Orthodox America

   Pilgrim-Sleuth in Segovia Searching for Relics of Spain's Ancient Christian Past

By Agafia Prince

I look out the window of the Madrid-Segovia train. Travelling in Spain with my husband Jonathan in pursuit of first-class food and Art, I feel embarassed, somehow, to attempt even a small pilgrimage. And yet I dare to hope that I might find at least some traces of Spain's ancient Christian piety.

Out the window lie the Castillian plains: hard, sandy land made for horseback but not for horses; there is no grazing left. Possibly centuries of overgrazing sheep have left no roots but those of the sappy, noxious weeds and compact trees. Still without roots are the new communities of block-house apartments and row-houses by the acre near the tracks. Though some are prettified with a balcony, bay window, shapely roof or brick adornment, they are, as everywhere, hopelessly bleak.

The train ascends the hills and the population of pines increases with the coolness. Soon the ground is green with ferns and fresh grasses. Sheep and cows appear, and grazing here is good. Jonathan takes out his guidebook and his brand-new Spanish glasses. Far to the west is an immense white monument which we cannot make out. But we feel sure, from the location and the book's description, that it is "Franco's folly," an "impossibly tall... overgrown, freakish edifice...The scale of the whole sorry, silly endeavor is such that when you first see it from afar you are rocked back in your seat." This is Franco's tomb, the "Valley of the Fallen." Our meager interest is satisfied by the wry comments of guidebooks and travelers. Jon removes his glasses and I try them on.

These replace his simple "readers" from home, which we shared and lost at the fabulous Prado Museum. A trio of phone calls had led to "No," "Maybe," and finally, "Yes, we have them! Come to such an office on such a corridor by such an entrance at such a time."  In the office we were cheerfully shown the glasses - drawers of them - of other tourists. So a few blocks from the Prado we had found an elegant same-day optician. "Sir, you need greater magnification than you are accustomed to; shall I do that?" "Si, por favor." They're too strong for me; I'd better hold on to mine. Segovia appears, at the train station, to be like many other compact European towns: a mix of the stony, convoluted old section with the diesel-blackened garish grid of new. Most of Old Segovia is perched atop a towering limestone rock. At one end is the home of the kings of Old Castille, the picture-book castle used by Disneyland and the '60s movie "Camelot": the alcazar, slate-turreted, overhanging a chasm and decorated with live peacocks. In the middle of the rock rises the Cathedral, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin and to Saint Frutos, and called "the last great masterpiece of the Gothic style," under construction from 1527 to 1768. There is no room for growth in Old Segovia between the Castle, the Cathedral and the domiciles almost astride the cobbled lanes and sharing limestone walls with one another. Up we go by taxi to our small "hanging" hotel, once a 13th-century palace. As a palace, and as a first-class hotel, it is modest and austere. Around our tiny tiled balcony, swifts by the dozens circle out and dip back to their nests in the cliff-face we share. Jon and I make a brief look around, inhale the air from our balcony, and marvel at the sensations foreign travel induces: juxtapositions of strangeness and familiarity, awe and comfort. Then further up the hill to the Cathedral.

Its huge front doors are open. Some flowers and ribbons are being placed among the pews for a wedding tomorrow. No priest, nun or layperson appears for prayers. Here, as in my familiar France, the native Christian piety is disappearing. I am sad: it is the eve of Pentecost.

We walk another ten minutes to a small, old, atmospheric and famous restaurant whose speciality, cochinillo (roast suckling pig), is guaranteed not to resist cutting with the edge of a dinner-plate. The addition of vegetables to cochinillo's territory is discouraged, but we Americans will have our braised leeks and ensalada mixta with every meal. The twenty-minute walk home will not suffice, at this normal Spanish after-dinner hour of 11:30 P.M., to digest such a meal, so we descend the navigable side of the limestone bluff to new Segovia and wander to the awesome second-century Roman aqueduct, about ten stories high and still without benefit of mortar. We sit on one of the benches provided around the cobbled plaza beneath it. The town, at midnight, is full of life and lights. The locals of all ages are out and about to stroll, chat and visit. It will be after 1 A.M. before we reach our aerie.

Saturday morning dawns discouraging. Feeling achy and out of synch with both worlds, I make myself say a few morning prayers when Jon goes downstairs for coffee, make myself slow down and hear them, make myself renew hope of finding the ancient Spanish piety. Breakfast of bread, jam and tea does not revive me, and I return to our room and fall into a two-hour nap from which I awake unrefreshed.

Although there are dozens of churches in Segovia, including some beautifully austere, tiny (unused) limestone Romanesques from the ninth to thirteen centuries, relics are "always" kept in the Cathedral, so it is there I must look. Its doors are just opening to a bus-load of tourists. Maybe later. Why bother? "Oh, Saint Frutos, I'm sorry! Help me!"

Early in the eighth century, Saint Frutos's sister Orosia became the first fruit of the arriving age of Christian martyrdom under the Moors. Another sister and a brother, Engratia and Valentin, were also martyred. Saint Frutos escaped this, and lived a hermitic but occasionally gregarious life in Segovia, where some relics of these latter three are reportedly kept.

We wander away from the jostling crowd, find a fabulous lunch, wander back. No one at the Cathedral is friendly. I fret outside, hardly daring to make the effort to go in and seek the Spanish connection to the earliest Church, which I fear I will not find. Jon sketches a doorway. I wander up an alley. "Saint Frutos, please: help me to fulfill what I promised, at least in effort." Jon catches up. "You want to go to the Cathedral now?" "Uh sure," My voice is tight. We came to Segovia just for this Cathedral and Saint Frutos. "You don't sound like you want to." "I do; but you're about to say you'll wait in a cafe." "Well, I'll go in with you. I'll be moral support. If you want to stay, I might go out." We wander in. I know what I seek, but not how to recognize it. It is very cold inside, in a rainy May, and the few locals wear wool coats and hiking shoes. The walls of the enormous sanctuary are pocketed with about eighteen chapels each locked behind an elaborate, tall metal fence, or "screen." They are dedicated to saints or to events in the life of the Saviour or the Holy Virgin, each with a huge raised stone slab table that appears to be an altar, and floored with more slabs, some with writing or figures worked on them, now nearly worn from their surfaces. We guess that the floor slabs are grave covers of those who commissioned the chapels. I would like to get into Saint Frutos' chapel to pray, but am at my worst proud shyness about my unpracticed Spanish, and cannot manage to frame either the right question or the question right, and again I am about to give up. With less Spanish than I have, Jon questions the Cathedral museum ticket-seller. Only I understand his answers; when I relay them, Jon frames the next right question using a pan-Euro accent on the English words and generous gesturing all around. A little strength is coming to my bones; my mood improves. Although he did not give the answers I sought, to thank the ticket-seller for his patience, Jon buys two tickets to the cloisters museum, about which nothing has been said and in which neither of us really has any interest. The small cloister-yard is uncared-for and choking with wan vegetation, crumbling stone and trash. We walk around the cloister-walk and into some museum rooms: lots of silver, big silver: crosses, chalices, candelabra and other church furnishings; some fine Medieval paintings; wood carvings; huge tapestries from cartoons by Rubens.

But here is something familiar: embedded in a potable triptych, altogether about two feet wide and as tall, at its highest point, are small circles of wax with tiny silver frames and something embedded in the wax: bone fragments. And stuck on the tiny frames, miniscule papers with foreign, illegible handwriting. A reliquary. I dig out my readers. I'm feeling much better. "S. Valerianni, mar.; S. Crescenty, mar.; S. Severus, mar; S. Clementis mart.; Sta Felicissima (very happy) mart." The beauty and age of the triptych, and the size of the fragments suggest that these are the original saints of each name. If only this one thing were not in a glary glass case, or on such a high antique sideboard. Even standing on tiptoe I cannot read more than these, and there are plenty more. I need more magnification: that silly plastic magnifier I carry to read ingredients in the market! No, hopeless - the plastic is wavy, and I can't get it close enough. What else do I have ... a tiny flashlight! Thank You, Lord. Stretching and craning, I make out a few more: "S. Celiani, m. In principio erat verbum; Ubertus, victorius; Tiburio et Candida, mart." The rest have handwriting that fits on a grain of rice. Mostly the rest are in the middle section and, I assume, are to be the most revered. I hold my glasses to the case and the pocket magnifier to my eye; switch places; zoom in and back, clutching the penlite. Jonathan is examining a beautiful Dutch-school Virgin and Child through his new glasses. I tiptoe over. "Hi, honey. May I borrow your glasses?" With a bemused smile at my handfuls of viewing paraphernalia, he hands them over. "Thanks." I grin, too. God is good. Combining the two sets of eyeglasses with the penlite, I can just make out, "S. Cosmas; S. Cyrill; S. Celia." I "know" these people, and several namesakes for each, and am refusing a blur of tears. "S. Modestiy; S. Celestiy; S. Vasil. S. IAGO."

This has been tiring work, simple as it is. As I rest, I am happy and gratified, and remember a saying, "God is in the details."

The small young woman who tends the museum, dressed in a shade of brown like most Spanish women, comes in again and points to a wide stone stairway. "One more room upstairs." Probably very few have gone overtime in this little room, nearly climbing the antique sideboard.

Jon decides to go to the cafe. I walk upstairs alone, with little enthusiasm. More big silver. Vestments two hundred years old. Papers signed and dated 1400. Busts... with windows in the chests. I move closer. They're behind glass in chest-high cabinets. In the little chest-windows are pieces of bone, many of them large and accompanied by tiny handwritten certificates of authenticity. On tiptoe and by flashlight I can read the top half of most of the names, beautifully Roman-lettered in gold. "Santa Ana, Madre de la Virgen." O Lord, I am undone. "Santa Catalina; Santa Ana Madalena. Three are patrons of my godchildren; one the childhood favorite of my eldest son: Apostle Bartholomew. Apostle Philip. My grandson's patron, the martyred Bishop Blaise. Saint Nicholas of Myra. Lord, have mercy. It is hard to breathe. I never guessed.

Standing before each, I write down their names and the names of dear ones I'm remembering to pray for. All along the periphery of the room, as I stop to speak wordlessly to each, I am very happy. The room is silent, empty. As I finish my second tour, I realize that the last two in the case, whose names I could not make out, are Saint Frutos and his sister Engratia. The bone fragments are very large, one a whole jawbone. The fraternal busts shine. Together, they probably helped plot my course to this moment. I can't help shedding a few happy tears; can't deny feeling that we rejoice together to meet and love one another, and to be alive together in Christ. A few people come in, day-trippers from Madrid. One saint, the first as you enter the room, is so close to the glass that I cannot see over the cabinet-frame to read his name. I ask one of the taller men to read it for me. "Saint" Iago...Apostol." He grins, and raises his eyebrows. It is the Patron-of-all-Spain, buried to the west at Compostella, once the most popular site of pilgrimage in all Europe, and heavily travelled even today. The Holy Apostle Iago: Yakov, Jacob, James.

Warmed, moved and a little tipsy from the experience, I head back downstairs. In the tapestry room I find the young docent, Carmen, and ask if she knows the stories of the less familiar saint upstairs. "No, that's not what I know, but..." She shows me what she does know: history, art and architecture, ecclesiastical treasures. As I listen, my Spanish returns; I persist in asking about the saints. She warms a little: Saint Frutos she knows. "Let me show you." She has spoken the words I longed to hear. We walk past the main altar area, enclosed in its screens, and the pews adorned for the wedding. At their back end is the choristry, nearly as large as the altar area, and also enclosed in screens. Back-to-back with the choristry is a final chapel, enclosed on three sides by 10-15 foot screens. Above its altar area, two statues flank a beautiful wood, silver and gilt container. They are of Saints Valentin and Engratia, with the head of Saint Frutos in the container between them. The three are always shown together; although the martyrs died at Sepulveda, their main relics are kept in Caballar. Carmen is unaware of Orosia, martyred a year before her siblings, whose relics are kept in Jaca, far to the north.

Saint Frutos is Segovia's patron, Carmen says; then makes several attempts to explain a feast day. I tell her I know, and know his is October 25. Astonished, she excitedly leads me to the eighteen-foot wooden doors of the side-chapel, where most services are held now, dedicated to the Holy Eucharist. Earlier, finding it closed like all the others, except by limestone walls and wooden doors, I had put my eye to the very large keyhole. We prepare to do so together now, but at the slight pressure the enormous door swings open. With raised brows and a smile of triumph, Carmen leads me in. It is warm in here. She points out the Baroque reredos and then two lifesize commemorative paintings, iconographic in subject but not in style. "Milagros..," she hesitates. Miracles. "Si, comprendo," I assure her. The left painting shows Saint Frutos dressed as a hermit. A deep ravine, "like the canyon of the Colorado," she says with bright humor, had opened between the Saint and the attacking Moors. By his prayers he had protected the people with him - like our Saints Herman and Vladika John had done centuries later. The painting on the right shows the Saint with a large crowd and a soft-eyed burro. The animal was suffering from hunger (this may have been during a siege), and the Saint, pitying him, offered the Bread of the Eucharist. The burro was too humble, and would not eat.

Carmen and I talk over upcoming services and times (none before my departure), and part company refreshed. I return to the screen before the marble reliquary and thank Saint Frutos from the depths, for he has brought me from the depths of fainthearted unbelief to a happy state of hopes more than fulfilled. On the mantel in Carmen's favorite room I leave a little note of thanks and an icon-pin of our Lord. I leave, a happy pilgrim, to join Jonathan at the cafe.