Thursday, January 31, 2013

Remembering Santa María la Real


capilla de Eunate, España

My friend Pat & I walked out from the small tree-covered hill and stepped suddenly into a landscape of lined crops and dust fields. Next to a busy highway to our right, I eagerly identified what had to be the famous chapel at Eunate, whose Basque name means “the Hundred Doorways.” Described by guide books as “one of the jewels” of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the chapel actually required a 4 to 5 kilometer walking detour off the main route on el Camino de Santiago

This June it will be ten years since Pat and I walked the Camino starting in Pamplona. And I find myself remembering standout moments and places quite a bit these days,  like our morning with the Shepherd here, and our 23-mile-day here

Looking back on that morning I remain grateful that the decision whether or not to detour came on the second day of our pilgrimage walk from Pamplona. In all honesty, if we had to make the same decision a week later, I know I would have been tempted to ignore the guidebooks and obsessed solely about the extra number of kilometers that it would add to our walking day!


From the woman living next door to the church, its unofficial caretaker, I learned that the origins of the small octagonal church are obscure. Its unusual shape suggests a link with the Knights Templar, whose churches often resembled the octagonal structure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Graves marked with scallop shells (the sign of the pilgrims) have been discovered between the church and its surrounding arched cloister, suggesting that Eunate was once a major funerary chapel for pilgrims who died along the Camino de Santiago. 


I was immediately drawn to the chapel’s simple and spartan interior. Floor to ceiling pillar buttresses stretched upward, as if reaching for heaven, and small marble windows let in only a gentle, soft light, making it breathtakingly serene. Only one image stood in the entire church, a mid-size statue of Mary that, I learned (several walking days later) in Najera, was known as Santa María la Real

Santa María la Real

She was, indeed, royally dressed, with a gold dress and a gold crown on both hers and Jesus’ heads. Perhaps it was the way her left arm lovingly encircled the child on her lap. But there was something completely disarming in this Mary’s smile that instantly won me over. Without words, with only a slight but captivating smile, she told me how much she loved her son. She might be the queen of heaven, but clearly, Santa María la Real was a mother first.