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  1514: St Amaro's Hermitage, Burgos, Castile, Spain

St Amaro's Hermitage, Burgos, Castile, Spain

Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: St Amaro's Hermitage, Burgos, Castile, Spain.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, archdiocese of Burgos.
The building: Plain and baroque at the same time, this stone hermitage and cemetery chapel was built by Pedro de Lazcano in 1614. The interior is poorly lit, the ceiling low, and the decoration rustic. The early 20th-century altar is flanked by a few polychrome statues, apparently of great antiquity. The west end opens onto a grassy courtyard beside the cemetery where pilgrims on their way to Santiago were buried if they expired in Burgos or in the Hospital de Rey immediately to the south. The gate has some very spooky skulls on it.
The church: St Amaro is reputed to have been a devout Asian (or Frenchman) who was obsessed with the idea of finding paradise. After several unsuccessful inquiries, one night God appeared to him and told him to set sail across the ocean, following the sun. Undergoing many adventures at sea, he finally arrived at an area of calm which he called Mar Cuajado, or "Still Sea," known to this day as the Doldrums. There he was captured by a ship full of monsters who specialised in drowning sailors, but was rescued by an apparition of a group of women who advised him to empty his bottles of wine and oil into the sea and then fill the bottles with air. Amaro did this and was miraculously lifted out of the Doldrums. (He is venerated by some as the patron saint of marine polluters and space travellers.) After further exploits he eventually reached paradise, where the gatekeeper allowed him to take a peek at the Tree of Life and other wonders but would not let him enter.
The neighbourhood: Once located outside the city limits, suburban growth and expansion of the university have now brought the Hermitage within its precincts. It sits on the west end of Burgos, on the west side of the park where the largest of the local pilgrims' hostels is located in a number of wooden buildings. As well, it is a few hundred metres north of the Hospital de Rey, built by Alfonso VIII and Eleanor of Aquitaine (played so well by Katharine Hepburn in the film A Lion in Winter) to provide solace to pilgrims, and about a kilometre north of the Abbey of Las Huelgas, familiar to canon law freaks as one of the last places a woman held ordinary jurisdictional power in the Roman Catholic world.
The cast: The young auburn-haired (and going bald) priest may have been well-known to the regulars in the congregation, but there was no sign of his name anywhere.
The date & time: Sunday, 30 September 2007, 5.30pm.

What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
As the Hermitage is a cemetery chapel which has acquired its own congregation of locals and devotees, standing room only was easily achieved with about 80 people. The folding doors at the west end were opened, effectively removing the west wall, and chairs were planted in the garden and courtyard to accommodate another 70 or 80. I do not think that many of the worshippers were from the neighbourhood, given the large number of cars nearby.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The casually dressed and tanned pilgrim stands out among the properly dressed Castilians, and we received friendly smiles from many of the congregants. At the peace ceremony, everyone nearby came over to greet us.

Was your pew comfortable?
I took one of the folding chairs in the courtyard. While it was comfortable enough, I noted that many older latecomers were left standing, and so I gave up my chair and leaned against the wall by the entrance. My strapping young Methodist friend from Georgia joined me, possibly fearing what might happen to her at a mass. Like many pilgrims, this was the first exposure for her and her Baptist companion to Roman Catholic worship and she was not certain what to expect.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
About half an hour before the service, the priest had taken a chair by one of the stone benches in the courtyard, where he sat in his alb and stole, reading his breviary and waiting to hear confessions.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
In Spain, this one is easy, and it is always: En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Spanish RCs do not seem to use prayer books or missals. They appear to know the rite by heart and are not accustomed to following the readings in a book or a Bible. This puzzled my Georgian friends, who would have liked to have been able to follow a text as they do on their home turf.

What musical instruments were played?
There were no instruments, but a woman at the front gave the note on a pitch pipe before the congregation sang the gloria and, during the communion, a hymn with a carol-like tune. It sounded vaguely like the music for the Huron Carol.

Did anything distract you?
My eyes kept returning to the trees in the courtyard and the sky over the stone wall. As well, my fellow pilgrims occasionally poked my arm to ask me what was happening at various points during the service. One of the worshippers had a cell phone which had the Radetzky March as its ring tone, and sheepishly exited to take her calls to the grins of her neighbours.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The congregation appeared to be familiar with the young priest, and everything was relaxed, but with a formal air – these are formal people and Burgos is one of the most conservative cities in Spain (and Franco's wartime capital).

St Amaro's Hermitage, Burgos, Castile, Spain

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Can't really say how good he was, as his Spanish was too quick for my limited understanding.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
There was some mention of the Holy Family, I think. He told an anecdote, which went down well with the worshippers.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The church being open to fresh air of a late afternoon on one side, while still being a very full church on the other.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As always, feeling a little out of place and shabby because of the great care which the Spanish take in dressing. However, my appearance didn't seem to bother them.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Just after the service ended, the priest stepped forth and asked the pilgrims to come forward. He easily spotted us, and beckoned us to the front. Several Italians stepped forth and knelt by the altar. My two Georgians looked nervous, but agreed to follow me up front and kneel by the rail. We were then followed by three German Lutheran students, who preferred to stand but bowed their heads as the priest pronounced the pilgrims' blessing. For some reason, he stopped by one of the Georgians, who was shy and self-conscious and quite quite lesbian, and bowed very low over her, his hands on her head, and prayed in a low voice.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was on offer.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I liked the scale of the place, and would attend often if it were not so out of the way.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, even if I'm not really sure why or how.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
My pigtailed Georgian friend, puzzled and a bit tearful and happy and thoughtful and wanting a stiff drink.

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