Walking day in and day out for hours on end a Pilgrim experiences the intensity of the sun. It is so strong that a Pilgrim must keep drinking water to avoid dehydration, and applying sunscreen, which offers protection. However when I walked into the cathedral at Leon all of a sudden the sun took on a mystical dimension. The cathedral is built on an east-west orientation with the altar at the eastern apse so priest and people alike face the Risen Lord at the celebration of the Mass. They literally pray ad orientem facing the rising sun. The sun draws the whole universe in the praise of God who dwells in Inaccessible Light. Therefore the light from the sun is the closest things to the Celestial Jerusalem where God lives in inaccessible light, hidden from human eyes. As the day moves forward the sun then illuminates the southern wall of the nave with the warm colors of the saints and doctors of the church. The light from the southern side figures illuminates the north wall of the nave where the prophets are depicted with dark blues because the prophets did not experience the Light but advanced towards the Light because their prophecies held the mystery of Christ the Light revealed in these last days in the mystery of the Incarnation. Each morning as we start our walk in the darkness we anticipated the beauty of the eastern skies. Lumen Christi! Light of Christ! Deo Gratias
In the cathedral at Leon there are two statues of our Blessed Mother that riveted my imagination. One was a statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary. As I gazed upon this exquisite and perfectly balanced work of art, my heart pondered the incomprehensible mystery of the Incarnation.
Then there was a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been at the front door of the cathedral until the 19th century when it was moved to the Lady chapel behind the high altar. The Virgin turns her gaze full of mystery, a gaze that is soothing balm to a weary Pilgrim. Her gaze brought forth spontaneously from my soul: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
The construction of this magnificent cathedral is also a symbol of the flourishing of a new urban culture after the European crisis of the feudal period. With the development of a middle class, cities grew and contributed to a luminous culture full of vitality.
After the collapse of Muslim power in 1212, King Alfonso promoted science and the arts which made his court a cultural center. This is truly an example of Spanish exceptionalism. Oftentimes we think of the 13th century as a time of darkness and superstition but it was a time of a cultural fullness that far exceeds modern culture, in that in the 13th century the Catholic faith brought forth beauty in over 200 cathedrals in Europe. That is true exceptionalism!
The simplicity, elegance and purity of lines of this cathedral lifts the spirit to the heights and brings to earth the divine world and thus brings us to heaven during the sacred liturgy.
Spending hours in the cathedral helped me come to a profound understanding of how exceptional the 13th century was in the history of western culture. I was filled with wonder and awe as I explored this artistic jewel.
Day 17. Thursday, September 11, 2014. Leon. Our thoughts have been with the US on this anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11.
Our plan this morning was to advance our Camino and get a rest day by traveling by bus to Leon, but that was more complicated than we thought. We walked about five miles to a town where we had been told we could catch a train, but when we got there the train was gone and there were no buses. We continued to walk until we found someone to give us a ride to a bus station and finally arrived in Leon late morning.
This meant leaving four friends we have made over these days. This is part of The Camino, saying goodbye to people you have become family with because they need to get home, or you have different itineraries, or because of injury. At the same time you learn that people show up again when you least expect it.
We walked into Leon, exploring the historic area and having coffee and pastry at a cafe. We found an albergue run by Benedictine sisters and checked in. Fr. John who is traveling with us and is a Benedictine felt connected to his roots by this choice.
We couldn’t wait to tour the Leon cathedral. The cathedral exceeded our expectations. It is a fine example of late Gothic architecture marked with simplicity, elegance and purity of lines. Everywhere we turned was beauty, in the windows, the statues, in every chapel and detail. We spent over two hours admiring and studying the cathedral, ending by praying the office. I think we will always remember it.
We also visited the cathedral cloister museum which contained historic religious statues and images, and liturgical vessels and vestments. It felt like shopping. Father Mattingly wanted to bring a few things home for the new church, but was afraid he couldn’t carry them all the way to Santiago.
We explored all the churches in the historic center including the Benedictine chapel where we attended evening Mass. We were especially impressed with St Isidore where Eucharistic Exposition was in progress and people were praying.
We also took time at a vinoteca near the cathedral to share a chilled bottle of local white wine.
This has been an exhilarating day and we look forward to getting back on the way to Santiago tomorrow.