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An encounter with the True Cross
Santo Toribio de Liebana
As Augustine set out on the penultimate leg of his pilgrimage, an event occurred that would have left Salvador Dali twirling his moustaches.
THE DAY AFTER MY VISIT to San Vicente, Potes, Cantabria, I set out bright and early but took a wrong turn. This led me two kilometres off the route and up 400 metres to the plain stone Franciscan monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana.

This place has two claims to fame. The more obscure of the two is that it was here that Abbot Beatus de Liebana wrote his apocalyptic commentaries on the Book of St John. An original copy is kept at the monastery, but well out of public view – still, they had nice reproductions in the gift shop.

The other item of interest is kept in the side chapel. It is none other than the largest fragment of the True Cross in existence. It is a hefty chunk, about a foot long, of cypress embedded in an ornate silver crucifix.

True Cross

After my 2-kilometre climb, I found the monastery and took a few minutes of rest in the cloister at the top of this sub-alpine hill. I sat among the roses of the garden there, thinking again of an Australian named Rose who had taken her own life about ten years ago.

At length I went out into the courtyard to find myself in the middle of several busloads of exquisitely dressed French pilgrims. One of the friars saw me, took me by the hand, and led my sweaty stinky backpack-laden self through the crowds. Bus pilgrims’ noses wrinkled and lips pursed at the sight and smell of this uncouth person! After a minute of conversation with me, the head Franciscan announced to all that, while he usually addressed pilgrims in Spanish, they had a Canadian pilgrim among them and so, for this one time, he would speak in French.

After his address on the provenance of this piece of the True Cross, he took me by the hand and led me to the reliquary. While not an aficionado of relic veneration (Anglicans normally venerate relics by placing brass plaques nearby), I knew what must be done. And so I kissed the piece of red cypress in its ornate silver holder, worn smooth from at least 16 centuries of attention.

As I stepped back through the crowd, about half of them still continued their pursed lips and mutterings, but the other half came up to greet me, shake my hand, clap me on the shoulder, exclaim "Bravo, bravo, mon vieux!" and so forth.

Still trying to understand this Dali-esque sequence of events, I walked down the hill to the 12th century Ermita de San Miguel and looked at the valley below to Potes, and ahead to my next stop – rendered even more surreal when a very smelly wild boar rushed along and crossed my path at the bottom of the trail.
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