The Way

Last Sunday afternoon, Lorrie and I attended a sold-out performance of The Way at the Ojai Playhouse. This venerable movie house, in more or less continuous operation since 1914, opened, in what was then Nordhoff, as The Isis; presciently, its first screening was The Valley of the Moon based on the Jack London novel. Three years later, in a paroxysm of xenophobia as World War One drew to a close, the City Fathers (with the collusion of the U.S. Senate) changed the name of their town to Ojai, a colonial phonetic spelling of the Chumash word for the moon (New Moon).

Sometime in the Spring of 1981, the theater was showing The Great Santini, and by then was called The Glasgow Playhouse in honor of its owner Wayne Glasgow. I attended a showing of this melodrama, based on Pat Conroy's novel and starring Robert Duvall during my first evening in Ojai (Where Native Meadows Come From). By the time we arrived in town many years later to live on Blanche Street (while our house was being built in Upper Ojai) the theater was owned by Mark and Kathy Hartley who had purchased it from Glasgow's successor, Khaled Al-Awar; but overextended after the real estate crash in 2008, and after they had financed a major renovation, the Hartley's recently handed ownership back to Al-Awar.

The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez is a family affair starring Emilio's father Martin Sheen. It tells the story of four peregrinos who undertake the walk from Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santaigo de Compostela in Northern Spain along Saint James' Way, a traditional Christian pilgrimage route for at least a thousand years. Lorrie had visited Galicia forty years ago and was anxious to see the film while I was interested because the destination of the pilgrimage is a part of a visionary geography - the name Compostela being derived from the Latin Campus Stellae, field of stars. Saint James' Way spoke to me not as a Christian pilgrimage route but as a far older, spirit path.

Compostela owes its fame to a reputed apparition and the consequent discovery of the remains of St. James. With the Virgin Mary's blessing, the apostle James left Jerusalem after the death of Jesus, crossed the Mediterranean, and arrived at Tarragona on the east coast of Spain, just west of Barcelona. He is believed to have failed as an evangelist, but in 39 AD the Virgin Mary, although still alive in Jerusalem, appeared to Saint James in Zaragoza, in the first recorded Marion apparition. Four years later, James returned to the Holy land and was summarily be-headed by King Agrippa I. (Acts 12:1-2)

His corpse is said to have been brought to Galicia on a rudderless boat by his disciples (with an angel of the Lord as their pilot) and, after many mishaps, miraculous escapes, the help of a pagan, she-wolf Queen (La Reina Lupa), the taming of wild oxen, the killing of a fire-breathing dragon and at least one guiding star, the body was finally laid to rest in a field alongside the Queen's fortress.

There the body moldered, forgotten for almost eight hundred years, until a hermit saw angels who announced the coming discovery of the tomb. Some days later shepherds noticed an area of pasture illuminated by a strange glow. At that spot a marble chest containing a headless skeleton was discovered and identified as the remains of St. James and it was here that a small community of monks was established who formed the nucleus of the future settlement of Compostela.

None of this made it into the movie but these legends are braided into the folk history of Galicia and form the back-story to Santiago de Compostela's rise as the most significant pilgrimage destination in Europe. There is likely a far older, pre-Christian source for the spiritual resonance experienced along Saint James' Way, Santiago de Compostela and the rocky coast of Finisterre to the west. The pilgrimage route follows a far more ancient ritual road, along a spirit path tracing the arc of the sun, traveling east to west, and ending at the Atlantic on what the Galicians call the Costa del Muerte (Coast of Death), long considered to be a gateway to the afterlife - L. Finis Terrae, the end of the world.

Saint James was resurrected to serve as a locus of Christian identity around which the Iberian tribes could coalesce in their resistance to the Moorish conquest of their homelands early in the eighth century; ironically, the outlying Galicians remained largely untouched by islam, cherishing their Celtic ancestry and its nature based spirituality lightly overlain by a still Pagan-influenced Christianity. Now these traditions are all melded in the vastly popular pilgrim experience of traveling The Way.

In the Celtic tradition, witches and warlocks controlled the shamanic practice of gathering information from the spirit world and using it for good or ill in the temporal realm. Both the witch and the shaman were said to traverse the bridges of Otherworlds. They celebrated the seasonal changes of equinox and solstice in stone circles or in calibrated cave openings (Space and Practice II). But despite the universal underpinnings of shamanic practice and its survival in many parts of the world, the brutal extirpation of the Chumash peoples by the Franciscans and their Spanish military enablers, has entirely destroyed the local traditions of ley lines, vortices (power places) and spirit paths that might have created a more profoundly geo-centric cultural and spiritual gestalt in this region of California (Burn Notice).

We have forgotten the power of place. Unlike the Celtic cultures of Europe, the tribes of North America rarely constructed temples. To them the land was the sacred temple. They sourced etheric hotspots on the land, and their locations were passed on through oral tradition or perhaps were indicated by cryptic petroglyph markings. There is little record of California's sacred sites, spirit paths or places of power. In Chumash territory, Harrington is our last connection to a remembered, sacred past.

Those who currently identify as neo-traditional Chumash have no living-link with their shamanic history, but the ethnographic record establishes that Point Conception served as a portal to the Chumash after-life, Mount Pinos was the center of the Chumash world and that locally, Kahus (Black Mountain) is of geomantic significance. We know that there was a sprit path heading north straight through the hills behind Muwu (Point Mugu) and that there was a ritual and trade route up through the mountains to the Carrizzo Plain.

The tradition of building 'rainbow bridges' between sacred places is as old as myth, but looking for these lost paths in a rivened land where freeways follow economic and political exigencies rather than meridians of etheric energy poses extraordinary challenges. We do not know enough to understand exactly where these paths were trod and under what etheric influence they were pioneered. There are doubtless many 'Ways' in Southern California, but they have faded into the chaparral or been buried under asphalt and concrete.

We are pilgrims lost in a profane world, where the shards of sacred sites, and ancient geomantic, astronomical, and ritualistic alignments are hidden in a broken landscape.