21.19)

Those words spoke so powerfully to us.  What we had done in the morning was not some excursion, some ramble, but a living out of the calling to Christians, to be followers, to be people of the The Way and to share in the implications of that. The God of the journey speaks to his Pilgrim People, urging them on, whatever giants may be on the way, whatever foes may confront us.

God of the way, bless your people of the way, wherever the journey takes us today. Amen.


Santiago de Compostela is a place that is all about arriving. When I came here for the first time three years ago, I learnt, to my surprise, just how many pilgrims arrive every day at the Pilgrim Office. There has to be a well-oiled machine in place to make sure that all these pilgrims, many of whom have walked hundreds of miles to get here, are well received and looked after. 


The paraphenalia of pilgrimage

As soon as we had arrived at our hotel, I made my way up the hill to the old centre of the city.  I’m here with a group of Friends of Southwark Cathedral and the hotel that we are staying in is just a short walk from the ancient streets that lead to the Cathedral. But I was drawn up there, not as a sightseer but because that is the right thing to do. There is the feeling that you have when you arrive here that you haven’t really arrived until you go to the one spot which is the centre and the aim of your travelling.

It was late afternoon but the square in front of the Cathedral was still full of people, many of them sitting on the paving, exhausted but joyful people, enjoying the view of the destination, the twin towers and the magnificent staircase that form the west front of this huge cathedral. Restoration work is underway on the south tower and the great west doors are closed, so the pilgrim has to go back round the cathedral to the north transept in order to get into the church.

Entering this sacred place is always such a joy. In fact, whilst it is a large building it isn’t huge and there is a strangely homely and welcoming feeling.  I don’t think it’s just because I have been here a few times now. There is something almost embracing about the place. And that is as it should be because what each arriver wants is to embrace.

I got into the very short queue that was making its way up the stairs that get you to the place behind the image of St James where you are able to do what all pilgrims do, embrace the apostle. It’s a rather strange but very moving experience. You are behind this golden, bejewelled figure and you open your arms wide and hug the apostle. Then you make your way down the steps that lead away. You have arrived.

I thought about the wonderful story that Jesus tells about an arrival. We know the story as the ‘Prodigal Son’ but it can be given so many names – the Forgiving Father, the Unforgiving Brother – it all depends what you want to emphasise.  But what came to mind for me, this afternoon, in this northern Spanish, Gallician place of arrival was the embrace.

St Luke tells us the story, of the boy taking his inheritance, leaving, wasting it all, coming to his senses and heading back home.  But the verse that speaks of his arrival is so moving.

While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’ (Luke 15.20)


Embracing the apostle is symbolic of this sense of arrival and also symbolic of the embrace that God gives to his children, so often, returning children. There is of course a Holy Door at the Cathedral, a door for the Year of Mercy. After visiting the apostle, I went out and back in through that Holy Door. It was a reminder of the mercy of God, the God who embraces the one who arrives, the God who always shows mercy.  To be honest I think that moment of embrace meant more this time than it did before – why I don’t know.  Perhaps we all grow in our knowledge that we need to be embraced, just as that boy did, just as the arrivers at this Holy place do. And for those who have no one to physically embrace them today may the loving arms of God surround them.

God of the embrace, hold us close today, surround us with your love. Amen.

Off to Santiago with friends

It seems a while since I was last in Santiago de Compostela but later today I’ll be there again. I’m travelling with a group of the Friends of Southwark Cathedral. The weather doesn’t look great but that shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm. So I promise to let you know what we experience this time in the ‘Field of Stars’. 

God of our pilgrimage, bless our travelling and our arriving, and grant us the grace which you bestow on all who travel the way if your Son and the Holy Apostles. Amen. 

Final reflections

The Pilgrim Mass was a great ending to the Congress. I was firstly seated where I was at the end of our Pilgrimage – just inside the sanctuary. But then, in a manner reminiscent of the gospel, the Dean called me to ‘come up higher’. So I was seated in the choir with the concelebrating priests. That was such an amazing privelege. To sit so close to the High Altar and the massive statue of St James was incredible. Throughout the Mass pilgrims were ascending the steps behind the High Altar and their arms kept appearing around the bust of St James as they gave him the pilgrim’s ‘hug’.

The Sanctuary of the Cathedral

The Sanctuary of the Cathedral

The Archbishop of Santiago kindly made reference to Southwark Cathedral in what he said to the pilgrims in the packed Cathedral and then he shared with me the Kiss of Peace. During the Canon of the Mass I knelt on the sanctuary floor as the priests around me concelebrated. It was a strange feeling for me and I think for them.

The Pilgrim's Shell set in the Sanctuary Floor

The Pilgrim’s Shell set in the Sanctuary Floor

Yesterday after the Mass one of the people on the Congress came and apologised to me about not being able to share in communion with them. She was evidently feeling the pain of separation at that point of communion. So it was important that we were there, we Anglicans on the Congress, and maybe, maybe, by the grace of God we have helped people think about the nature of hospitality on the Camino, in a particular way.

Before we went to the Mass the Dean ended the Congress by ‘unveiling’ two revised Pilgrim Certificates and a brand new one. The first certificate he showed us was the redesigned one for those who have walked the Camino for ‘pious’ reasons. The second was for those who wished to have a ‘secular’ certificate, but the wording has been enhanced compared to the one previously used.

The Dean presents the new certificate

The Dean presents the new certificate

The new certificate is a version of the ‘pious’ certificate but it recognises the actual journey the pilgrim has made. In the past the Pilgrim Office was only concerned in verifying the last 100km of the pilgrim’s journey. This new certificate records where the pilgrim began walking the Way – however far from Santiago that was. This is a great move and gives real recognition to the heroic journeys being made by ordinary women and men who simply want to follow in the Way.

The journey continues ...

The journey continues …

I left Santiago de Compostela full of renewed joy. The Portal of Glory is like the gate of heaven and this wonderful city, a glimpse of the place to which each one of us is travelling. It has been a few days of blessing in the city where so many journeys are blessed.

bless all pilgrims,
all who travel
and all who seek you
as they walk
and give to each of us
a glimpse of heaven
on earth.

Leaving Santiago

The Congress ends today. After the Pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral at noon, at which I have been asked to read, I will make my way back home. It is a reminder to me that the Camino may have a very clear destination but it is not a place where we are meant to stay. The journey has to always go on, that is the Christian view of the journey. When the women are told in St Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is risen the angel then says

“Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” (Matthew 28.7)

Jesus is always going ahead of us, walking the Way. And we don’t know where the Way leads. Yesterday we were given a talk about the iconography of St James and the speaker focused on images of his martyrdom, something he felt was often overlooked. James was in fact the first of the apostles to be killed as a witness to Christ. This is how the book of the Acts of the Apostles records it

‘About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.’ (Acts 12.1-2)

The martyrdom of St James

The martyrdom of St James

So coming back to Santiago de Compostela has been thrilling. It has been good to meet people passionate about the Camino, people struggling to make sense of the very disparate group of people now walking, from very different motivations. The question has to be, how does the Church genuinely welcome whoever wishes to walk and yet is able to retain enough of the Christian heritage of the Camino to ensure that it is not just another ‘extreme challenge’ or secular pilgrimage? I reflected that this is the Golden Age of the Camino. That has its challenges as well as its joys. It has to be worth struggling with the challenges and seeing this as a road on which many will find themselves walking with Christ, perhaps for the first time.

Eternal God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life:
grant us to walk in his way,
to rejoice in his truth,
and to share his risen life;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Pilgrims on a journey

Today has had a more theological, cultural, historical feel to it. Each day begins with a Mass in the chapel in the Hospederia where we are stying. One of the local bishops presides. In the homily this morning the bishop made some interesting comments about those who walk the Camino.

He was commenting on the fact that many of the people walking the Camino are not fully signed up Christians, in fact many are not people of faith at all. He said that this does not matter. The truth is that God has made us all brothers and sisters and that God’s love extends to all. They are as entitled to walk the way as are we. We can often imagine, he said, that they are walking with us but, he encouraged us, we should think of it as us walking with them. I found this very helpful and it completely echoed what I had been thinking about, the arrogance that comes from possesiveness, when we imagine that we ‘own’ something, or that the way we view something is the only way to view it. There needs to be much more openness and conversation between the people of the Camino, whatever the reason is that they embark on the walk.

From beginning with the Mass the first speaker took us through our biblical knowledge of St James. A speaker yesterday commented that many people on the Camino have no idea who St James was and is and that this included Christians who should know. So the speaker took us to Bathsaida and the Sea of Galilee, through the call of the fishermen, the moment on the road when James’ mother (or was it them) asked for special favours for her tow sons (John was the brother of James) and then through the passion and resurrection to James’ own marytydom. It was a good overview.

Subsequent speakers then took us through art, symbol and literature into the traditions surrounding St James and Compostela. The history is fascinating and especially the relationship with the three historic symbols or are they emblems, associated with Santiago and the Camino.

Pilgrim with a bag

Pilgrim with a bag

The first is the ‘bolos’ the bag that any pilgrim would carry. We were told that the pilgrim bag is the thing that tells us that someone is a pilgrim. The second symbol is the shell and this tells us that the pilgrim is on their way to Santiago. I was interested to learn that the shell used to be given on arrival at the Shrine as it was the symbol of the Cathedral and the Chapter here and was later adopted as a sign by those on their journey.

.. and with a shell

.. and with a shell

The final of the three symbols is the cross. The Santiago cross, which seems to resemble a dagger and is certainly florid and decorated has had a long history and has been associated over time with the military Order of Santiago, hence perhaps, the similarity with a sword. Now most people associate it with the design on the top of the Santiago Cake (I posted the recipe for this beautiful cake earlier in this blog).

The Santiago Cross

The Santiago Cross

This is a place rich in history but it is history which is having to relate to a modern, secular, searching, hungry world and needing to do so in such a way that embraces and befriends and evangelises those who walk the Way today, who we walk with.

For all who walk the Way,
Lord, we give you thanks and praise.

Magical skyline

The day is ending and I just had to say what an amazing place Santiago de Compostela is. After giving an interview to a journalist from a Spanish religious magazine about what an Anglican was doing at Compostela, I decided to take a walk around the Cathedral and the historic part of the city.

There were no queues to get in, no queues to climb to embrace the Apostle, no queues to go into the crypt and pray before the casket containing the bones of St James. It felt as if I had the place to myself. It was a really wonderful, calming experience.

The towers of the cathedral

The towers of the cathedral

Outside a busker was playing. It was a tune I knew well from Holy Week at Southwark. In one of our retreat ‘strands’, Canon Stephen Hance had been taking us through the Blues and Gospel music to hear echoes of the Passion. But he ended with a piece that was not, in some senses, at all Lenten, well not as far as the chorus was concerned. It was ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen. We had watched a video of the great man singing it.

As I stood looking up at the west front of the Cathedral, the magical skyline of this little bit of heaven on earth, this glorious gateway that draws the world in, the music echoed the song of my heart.

One stanza spoke to me

Maybe I’ve been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and its a broken hallelujah.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

Our desire is that all who walk this floor may know the Lord, who knows them and loves them. With that love you never live alone and the skyline of life is forever of God.

May the Lord grant us a quiet night
and a perfect end.