On our first night in Spain, in the village of La Seu D’Urgell high in the Pyrenees, hubby and I stumbled upon a local festival (where those devil robes would have come in handy, but that’s another post) and managed to sit next to one of the few English speakers in town. Over dinner he asked, “Tomorrow I walk the Camino. Do you know it?”
The Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St. James in English) is a pilgrimage walk to the tomb of the apostle St. James in Santiago de Compostela and it’s been on my bucket list since I first learned of it. We weren’t planning to make the walk this trip—it’s 500 miles and takes at least a month—but I made sure we ended up in Santiago de Compostela at the end of our time in Spain so I could experience the cathedral and witness pilgrims celebrating their arrival. (You know I love the quirky side of our faith, and I figured Santiago was an easier sell to hubby than St. Theresa’s uncorrupted arm in Avila.)
I was surprised to hear our new friend ask about the Camino—I was eagerly anticipating Santiago de Compostela and felt a little wistful to be so close but not actually walking–but I didn’t expect to hear about the Way so far from it’s actual path. What I didn’t know was that we would cross paths with the Way at almost every turn.
Tradition holds that St. James (Santiago is St. James in Spanish) went to the Iberian peninsula after the crucifixion and founded a Christian community there. When he returned to the Holy Land, he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa, the first of the twelve to be martyred. His remains were brought back to Spain by an angel (accompanied by some of the disciples) and, after performing some miracles, including defeating a pagan queen by taming her wild bulls, was buried in a pagan temple which was consecrated as a Christian cathedral. When the Moors came to destroy the site in the 700’s, the bishops hid the relics of St. James and, in a move I recreate each year with Christmas gifts, promptly forgot where they hid him. Fast forward to the 9th century, when a hermit named Pelagius was directed by a field of stars to James’ remains, and the pilgrimage site was born. The well-worn route from St. Jean Pied du Pont in France (and some offshoots) is marked with the symbol of St. James, the seashell, in yellow on a blue field.
And I saw those shells everywhere. In Toulouse, France, where we revisited hubby’s old semester-abroad haunts, I read that the cathedral had been a place of refuge for early pilgrims headed toward the Camino. Our stay in San Sebastian was to be pure vacation, a couple of days on the beach and evenings filled with pinxos and sangria, but there was the shell on a signpost outside our hotel. Driving into the little fishing village of Luarca, 100 miles north of the main Camino route, we encountered backpacked pilgrims and the now ubiquitous shell. We had stumbled upon the Camino del Norte—all roads lead to Santiago, it seemed.
I felt like a bit of a cheat. Here I was, traversing these age-old routes but instead of pilgrim sandals, I was traveling on Michelins. I slept in climate-controlled luxury and ate like a prince when for centuries pilgrims endured the elements, wild animals (not just crazed pagan bulls) and the ever-present threat of robbers on the road. While these serendipitous brushes with the Way only increased my desire to walk it as a pilgrim, they also made me reflect on the nature of a pilgrimage. Could the metaphorical walk we make in our everyday life be seen as a pilgrimage?
In the dictionary, it says a pilgrimage is a journey made for a religious purpose. Well, aren’t we all on a journey from our baptism, to our death, and hopefully on to heaven? We can’t all walk the Way of St. James, but didn’t Jesus say that He is the Way? Aren’t we called to leave our comforts and do the hard work it takes to follow Him? But instead of hauling a pack for hundreds of miles on aching feet, we are called to love and forgive until it hurts. Maybe the key is to look at our whole life as a pilgrimage, to be open to the signs that keep us on the path and follow God’s way for us. It’s not always a comfortable path, but it’s certainly easier on the feet.
See you on the Camino,
Check out our Instagram feed for a video of the 5-feet-tall thurible (that’s a swinging incense diffuser) in the Santiago cathedral in action! www.instagram.com/yallblog