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.

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.

And finally

It is a month since we arrived back from the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and this really is the final chapter of my blog.

I have still been getting messages from fellow pilgrims saying that they continue to bask in the glow of what they did in travelling the Way, however they did it. I was not aware when I began planning the pilgrimage that it would have such a profound effect on so many people, me included. As I said initially, I had never been on this holy journey; I’ve made many pilgrimages but this one was to be like no other.

A romanesque statue of St James at The Cloisters

A romanesque statue of St James at The Cloisters

I have just been in the USA and was delighted when I visited The Cloisters Museum in New York to find there examples of architecture and mediaeval religious artefacts from northern Spain and southern France. Many of the pieces there were from Burgos and Leon – and of course there were amongst them statues of St James as a pilgrim.

A wooden statue of St James the pilgrim at The Cloisters

A wooden statue of St James the pilgrim at The Cloisters

So I have not escaped the Way, and I don’t want to. Wherever we travel in life we are travelling the way with the one who is the way, the truth and the life, Jesus Christ, and supported by the prayers of St James we ask that at the end of our own travels we will reach that heavenly city where we can be in the presence of God for ever.

Merciful God, whose holy apostle Saint James,
​leaving his father and all that he had,
was obedient to the calling of your Son Jesus Christ
and followed him even to death:
help us, forsaking the false attractions of the world,
to be ready at all times to answer your call without delay;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Wherever you travel, whatever way you follow, may God bless you. Amen.

Pilgrimage is a way of life

The days pass so quickly and I have realised that it is a month since we left from Heathrow to begin our pilgrimage along the Camino. In some ways, as always when you have been away, it seems a long time ago, in other ways it seems but yesterday. However, as someone said to me the other day, they are still trying to process the kaleidoscope of memories and experiences of being on pilgrimage along the Way. It was a rich period; a significant journey for each of us.

I think I said at various times on the pilgrimage and wrote on this blog, that pilgrimage is a motif for the Christian life. It is all journey and that is something which links us back with the experience of those, mothers and fathers of the faith, who set out on the journey before us.

Walking through 'The Snake' by Richard Serra in the Guggenheim at the beginning of the pilgrimage

Walking through ‘The Snake’ by Richard Serra in the Guggenheim at the beginning of the pilgrimage

Hebrews 11 has always been an important chapter to me in that amazing letter, as the author explores what we mean by ‘faith’ and looking at how faith has been revealed in the lives of the heroes of the faith. It is in verse 8 that the writer hints towards the notion of pilgrimage

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.’

The normal experience of pilgrimage is certainly not of travelling not knowing where you are going, but there is a feeling that, like Abraham, we travel in response to God and certainly to a sacred destination and this is very much the case with Santiago.

Stones on a Camino pathway marker

Stones on a Camino pathway marker

Matthew Hall sent me two pictures of significant moments for him. The first is of one of the roadside markers. What is interesting is the pile of stones that have been left on it. We were told that pilgrims often leave a stone, representing their prayers, their presence on the journey. In the 2010 film ‘The Way’ all about travelling the Camino, we see Martin Sheen, playing Thomas Avery, leaving handfuls of the ashes of his son, Daniel, played by Emilio Estevez, who had died walking the Way, at significant places. The signposts, like the Iron Cross that we visited, are those significant markers on the road.

I must ask myself, what are the significant markers on my own journey, my own pilgrimage.

A favourite poet of mine is R S Thomas. In his poem ‘The Bright Field’ he hints towards this idea of markers on the way

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Stopping at the significant places, leaving a prayer, even an invisible marker in the place where we encounter the divine being, is something that will help us trace the journey.

The Babes in the Wood left a trail of bread crumbs to mark their route – the birds ate them up; Theseus left a cord to help him back out of the Minotaur’s lair, but we leave other things on the markers on our own way,

not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past

but simply tracing the journey we have made.

Matthew’s other picture is simple of a lovely view. We had arrived on the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Sanctuary of Santa Maria de O Cebreiro which is looked after by Franciscan brothers. Opposite the church we sat looking at this fantastic view across the hills and valleys. It is a reminder of the pure beauty of this part of Spain. But Matthew also was impressed, as were we all, by the kindness and generosity of the people.

The hills of Gallicia

The hills of Gallicia

We were conscious of the terrible economic situation in Spain and the effects on the lives of ordinary people. In some places through which we drove we saw crosses alongside the roadside and on the roundabouts. We were told that this was a way for ordinary people to make it clear just how many jobs and businesses had been lost. It was sobbering to see – and then to exprience the kindness and geunine hospitality along the way.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says

‘Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ (Matthew 10.42)

As we we were walking one day we came across this stall. A local person had set it up. You could take what you wanted and just leave a gift in an honesty box. It was a lovely, generous gesture.

Caro and Bill at the honesty stall on the Camino

Caro and Bill at the honesty stall on the Camino

I began by saying that pilgrimage is a way of life – and on that journey we mark the significant places and we receive the hospitality of others and share with them what we have. Each of us continues the journey.

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.