(Originally posted on 9 September 2016)
One of my many regrets from the first Camino is that, I did not visit the church on top of the Cebreiro, the highest mountain on this path. For this reason, going there has been on my to-do list this time.
After hours of hiking, when I finally reached the top of the Cebreiro, I realized that today of all days, September 9, is the local celebration of the Holy Virgin Mary. The place was taken up by small vendors, artists, and people from neighboring towns coming to celebrate the festivity. Because of the huge crowd presence, the policemen initially blocked my entrance. But after a long period of negotiation, they finally gave me permission to come back a couple of hours later.
I had three options before me: leaving the place once again and respecting my original schedule for the day; waiting to enter and changing my plans; or waiting to enter and keeping my original walking schedule but not writing my blog post (because by the time I arrive at the hostels, all lights would have been out).
I went for the second option (do you remember my post regarding expectations?) and I’m glad I did.
Indeed, O’ Cebreiro is a church like no others. It is significant for at least two reasons: a miracle, and don Elías Valiña Sampedro’s grave.
A medieval legend has it that a miracle happened here around the year of 1300. A farmer used to hike from his fields to the mountain top every Sunday just to attend the mass. He was mocked by his local priest, who warned him “why do you have to risk your life just for a little bit of wine and bread?” (referring to the Eucharist). The day after, during the transubstantiation, the bread became flesh and the wine became blood. Moreover, the statue of the Virgin Mary tilted her head. Since then, villagers started touring that very statute all over town on September 9 of every year.
Because of the miracle, O’ Cebreiro was quickly recognized as one of the main religious sites of the medieval times, and many important figures, including Spanish Queen Isabella of Castile, have travelled there to pray in the church (and if it is difficult for me to climb up the mountain today, I cannot imagine how it must have been for the Spanish monarch).
Don Elías Valiña Sampedro is a quintessential figure associated with the Camino. Saying that he dedicated all his whole life to the path would not be an exaggeration. He wrote his Phd thesis about it, taught about it, wrote about it, and decided to put up signs along the entire route of Camino Francés with yellow arrows to guide pilgrims. He drove all around Spain with his Citroen just to paint those arrows and shells, which till this day, become the symbol of the Camino.
He started what I’d like to call a silent revolution. It is a revolution of seemingly quiet positive actions that, collectively, have the power to shape the society we are living in. His life of work is an act of unconditional love. With his simple actions, he made the Camino known at the national and international level, providing pilgrims a further reason to cross these roads and facilitating an ongoing inter-faith dialogue.
He was buried in the church of O’ Cebreiro. A visit to his grave, and a tribute to him in my blog post are the least I could do to honor his legacy.
For some, the symbol Sampedro created could be nothing more than arrows; but for others, the arrows communicate some simple but immense spiritual teaching. It signifies never looking back whatever happens. Even though you don’t have energy, keep going. Even though you lose money, keep going. Even though you are robbed of your backpack, keep going.
The funny thing is that I have never reflected about my past as clearly as when I’m on the Camino. The long walks at the Mesetas, the Cruz de Hierro, the interactions with the other pilgrims - all of them gave me the space to rethink, and I came out of each day with fresh perspectives and distilled lessons about my past.
Maybe for me, the lesson from the arrows become: if you want to really analyze your past, there is no better way than looking forward..