I sit at a table with a porcelain cup in my hand. I am wet and chilled. The cup is warm. I sip it slowly. I don't know where the Korean went. I think he was Korean.
It took almost three hours to do it, but we gained a thousand vertical feet in less than five miles. It was laborious and barfable and if not for the Korean in tights who kept threatening to overtake me I'm not sure I would have made it. As it was, the two of us slugged it through brush and forest. At times, we scrambled up rocky traces that seemed to be more wash than trail. In the end he passed me in his silly tights and I gave him the obligatory "Buen Camino." The view was so fantastic that I had to stop for pictures, at least that was what I said to myself. He kept on, head down.
But that's just memory now. I sit at the table with my warm cup.
I look up. Above my head is an open ceiling of massive logs. They've been here for a long time. Strings of dried plants and onion bulbs dangle from nails. A fireplace in one corner blends into the stack stone walls. There is no fire today, but the accumulated soot is a reminder that winters here can be the harshest in all of Spain.
The woman who filled that cup has a face like wood. She wears a grey sweater and a dark scarf; her hair is in a bun. She has probably stood in that same spot for the better part of a century serving coffee and beer. Her spot is called Venta Celta. It sits on a ridge with a couple of dozen other slate-covered or thatched-roofed structures collectively known as O Cebreiro. The community is old and earthy and green and has the feeling of something Irish, or maybe something out of a Tolkien universe. On cue, the sound of a bagpipe and penny whistle drifts through the door. This is the Spain you never heard about.
People come here in waves, I suppose. They enjoy the mountain air, take a holiday, a bike ride, or perhaps like me, hike the Camino de Santiago.
But the Venta Celta is not the only game in town. Just up the street is an old church building. According to my guidebook, the Church of Santa Maria may be the oldest intact pre-Romanesque church along the Camino Francés. Experts suggest the structure was built in the 9th century.
I return the cup to the counter and wander up the street to the church. The walls are stout with few windows, fortress-like. They are capped in slate. A cross crowns the steeple.
I walk through a heavy arch, through the door, and am greeted by a man sitting to the right. I smile, nod, and he returns the sentiment. I feel free to wander.
The Church of Santa Maria has a central nave flanked by two aisles. Above and below is more wood. Above, the roofing members are hewn and open. Below, pews span the stone floor and invite contemplation. Between, the walls are plastered and painted white, giving brightness to what would otherwise be a gloomy interior.
The guide book steers me to the right. The altar in the front is roped off and what appears to be a window in the wall is visible above. However, it is not a window. It is a a portal of sorts--a reliquary--holding several items of great interest.
They have a story and that story goes like this.
Way back in the 14th century, the town of O Cebreiro was ravaged by a snowstorm. It was one of those nights not fit for man nor beast. And yet a single farmer made his way up the slope, perhaps following the same track that I had ascended with the Korean in tow. Unlike us, however, he came for mass.
The priest was shocked that someone would be out in such weather. He ridiculed the farmer for coming all this way for nothing more than words. Between the lines, the priest was skeptical of his own calling and cynical of the value of the Eucharist (or what might be called “Common Meal” or "Communion").
But since the farmer had come he went through the motions. And somehow in the "miracle of the host" as it came to be known, the simple elements of bread and wine were literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.* The priest looked into the cup and was shocked by what he saw. But as a result of the miracle his faith was renewed.
The blood-stained cloth (or corporal) was saved as a relic and is a part of the memory of that little altar and that little church.
On the way out, I thank the man by the door. He nods again and asks for my pilgrim credencial. I dig it out of my pack. He stamps blue ink in it with a heavy thud!
Now I know that views of eucharist of Christ and the miracles of God vary greatly, but I also know that all of us are sometimes like that mountain priest. We go through the motions, lifeless and listless. And then God surprises us.
May each of us not miss the surprises of God, either in a cup or in a storm.
*Questions about the nature of the eucharist have been at the center of many Christian debates. Some hold the that bread and wine literally (and mysteriously) become the body and blood of Christ. Others interpret the body and blood of Christ as being present alongside of the bread and wine. Still others see the act as purely symbolic. This is the stuff that keeps theologians busy.
Consider this your invitation to join us this winter in Galilee, Israel. We will be hiking the Jesus Trail between Jan 8-16, 2019. This trip is facilitated by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and is a bargain at only $2,588 from New York. For more details click here or contact me at email@example.com.