Subscriber OnlyPeople

I should have walked from Leitrim to Santiago de Compostela but I cheated

Michael Harding: I headed off, not with a walking stick, but with Ryanair to the mystical Spanish city

Santiago translates as Saint James. And Compostela they say might mean “a field of stars”. Although some say it means “a burial ground”.

But I never realised how mystical the city of Santiago de Compostela could be, or why so many would want to walk from the ends of the Earth to get there. So I headed off, not with a walking stick, but with Ryanair.

I know that was cheating. I should have walked from Leitrim, or at least from the south of France, but I thought maybe after a few health issues in recent years I might take the lazy route.

One day in the cathedral I noticed a woman with outstretched hands as she gazed up at the figure of Saint James above the altar with her two eyes closed.


The rest of the pilgrims were gathering in the pews before the midday Mass and using their phones to capture the magnificent architecture. Many of them were kitted out in hiking boots with water bottles dangling from rucksacks, but she stood out from the crowd and later in the sunlight I managed to speak with her.

“I have done the Camino,” she said, “and it has changed me”.

“I’d like to do it too,” I replied. ”But maybe I don’t have enough faith to traipse across Spain as a religious pilgrim.”

“But you don’t need to be a pilgrim or have religious faith,” she said. “You just need to walk. And look up at the moon by night when you are tired walking. And it will open your heart.”

Coincidentally the full moon was promised that weekend. In Tibet the full moon of the fourth month is a major celebration of the Buddha. Now above the rooftops of Santiago the same moon was coming.

Although James, apostle of Jesus, is not exactly depicted as an awakened Buddha; in most images he appears as a Seeker on the Path with a hat and a walking stick, just like any other pilgrim, and occasionally he is depicted as a warrior on horseback slaying the enemies of Spain. Not that Spanish history bothered the woman with the rosary beads. Her faith seemed to transcend any sectarian religiosity.

Many years ago I met another woman of similar faith who liked to quote Rumi, the great poet of Islam.

We were in our 20s, dining out on Rue du Pot-de-Fer in Paris and I being young didn’t even notice the moon.

“All I see is you,” says I, gazing into her eyes, as if she would be impressed that I gave her my complete attention. But she wasn’t impressed at all.

“According to Rumi, the soul is like a mirror reflecting divine presence,” she said. “Just like a lake reflects the moon.”

That kind of talk was all the rage when we were young. Love-making was peppered with quotes from Rumi and Khalil Gibran.

That is the magic of moonlight anywhere; in Sligo or in Mayo, or in Santiago. It transports us into a different realm

Dermot Healy, an exquisite master of poetry, once observed that:

“The moon above Sligo

is not

The moon above Mayo.”

I suppose that’s the unique nature of the moon in any single place – it embodies a kind of transcendence. It can imbue the “local” with ontological significance. So much so that we stand transformed in the moonlight. We dance in the moonlight as if where we stood was the single locus of all cosmic origination.

And that is the magic of moonlight anywhere; in Sligo or in Mayo, or in Santiago. It transports us into a different realm.

Of course it is the one and only moon we have. The same and only moon that shines on the streets of Paris or in the deserts of Mongolia.

The same moon I suppose that shimmered on the surface of a certain lake where James the apostle went fishing with his brothers. The same moon that Islamic scholars across Spain might have seen when they quenched their candles late in the night and gazed out from their towers.

So I expect the woman with the rosary beads was right; there’s something about the Camino de Santiago, walking by day, and resting by moonlight, that opens the heart and releases the soul from its cage of religiosity.

I waited at my hotel window for a long time on the night it was promised. Because although I have spent my life in the shadow of various cathedrals and prayer halls, it is the moon above that keeps me company in the dark. Just as it did in Santiago when it showed its face above the rooftops.