The Church at the Edge of the World

If there was any doubt that the folks in Muxia, Spain were ‘people of the sea’, a visit to the Santuario da Virxe da Barca (Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boat) certainly set the record straight. The church sits on the craggy shore of the Costa de Morte (Coast of Death) in northwestern Spain, just meters from the crashing North Atlantic waves. Inside, model ships hang from the ceiling…everything from fishing dories to a WWII submarine. Since pre-Christian times, people have gathered on this spot to pray for the safe return of their fisher folk.

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The name of the church comes from a long-held legend. It is said that the Virgin Mary met St. James at this site and helped him in his work to spread Christianity throughout the region. Then, when the Romans beheaded him, his body was carried in a stone boat to Muxia, where his remains were discovered many years later and taken to the cathedral in nearby Santiago de Compostela. Some of the dates and details don’t add up for me, and there are conflicting legends in northwest Spain about all of this, but who am I to judge?

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I was in the church on the evening of Easter Saturday to hear the local choir. Their deep rich voices delivered mournful tunes appropriate to the day. Tomorrow morning’s service would feature a much more joyous repertoire.

This church only recently re-opened, after suffering major damage because of a lightning-caused fire on Christmas Day 2013. The main altar is still to be replaced. As a temporary measure, a life size photograph of what I assume was the original altar adorns the front.

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The fire was not the first bit of tragedy to strike this spot. In the fall of 2002, the Prestige tanker spilled an estimated 66,000 litres of oil into the sea, polluting thousands of kilometres of shoreline and killing 250,000 sea birds. Muxia was ground zero for this environmental disaster.

Five thousand fishermen were without work for several years (things still aren’t back to normal according to some locals), and while the monthly government compensation cheques of 1,200 euros helped with the bills, they didn’t prevent the social fall-out that inevitably comes with a community’s loss of livelihood.

A short distance from the church, a large stone obelisk has been erected to commemorate the 100,000 volunteers who came from all over Spain to help with the clean-up. Every day for nine months, people painstakingly scraped oil into buckets. In a country that seems divided in so many ways, it was a remarkable coming together.

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The Virgin of the Boat church is not fancy. But it and the rocks surrounding it give off waves of energy that are deeply and inexplicably calming and reassuring. It’s as though the church and the rocks know things that they want us to know too. It would do us good to listen.

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What do I know when I am in the place that I can know nowhere else? What does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself? – “The Old Ways” by Robert MacFarlane

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