Before I head off into the "sunset" (or, hopefully, sunrise) of retreat and you do not hear from me for another eight days or more, I wanted to write still more about our journey through Spain, which is itself fast fading into the sunset of the past.
After visiting St. Ignatius' hometown, we left to meet Barbara in the province or region called "Asturias." I had never heard of the place, but the road there was already amazing. Actually, that was because we were still, for a long time, driving along the coast of the Pais Vasco. There was an alternation, for hours, between wooded hills and the suddenly visible water, then pastures, and the amazing depths of blue. Eventually, hills began to dominate. We were approaching the "Picos de Europa," a favorite site for rock and mountain climbers and very vigorous hikers. This is the pride of Asturias. Or maybe I should say one of the prides of Asturias. The people of this delightful region are also proud of their dairy products (40 different kinds of cheese), their cider and the traditional way of pouring it from a height so that it becomes effervescent (momentarily), their sausages, their big flat fabada beans, their fishing (salmon), their Roman-derived storage barns built on stone pillars, and their historic connections to the Celts. They are embarrassed about their love for sweets. Evidently this makes them the laughingstock of Spain. As Barbara's Asturian friend Cristina said (and rather defensively), "We like our sweets. I don't want to hear anything about it."
Given all this, we figured we had a lot of experience to pack into our few hours: we arrived in mid-afternoon, and would be leaving after lunch the next day.
Our first experience was paying for the ride into town. Karen can tell that story better than I. Let's just send prayerful thanks and blessings to the cooperative Parador concierge who acted as our go-between. Ah, the Parador. This was a former monastery, founded in something like 700 A.D. The little monastic Church (San Pedro) is still the site of Sunday Mass, even though the monastery has been transformed into a Parador. Our rooms had walls four feet thick, with extremely interesting wooden doors in the window. You could open it one way for light and another way for air. And when you opened it, you looked out onto a pasture with a mountain backdrop.
We visited the nearby town, crossing by a Roman bridge with the Asturian symbol of a cross with an "Alpha" and "Omega" hanging from either arm. We saw this cross everywhere in Asturias. It serves as a kind of regional symbol. The small shops of the Conga de Onis featured the local products, especially little kits that would let you make fabada at home (flat white beans in a reddish sauce with fatty bacon and two kinds of sausage, red and black--I don't think you would ever make it past Customs), little fridge magnets of cider pouring, and lots of bears: toy bears, bears on mugs, bears on pencils, and above all, bears on carved wooden walking sticks. The abundance of walking sticks (with long steel tips) attests to Asturias' pride as a hiking region. We did see several people striding rapidly with those sticks, which are anywhere from four to five and a half feet long. But the abundance of bears goes back to a story about one of their kings, who went out hunting and ended up devoured by a bear. That may be the story told through the charming reliefs on the pillars at the monastic church. I didn't seethe bear, but I did see a medieval man on horseback (the king going to hunt?) kissing a medieval lady good-bye. What a precious and poignant depiction!
The next day, we had our very own guardian Angel to take us to one of Asturias' genuine reasons for humble pride: the shrine of Covadonga. Angel is a relative of someone Karen knows, and he put himself entirely at our service all day, shuttling us from Covandonga to Oviedo to Leon (a couple of hundred miles away).
Covadonga is the Lourdes of Spain. Not that it was the site of an apparition, but there is a cave here, and a well with miraculous properties (miraculous in the sense that people drink its water to find a spouse!). Here Mary is said to have given her "breath" to Pelayo, the head of a small army attempting to defend the Asturias region from being overtaken by the Moors. There by the "deep cave" (the meaning of "covadonga") the invading army was overcome. Asturias is the only region of Spain never under Moslem domination.
In the cave itself, high up a mountain, there is a tiny chapel. The statue of Our Lady of Covadonga is not in the little chapel, but in the outer cave, where there are pews and a constant procession of pilgrims. I didn't dare take pictures while in that holy place! (Too many signs explicitly ruling that option out.) I did try to take a lot of pictures in the overall area, and even wrapped one foot around a small railing in order to lean a bit and get something of the chapel...
On the next hilltop there is a lovely basilica, and a visitor center with an interesting logo... Visiting this shrine, and knowing its particular significance, I felt the real urgency (and I hope to now transmit this to you) to restore among Catholics the practice of praying the Angelus three times a day. We hear about the Moslem call to prayer five times a day. There are workplaces that set a room aside with a prayer rug to accommodate people fulfilling this religious duty. And so five times a day our Moslem neighbors not only practice and affirm their faith, they are also confirmed in their identity as followers of Islam. We Catholics used to have a similar practice: three times a day, we recalled the "amazing grace" of the Incarnation, when the Word was made Flesh "for us and for our salvation." Our whole Christian identify and mission are wrapped up in that mystery, and Mary is our primary model of what it means to be a person "who hears the word of God and keeps it." So I believe we need to recover this lost tradition.
I am thinking of creating a tiny little program that could be downloaded or subscribed to via cell phone that would ring three times a day, morning, noon and night, and even give the "prompts" for praying the Angelus. We can be renewed in the grace of the Incarnation three times a day, and even find new ways to spread our faith by witnessing, as the Moslems do, to how seriously we take God's intervention in history.
So that was what I brought home from Covadonga.
From the shrine, we went to the capital, Oviedo. This city has about 200,000 people, and yet is still enormously quaint. We had lunch in Oviedo, at a "cidreria" on a side street. Our host provided a sampler of all the Asturian specialties, and there was plenty of the local cider, poured, as always, from a height, by waiters who, according to a strict tradition, do not look at what they are doing. That is probably why the floorboards in the restaurant were not joined. Instead, they were about a half-inch apart. That way the splashed cider that did not land on my jacket or camera bag could flow onto the pavement below and no one would slip in it.
After lunch, we went to two tiny churches in the surrounding hills. One was a pre-romanesque church of St. Michael, about three stories high, with surprisingly narrow buttresses and a kind of rose window on the top. Unfortunately, it was closed! The other was a Marian church. It was much more elaborate, with balconies and porticos and carving. It was being restored from a pile of rubble. Karen had seen photos of the site years ago when it was in utter ruin.
After the archaeological visit, we stopped at a small cafe. About twenty cured pork legs hung over the bar: from the ham to the hoof. They were marked "jamon iberico de bellotta"--that exquisite prosciutto we had tasted on first arriving in Spain. A Wonder-bread sandwich made with that ham would run $30. But we didn't have time for that. We had to get to Leon, in Castille.