Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Sacred space needs no official designation

“Anywhere can be a sacred site—it only requires us to see our land as special and we will learn to tread more gently upon it.”
Alliance of Religions and Conservation website


A short, squat man in dark clothes and peaked cap, whom I thought was a priest, was about to lock the front door—a thick, dark, wooden one—of the Santa Maria La Virgen Blanca church in Villalcázar de Sirga.


My guidebook recommended seeing the interior of this Knights Templar church, a national monument, which housed the tombs of royalty and nobles. From the twelfth century onwards, one task of the Templar knights was to protect pilgrims on their journey to sacred Christian sites.

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The entrance to Santa Maria La Virgen Blanca church in Villalcázar de Sirga

Curious, I ran up the front stairs and got inside, just before the man turned the deadbolt. Leaving my friend Dieter at a café across the street, where he was enjoying a cool drink in the shade, I figured a 10-minute visit would be enough; then we’d continue on The Way.


After the short man made sure that I had paid the 1 EU entrance fee for pilgrims or peregrinos, he began a tour inside the church for a busload of middle-aged Spanish women. Previously, when they had spilled onto the lazy town square, I had called them “chickens” for their noisy, non-stop squawks and talk.

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The view above the front entrance of the church

Wandering around the church, I sat on a dark wooden pew, trying to meditate briefly in the semi-darkness. Soon, the coolness of the church’s stone floor and walls became too cold for me, and I wanted to leave. The inside of the front door, separated from the rest of the church behind a small entrance, stood in solid darkness. With the help of my pocket flashlight, I tried to jiggle the dead bolt and piston lock, which was embedded into the ground. Nothing moved.

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Part of the church interior


We were locked in. Approaching the guide during a brief break in his narration, I asked him, in basic Spanish: “May I have the key to open the door? I have to leave.”


“No,” he replied. In Spanish: “You’ll have to wait until the tour is over.”


Frustrated, I tried to accept the situation, but irritation soon won over. I was prisoner of a church! About a half-hour later, some of the Spanish women were also cold and wanted to get out. The man wouldn’t let them. “We could get sick and end up in the hospital,” one muttered in Spanish. Three of us huddled around the door but despite our attempts to escape, it remained locked.


After about 15 minutes, we approached the guide together and demanded to be let out. With about two dozen female Spanish tourists thronged around him, he thrust out his arm and pointed at me, wagging his finger while saying something in Spanish to the effect of “It’s her fault that your tour is ending now.”

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A view inside the church

Feeling like a marked woman, I laughed, but was pleased to see him get out his circle of skeleton keys and head for the door.

Once outside, back into 23-degree-C sunshine, I felt grateful to see Dieter again, sorry that I had kept him waiting. “I was ready to come looking for you,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “I thought you must be doing thirty years’ worth of confessions.”


I thought it ironic that a public building like a church, which is supposed to be sacred space and a comforting sanctuary, had kept me trapped. I wondered: To what else am I held prisoner? The list is long: expectations, ambition, judgments, comparisons, envy . . .


This was day 19 of my pilgrimage. Before walking the Camino, I had expected that each albergue would offer group spiritual activities from shared meditation to facilitated discussions. But less than a handful did. By week two of the Camino, I realized that rather than seek out groups of spiritual community, which I ultimately found anyway, I needed to create my own versions of sacred space.


So, at times, I made myself stop along the route, lean against a tree, close my eyes, and silently absorb my surroundings. For me, this usually proved more meditative than constantly moving through an environment.

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What makes space sacred? With Pam and Elke of Langley, BC

At one albergue in Belarodo, the hospitaleros, a thirty-something European couple, had hosted a brief, evening session of informal song and meditation, using the organ as accompaniment upstairs in the church next door to the hostel.


A handful of us had gathered in the bone-cold church under blankets, singing a few lines of a Latin song as a round. It was one that Camino pilgrims sang in medieval times, the male hospitalero told us, and translates roughly to the following:


Every morning we take the Camino,
Every morning we go farther,
Day after day the route calls us,
It’s the voice of [Santiago de] Compostela


Way of earth and way of faith,
Ancient road of Europe,
The Milky Way of Charlemagne,
It’s the Chemin of all the Santiago pilgrims,
and so on . . .


The chorus “Ultreia, ultreia, Et sus eia, Deus adjuva nos” is “Onward, onward, and upward, God helps us.” I appreciated the historical link that these words made to pilgrims who had walked the same path centuries earlier.


Before walking the Camino, I had read that it was customary for Spanish residents along the route to call out “Ultreia” (also spelled “Ultreya”) to pilgrims as a sign of support and encouragement. Yet, I heard no one say that word once during my pilgrimage. Instead, today’s common greeting is “Buen Camino” (Have a good Camino.) Along the way, I saw “Ultreya” written in only a few places. Otherwise, the term seemed obliterated.


For me, discovering and singing the word “Ultreia” on the Camino was a significant thread, a form of creating sacred space over time. It invited union, commonality, between pilgrims and non-pilgrims, and those who had walked The Way now and in the past.

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A view along the Camino

In the small town of Manjarin, on day 26, I heard beautiful Gregorian chant next to a restaurant and noticed the word “convento,” in large letters, on the side of a nearby building. Thinking that perhaps live monks were singing or I could hear sacred harmonies in a nunnery, I headed towards the source of the music. Looking up, I saw a loudspeaker mounted above patio tables and umbrellas. This was the source of the music. It was a recording.


Feeling like Pavlov’s dog, I laughed aloud. Some savvy business person sure knew what would draw pilgrims’ attention. Even my guidebook mentioned the music in this specific place: “Perhaps Gregorian chant (from a well-worn tape out of the Cluny sanctuary of Taizé) will call you to stop.”


Sacred space on the Camino or anywhere certainly doesn’t need to be within a church or cathedral or some form of monument collectively deemed powerfully poignant, such as the Cruz de Ferro at Puerta Irago. At this highest point on the Camino, at 1,505 metres, a giant cross stands atop a high pile of stones, each one left by a pilgrim to honor a dream or loved one or trait that someone wants to release.


Sacred space needs no official designation. It is created through ritual and recognition that all life is sacred; we are the ones who bring meaning to what touches us. We decide what words, acts, ceremonies create sacred sharing. Yet the earth is innately sacred; if we do not see it as such, does its sacredness disappear?


Every encounter upon The Way, whether at a drinking fountain in a village plaza or in the flat plains of the Meseta, can become sacred. Over the years, dozens of pilgrims have broken off two branches to form a cross and added them to different fences along the way. Each one can represent the life of a loved one lost or a symbol of someone’s faith.

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Some of the informal crosses that pilgrims leave along the route

Even my encounter with the tour guide and the locked church was sacred, although not one I appreciated at the time. It was an opportunity for me to learn patience and to join in a common goal with women I had previously judged and deemed separate from myself.


A meeting of two kindred hearts and spirits, in itself, creates sacred space. What lies within each of us—a lush, tended garden or withered barren land? How well we cultivate our inner space determines how much we have to give to others and ourselves.

NEXT WEEK: Hemingway and the Camino

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October 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm Comments (2)