To Kneel Where Others Have Knelt

At the tomb of the apostle St. James the Greater—a silver-covered coffin at the heart of the cathedral in Santiago in Spain—one may kneel, but it isn’t comfortable or in any way fancied up. There’s a narrow staircase down, then a slightly wider spot where, to one side, is a short passage to the coffin. But a gate prevents entering the passage. The one who kneels has old stones under his knees, nothing else. I saw cards that people had pushed under the gate towards the tomb. A woman was doing that while I was there, her arm reaching in as far as it could, her fingers trying to fleck her little card a little closer. Tears marked her face. Behind us, an old man stood with his cane, looking straight ahead at the sacred remains. He said nothing. He didn’t move. He was as much a statue as anything, himself a testimony to the significance of the place.

T. S. Eliot wrote a few lines about a similar place in an out-of-the-way corner of England. To get there is not to go to a fancy place: “you leave the rough road / And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade / And the tombstone.” Yet it is a place where a pursued king once stopped to pray, a place where a community lived and served the poor, a place where education and hospitality had been offered—and still are. Nicholas Farrar is associated with the place. So it’s worth visiting. I got there, once, by taking a plane, then a train, then a bus, and then I walked with my suitcase often in my arms through a few miles of country roads and muddy fields. One arrives. One enters. One kneels. (See “Little Gidding,” around line 30.)

At Santiago in 2024, and in the approach to Santiago, today it seems one finds more longing and less touristing than one might expect. The cathedral itself has done little in the way of trying to make itself attractive to the visitor. There is no piped-in music, for instance. Still people wander, slowly, from shrine to shrine and altar to altar. They are kneeling. They are visibly longing. Something hurts, something is desired, and there is a sense that behind the old statuary and stone mesas for sacrifice there is something available that can help—no, not “something,” but Someone.

Oh, it could be nothing but my fancy. Yet I think I see it in Dallas too, in New York, even in corners of my own heart: an awakening. Is it possible that people are rediscovering, in the ruins of modernity, the only true answer? that we are coming to understand Augustine who wrote, more than one thousand six hundred years ago, a line of enduring truth? “Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee”—in God.


    Out & About: Trinity Sunday, May 26, I am to preach at the 9 and 11:15 a.m. services at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Dallas.

    The following Sunday, June 2, at 5 p.m., the next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be at St. Matthew’s. We will discuss Klara and the Sunby Kazuo Ishiguro, and anyone who has read the book is welcome to participate. (You can come if you haven’t read it, but we will ask you to keep silence.) The seminar runs to 6:30 p.m.

The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: