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  842: St Mary, Los Arcos, Navarre, Spain

St Mary, Los Arcos, Navarre, Spain

Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: Church of St Mary, Los Arcos, Navarre, Spain.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The parish was founded by Sancho VI (the Wise), King of Navarre, in 1175, but its 12th century structure was heavily overlaid in Baroque times, and the retable of the high altar was covered with gold from the American colonies in the 1600s. One shudders to think of the suffering of the Indian miners. Figures of saints and prophets, row on row, were so numerous that they seemed to move and writhe, almost like the carvings in a Tibetan temple. On a second story of this astonishing retable is a simple medieval statue of Our Lady of Los Arcos, a painted wooden figure of the 13th century, seated with Our Lord on her left lap, her hand raised in blessing.
The neighbourhood: This is the parish church of Los Arcos, a small town of 1,500 houses strung out along the Camino, like many other towns in Navarre and La Rioja. There is a small square in front of the church, but without any of the usual cafés or restaurants (they are in a neighbouring square).
The cast: A priest in his 30s, presumably the Don Francisco Javier Razquin listed on the diocesan website. A woman of about 60 was leading parishioners' prayers just before the mass and intercessions during the mass.

What was the name of the service?
Pilgrims' mass, with blessing.

How full was the building?
The church was about half full, with about 75 people. Over half were parishioners, middle-aged or elderly – I saw no children. This day's walk was not so difficult (only 20km) and although most of us were hobbling with blisters, we were parked in a relatively pleasant hostel and had rested. I was seated with a posse of non-churchgoing anglophone Canadians, an Australian and two devout young Germans.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two older parishioners, on their way to their own seats, shepherded us to our pew.

Was your pew comfortable?
The bench seat was fairly broad and I was able to relax in it, as much as one could do without any upholstery. The kneeler was fairly distant from the seat, and so the shampoo position was not an option.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We entered as the woman prayer leader was taking parishioners through the rosary. The meditative and repeated responses were calming, and allowed me to collect my thoughts.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"En el Nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No service books were available, nor were there any leaflets. Walking into Belorado a few days later, an Andalusian student told me that, as almost all Spaniards had gone to religion classes and liturgical participation was a large part of the curriculum, almost everyone in the country was able to follow the Novus Ordo from memory. My observations over the month on the Camino bore this out.

What musical instruments were played?
None, although the 18th century organ is one of the largest in the country, and one of the church's attractions. During the communion, the parishioners began to sing a Spanish hymn to the tune of "Nearer my God to thee", softly and with slowly increasing strength, and a pleasing but eerie harmony.

Did anything distract you?
I was so overwhelmed by the walking and all of the different scenery and sensations, that distraction was both impossible and perpetual.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The youngish priest took us through a relaxed and straightforward Novus Ordo, entirely in Spanish. His presence at the altar combined reverence with an open and inviting approach. Having sat through many Roman Catholic masses in my travels, this was the warmest and most respectful I have experienced. Ever. Our evangelical Australian teacher was so moved that he went up and took the sacrament, afterward saying, "Bloody hell, I couldn't help it."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. 

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing during the communion, and the courteous and gentle way the parishioners were exchanging the peace. One felt that they believed we walkers were honouring them with our presence.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The blazing gilt retables, piled up three stories in the apse behind the altar. I could not help thinking of the contrast between the gentle spiritual strength of the parishioners with the unspeakable horrors which brought the gold to this place. And then, as I passed by one of the side-chapels, there was a glass coffin with a life-size Christ in it, with the gory marks of his torture and his passion.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The priest called for the pilgrims to come up to the altar, and as we stood, he gave a blessing for our journey in Spanish, then in Italian, French and English. He called us to gather round him, and asking us where we were from, handed out small prayer cards in our separate languages, with a smile and a few words of greeting for each of us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, and we had to be off to our hostel as the doors would soon be closed. We had to be up at 6.00 the next morning to head on our way. But first, we walked in the garden of the cloister, where roses flourished as tall as sunflowers and as untamed as anything that grows. I stood in the middle of the garden, remembering an Australian named Rose, who had taken her own life earlier that year.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Not that there's any competition in Los Arcos.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Somehow it showed that a kind and evangelical faith could grow out of a dark religious and civil history.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Roses in the garden... and the singing during the communion.

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