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Grit your teeth for the Way of St James

Young pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (CNS photo from Reuters)

Zen practitioners refer to sitting in meditation as zazen. In Japanese, the word literally means, “just sitting”. That is, doing nothing else but sitting. Waiting. Shedding the unnecessary. Allowing the world to re-order itself into its most simple form.

Remembering that little fact did me little good as I trudged through the forests and cities of northern Spain on the St James Way a few weeks ago in the rain and the blistering heat, avoiding hostile guard dogs, constantly searching for dry socks, potable water and modern toilet facilities, looking for Spaniards who could speak English sufficiently to answer my questions and, above it all, cursing the day I started out on this miserable, seemingly interminable walk to a church in the middle of nowhere. And throughout the entire time just walking, nothing else.

There was simply no time to pray or anything else as I walked the Way of St James. I thought it would have been a lot easier to pray while I walked but I soon learned differently. I was more concerned with finding those infernal hard to locate, and even harder to trust, yellow arrows that supposedly lead you to Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral; the ultimate aim of all who walk the Way. Many of the arrows were woefully inaccurate. Some, I’d swear, were painted with the intent to mislead hapless pilgrims as some led straight to very expensive hotels rather than inexpensive refugios.

The Way of St James or, in Spanish, El Camino, like all other pilgrimages, starts at one’s front step no matter where you are on the face of the planet. It is a 1,200-year old pilgrimage to the shrine of St James the Apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Many Britons know of the pilgrimage from Brian Sewell’s profound and comical The Naked Pilgrim which was produced for Five. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is where they separate the pilgrims from the boys.

The Way has been one of the most important Christian pilgrimages through the history of Christian Europe and remains a vibrant expression of the Faith in modern times. Over 100,000 pilgrims from over 100 countries walk the route every year. Most people, however, start somewhere in northern Spain close to the French border.

For the pilgrimage to “count,” the last 100 kilometers (61 miles) must be done on foot. One can also choose to bike or ride a horse or donkey for the last 120 miles instead. I suspected my horse wouldn’t fit in the overhead compartment and I left my donkey in my other jacket so those weren’t really possibilities.

Scripture teaches us that St James, one of Christ’s first disciples, was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of John the Apostle. The Gospel of Mark calls James and his brother John, Boanerges, or the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) James, John and Peter were the only three Apostles to witness Christ’s Transfiguration. The Acts of the Apostles states that Agrippa I had James executed (Acts 12:1-2) which made him the first of the Apostles to be martyred, in AD44. Tradition teaches that his relics were miraculously translated to Galicia in northern Spain. Whenever St James’ feast day (July 25) falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the Church declares a Holy or Jubilee Year. Depending on the eccentricities inherent in the solar calendar, such a Jubilee Year can happen every five, six or 11 years. This year is a Holy Year as are 2021, 2027 and 2032. 200,000 pilgrims are expected to walk the Way.

Pilgrims must acquire a document called the credencial, or “pilgrim’s passport,” which they can pick up at a tourist agency, their local church, refugios and tourist offices. Outside Spain, credencial can be had at an El Camino association in one’ home country. At every town, shrine or refugio along the way, the pilgrim gets a stamp proving they’ve spent the night there. It not only offers the pilgrim a record of their travels but it can also allow, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in refugios. The completed, stamped credentials is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a Compostela, a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage. To earn the Compostela a pilgrim needs to walk a minimum of 62 miles. Cyclists must cycle at least 124 miles. It’s not uncommon for people to walk little bits of the Camino every year and thus piece together a compete pilgrimage.

Traditionally, there are several common routes to the Santiago Cathedral. I chose the French Way, (la via Francese) the route across the Cantabrian coast, to make my way to the Santiago de Compostela. The French Way is considered a rugged hike but it passes through all of the cities in which I was lecturing, including San Sebastian, Bilbao and Oviedo. The route also gave me the opportunity to visit Ávila.

In 1884 Pope Leo XIII accepted the authenticity of the relics at Compostela in his Bull of Omnipotens Deus though the Vatican remains uncommitted as to the identity of the relics. But the exact provenance of these revered bones is not the point of the Compostela. The point of any pilgrimage is not simply moving through time and space from Point A to Point B in order to collect a coupon at the final destination. Rather, it is a crucible in which one sheds attachments to the material world. It is a state of being in which one concentrates only on loving mercy, acting justly and walking humble, with thy God. It is a period of intense prayer in which one reconnects with what it means to be Christian.

A gallimaufry of languages can be overheard on the Way including Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, Portuguese and German. Spanish and English are the linguae francae by which pilgrims communicate amongst themselves. All of Christendom is present on the Way in a magnificent paroxysm of camaraderie, and charity and friendships form easily on the road to Santiago. Not everyone one meets on the Way is a pilgrim nor is everyone a Catholic. Surprisingly, not everyone is even Christian. While on the Way, I met Ali, a Moroccan who was born a Muslim but who found himself drawn to Christ during his time living in Spain. He spoke slowly and seemed to smile perpetually as if he were privy to a beautiful secret we was eager to share with everyone, or maybe because he had suddenly realised something he had suspected all along. He planned to make official steps towards converting to the Church when he completed the Way.

Despite the pain, apprehension, confusion and self-doubts, as soon as I saw the spires of St James Cathedral, I was transfixed. All the frustration, the anguish, the mind-numbing tedium and thoughts of my annoying blisters were swept away. I walked 125 miles to get here and all I felt was overwhelming joy and relief. I made my way to the cathedral and sat on the ground before the reliquary which held the remains of St James below the cathedral’s high altar. A flood of the memories I had accrued for the previous 10 days washed over me along with every conceivable emotion.

And there I had the time to just sit. To think. That is, I did nothing else. I just sat. Waiting. Shedding the unnecessary. Allowing the world to reorder itself into its most simple form… and then, understanding.

All of the problems that preoccupied me along the Way fell to the wayside. The sometimes bizarre fellow pilgrims, the loneliness that sometimes enveloped me, every imaginable (and some beyond belief) ache and pain which had plagued me while walking the Way were all forgotten. All I could remember were the extraordinary natural and architectural sights I saw along the Way, the fleeting but exquisite moments of prayer and, above it all, my encounters with sincere, generous, kind, compassionate and holy people along the Way. Life is different now. I feel it.

The St James Way is a living metaphor for the hellish pains and struggles one can experience here on earth, the cleansing and healing of purgatory and the exquisite ecstasy of heaven. As I sat in the midst of this enormous, rejoicing crowd of God’s children gathered from all corners of the earth, speaking dozens of languages, united in the Mass, I felt transported. Words fail to accurately describe the experience of being in the middle of this press of flesh in the Cathedral. By any accounts, it should be perfect bedlam and yet here, love and faithfulness have met and righteousness and peace have embraced (Psalm 85:10). Having shared a common, joyfully gruelling experience, pilgrims come to a renewed sense of being in love with Christ and that love flows unrestrained unto those around us. Like Dante, we’ve traversed hell and purgatory in order to get to heaven.

The Way is like any pilgrimage; there is both a physical and spiritual aspect to it. This is reflected in Christian theology of the intimate connection between the body and the soul. Changes in one are reflected in changes in the other, which is why the Church recommends fasting and abstinence. Walking the St James Way is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before and nothing can spiritually prepare you for it. It will be singularly the best experience of your life, one that will surely comfort you as you reflect upon it afterwards once you’ve returned home.