One of the friends I walked with was a knowledgeable and devout Catholic who later entered religious life. Talking to him – with little interruption – all day all day, every day for thirty days allowed for lot of opportunities to ask questions and enter discussion and debate.
There is great value in total immersion in a slower and more natural pace of life, and in frequent encounters with holy places. – Niall Gooch
The camino – directly translated from Spanish, “camino” means “the way” – has become extremely well-known over the last couple of decades, attracting pilgrims from all over the world and from many different backgrounds. In 2018, about 327,000 pilgrims were recorded as arriving in Santiago by the city’s Office of Pilgrims. This year, of course, things will be very different.
I remember reading a complaint a few years ago that the Catholic nature of the undertaking is becoming diluted by people walking the route to find themselves, or to reconnect with nature, or as another long-distance footpath.
Back in 2003, I didn’t notice this. Most people we met had a Christian motive or background. I recall meeting a man who had begun his camino in Belgium, meaning that by the time he reached our start point of St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenées, he had already covered about 700 miles. He told us about a scheme in Belgium whereby young offenders could opt to walk the camino instead of serving a prison sentence, which sounds to me like an excellent idea, with a pleasingly medieval flavour, as William Cash notes in the third part of his Canterbury Tale series on these pages.
The established origins of the cult of St James in Spain are somewhat murky. It is said that he undertook missionary work in the country in the very first decade after the Resurrection, the 30s and 40s AD. There is also a wonderful story, which I first heard over dinner in the Spanish city of Burgos, in which the relics of the St James were flown to Spain by angels in a stone boat after his martyrdom in Jerusalem around the year 44. Later, we have the fantastical tale of his appearance at the head of a Christian army fighting the invading Islamic armies in the early medieval era, hence the tradition of Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor-slayer.
These legends are, of course, rather fanciful: the battle of Clavijo at which St James is said to have appeared does not even appear to be an historical event. Nevertheless, that is not really the point. There is great value in total immersion in a slower and more natural pace of life, and in frequent encounters with holy places. There are magnificent churches and cathedrals along the various routes to Santiago, not simply the spectacular Gothic masterpieces like Leon and Burgos, but smaller, quirky locations like the unusual octagonal chapel at Eunate near Pamplona.
I was comforted too by the knowledge that we were following in the footsteps of countless fellow believers from centuries past. – Niall Gooch
I was comforted too by the knowledge that we were following in the footsteps of countless fellow believers from centuries past; this is where the power of the pilgrimage lies. It’s impossible not to be moved when you look at, say, the stained glass of Leon Cathedral, and reflect on the intertwining of history and faith.
I’d like to go back to the camino (possibly with my children – I recently read of someone who was doing it in parts with his children, one at a time). Just the other day, clearing out the garage, I came across my old cockle shell, the traditional symbol of pilgrims to the tomb of St James. It was tied to the top of my walking stick for every one of our 28 days on the road from St Jean to Santiago. Immediately I felt again that old sense of connection to all those other Christians down through the ages, who now rejoice with us, as an old Anglican prayer has it, “upon another shore and in a greater light”.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also writes for Unherd.
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