Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | The highlight of a pilgrimage

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | The highlight of a pilgrimage


Our young church organist made the pilgrimage one recent summer to the shrine of Saint James, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Like many since the Middle Ages, she began her 500-mile walk in southern France.

A July morning in her second week was typical — sunny and very hot. She was hitting her stride toward 20 miles that day; by noon, she was sweaty and tired. Her guidebook indicated a village nearby, Navarrete, with a notable church.

She was surprised how large it was in a small town, a grayish brown stone building with a square tower. Its dwarf spire and roof were of gray slate. A fountain played in its plaza.

She saw the perfect place to rest and eat her lunch — the shadow of the church or perhaps a cool interior vestibule if no one was around to object or be shocked. Older country people sometimes saw desecration where younger generations saw none at all.

She heard organ music as she drew closer. When she stepped inside, her eyes slowly adjusted to a golden baroque backdrop shimmering in the darkened atmosphere behind the altar. No ceremony or ritual was happening, so she knew it was the organist practicing. She allowed the waves of melody and volume to lave her mind and heart.

She quietly ate her lunch. The swelling diapasons and reedy flutes set her fingers tingling. When the music stopped, she ascended to the organ loft and beheld the organist, an older man with heavy white hair.

Smiling, she mimed organ play with her fingers and pointed to herself.

"Eres tu una organista?" he asked.

She nodded. "Si. Soy una organista en los Estados Unidos. Soy una peregrina en el Camino de Compostela."

He indicated for her to take the bench. "Prueba este organo. Tocalo, por favor."

She accepted his invitation to play. She picked up a book. Bach. Ah — the German master in Spain. The man turned the pages and urged her to continue. After 20 minutes, she knew she had to get back on the road.

"Gracias. Me gusta mucho. Su organo hace una musica divina."

"Buen Camino," the old organist wished her farewell. It was what everyone said to the pilgrims and they to each other.

Her Camino continued, all three of them — the physical one that brought blisters, calluses, weariness and tanned skin; the adventurous one with new sights, challenges, and interesting characters; the spiritual one that infused the peace that passes understanding.

She spent several days in Compostela. She "embraced the Apostle" by walking behind and above the high altar in the cathedral. She attended Mass with other pilgrims. She beheld with wonder the Botofumeiro, the giant censer freighted with charcoal and incense. Eight men started it swinging on its ceiling pulleys from one end of the cathedral to the other.

The day she left, she overheard a man spouting English with a sharp British accent in the albergue where she was staying. She felt starved for English after a month's elementary Spanish. She struck up a conversation. His name was Alfie. He was from Liverpool. He was 65 years old, and his pilgrimage was one of thanksgiving for remission from cancer.

"The highlight on the road for me," he said "was in a Spanish town. I was resting in the shade of the church when I heard wondrous music coming from within. It seemed God's voice. His peace. I went inside. I recorded it on my phone. Now I can listen to that moment when I need it. Would you like to hear it?"

She heard herself playing Bach. She heard faintly the voice of the old organist wishing her Buen Camino.

"So beautiful," Alfie said. "A little miracle in the miracle of the Camino."

She felt the spreading calm of enlightenment.

"This is a sacrament for us both," she said."You and I have been the final grace of the Camino for each other."

Rosemary Laughlin writes local theater reviews for The News-Gazette.