Friday, February 29, 2008

Father Jose Maria dies

Last weekend marked the passing of a beloved figure of the Camino de Santiago, Father Jose Maria Alonso Marroquin, 81. For thirty years, the genial, energetic padre welcomed pilgrims to his refuge, housed in the secluded monastery of San Juan de Ortega, warming their stomachs and their spirits with his legendary garlic soup and a rousing chorus of Ultreya, the anthem of the Camino. Father Jose Maria was also a founder of the Burgos Association of Friends of the Camino and worked tirelessly for the restoration of his historic monastery and parish church.

In this beautiful and austere video clip of San Juan de Ortega in winter, taken from the film "Tres por el camino," Father Jose Maria serves up his garlic soup almost as a holy communion. You could say it was.

(Photo: Xose Antonio Vilaboa Barreiro)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

mexico and discovered virgins

Just got back from a few days (too few) in sunny Mexico visiting the gorgeous colonial cities of Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, as well as the capital itself. A natural highlight was the Pena de Bernal (please imagine a tilde over the 'n' in Pena), considered to be the second-largest monolith in the world, and an abundant source of positive energies (or so Michiko assures me). Urban highlights included the laid-back plazas of Queretaro, the patchwork quilt of Guanajuato's houses scattered up and down their ravine, and Mexico City's urban villages of San Angel and Coyoacan.

I intended to call on the Virgin of Guadalupe while in Mexico, but time was short and there was too much else to do and see. Next time. But I did catch a glimpse of the Virgin of Guanajuato. Here is how she is described in the Eyewitness Travel book: "The statue was given to the city by Charles I and Philip II of Spain in 1557. Reputed to date from the 7th century, it is considered the oldest piece of Christian art in Mexico." I didn't even have to see Our Lady to know that there was no way she dated from the 7th century, that she was, in fact, a virgen encontrada - a "discovered Virgin."

There are virgenes encontradas throughout Spain, but they are particularly thick along the Camino de Santiago. Nuestras Senoras de Roncesvalles, del Puy (Estella) and de Valvanera (matron of La Rioja), Santa Maria la Real de Najera, la Virgens del Manzano (Castrojeriz) and de la Encina (Ponferrada) are only a few of the most celebrated. But what are the virgenes encontradas? They are statues of the Virgin and Child (most often seated) that were created for churches of the Camino in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Later, however, a certain legend became attached to many of them.

According to the legend, which varies slightly from place to place, the statues were crafted in the early days of Spanish Christianity, before the Muslim conquests of the eighth century. When the invaders came, the Christians concealed the statues in caves, under the floors of churches, in holy springs and other secret places, before fleeing for the mountains of the north. Four hundred years later, when the Christian tide moved south again, the statues called out from their places of concealment through strange music or lights, mysterious birds or stags, wondrous deeds (the hoof of Saint James' horse splitting a tree trunk to reveal the Virgin concealed within). One way or another, they would call the attention of the returned Christians to let them know, "We are here, waiting for you. Bring us to the light and build us a church."

The tales of the discovered Virgins reveal the profound link between the mother figure, the feminine principle in the Spanish soul, and the earth over which she rules and watches. The holy mother and child rise up from the soil (or the water, or out of the very hearts of trees) as spontaneously and naturally as they rise up within the Iberian religious imagination.

Friday, February 1, 2008

snowy thoughts

It's snowing it's snowing it's snowing in Toronto. Will this never end?

What's it like in Roncesvalles tonight? Are there any brave and slightly mad pilgrims shivering in its great bunker of a refuge? Are the heights of the Camino sunk in snowdrifts?

A 13th century Latin poem about Roncesvalles paints a cozy picture. In the Spanish translation:
Sobre los rigores del tiempo invernal,
El hielo es perpetual, las nieves igual,
El cielo brumoso y el viento glacial,
Tan solo es tranquillo la casa hospital.

Roughly, "Under the rigours of the wintry weather, the ice is perpetual, the snows the same. The sky is cloudy and the wind glacial. The only peaceful place is the Hospital." (Roncesvalles was/is called a "hospital" in the old Latin sense of a place of hospitality.)

In the winter of 1570, Elizabeth of Valois passed through Roncesvalles on her way to marry Philip II of Spain. The royal carriage overturned in the mountain pass and men and horses died in the frigid cold. But even in the dead of winter, there were 400 pilgrims staying at the hospital. (Good old Liz gave 3 reales to every one of them.

At the other end of the Camino, up in the Montes de Leon, the pass of Irago was stocked with settlers "to the population of fifteen" by a decree of Fernando IV in 1302 so that there would be someone to clear the snow for the pilgrims. And according to tradition, the villagers of El Acebo were exempted from taxes in exchange for placing and maintaining 800 stakes in winter to mark the Camino.*

In 2002, I had the pleasure of crossing the Montes de Leon in the teeth of a howling blizzard. The Guardia Civil stopped me halfway and told me the highway was closed. I told them I was Canadian. They shrugged and drove away. The Spanish have great respect for the freedom of the individual - up to and including the freedom to freeze to death in the mountains. But I didn't freeze. I kept to the road, stopped for soup at Tomas the Templar's, and made it safely to El Acebo, where as far as I know they now pay taxes same as everywhere else.

*Poetry and fascinating facts courtesy of
Aventura y muerte en el Camino de Santiago, Braulio Valdivielso Ausin (yes that's his name), Editorial la Olmeda.
Top photo (mountains above Roncesvalles)
by Carlos Vinas-Valle: