For the last three weeks I’ve followed the travels of a friend who is making the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela. Santiago sits in the far northwestern corner of Spain, and pilgrims have been going there since the 9th century. They’ve gone primarily to venerate the relics of the Apostle James, which are enshrined in the venerable 12th-century cathedral. But as often as not it’s the trip itself that has drawn pilgrims by the tens of thousands; and the tide shows no sign of letting up as we’ve entered the new century.
Several years ago the Spanish government caved into the popularity of this pilgrimage route and repaired and repaved the dangerous pathway that runs across the north of the country. In the middle ages the road was much longer, with four trailheads that began in the middle of France. Once in Spain the routes converged, only to split into northern and southern routes. Today scarcely anyone has the time to begin the journey in France, which is just as well since there likely is no road to follow. And today everyone takes the southerly route via León, which is still a challenge despite any modern amenities. Whether by foot or bike, the trip requires a major investment of time and energy, but at least it’s not dangerous like it was in the middle ages.
I confess that I’ve only done this pilgrimage by coach, so I’ve never had the blisters and aching knees that those who are truly pilgrims continue to enjoy. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to hear enough stories from bonafide pilgrims to appreciate what they go through en route.
First off, one naturally asks why anyone in their right mind would want to do this. Why take off weeks from a job or abandon a comfortable home just to tromp through crummy weather and a rugged and often lonely landscape? Well, there’s one reason I long ago crossed off the list. People do not make the trek to Santiago because they have nothing else to do. People who are addicted to the recliner in the den are the least likely candidates to do this. People who are chronically bored rank a close second. People who wonder what to do to fill up their day rank third. In short, almost all the people who walk to Santiago do so for a reason, and the non-adventurous need not apply.
Those reasons vary, of course. Some do it because they are at a crossroads in their lives and have to sort things out or do some serious soul-searching. Others go because they have lost someone dear to them. Still others go to mend fences or come to terms with broken relationships. And others do it for the sheer joy of testing their limits by walking several hundred miles. Can they do it without taking a week off at the spa?
A second important lesson about this pilgrimage is that one never travels alone. People may take their first cautious steps out onto the road, thinking they don’t know a soul. But within a mile or two people tend to link up and travel together. En route they share their stories, and soon enough therapy and camaraderie blur together. People begin to support one another; and as is the case with life, they sometimes move on to join new clusters of pilgrims, only to rejoin friends they had made a hundred miles earlier.
Pretty soon a pattern emerges, and the parallels to normal life start to emerge. Of course absent from all this walking is the busyness that crowds the daily routine at home. Shorn of trips to the mall and time spent at the office or in front of the television, the pilgrimage route tends to reduce life to its bare-boned basics. What the pilgrim soon confronts is the endless horizon, but in getting there each step counts for something.
Pilgrimage to anywhere is a metaphor for life in general and Christian life in particular. The nice thing about Santiago is that there’s a clear destination and a decently-marked trail to get there. One also has roughly some idea of how long it will take until arrival.
Unlike the road to Santiago, normal life isn’t quite so tidy. There are all sorts of uncertainties about destination and duration, and there may be lots of detours along the way. But in common with Santiago, how one gets there is all-important. Each step along the way counts for something.
Veterans of the road to Santiago all comment on the renewed appreciation for life that they’ve come home with. They’ve learned to savor the little things, which is one lesson that comes from miles and miles through endless fields and forests and mountains. And most of all, they come home with a renewed respect for their fellow travelers. On the road to Santiago there are no strangers, because everyone eventually becomes a fellow pilgrim, and together they walk the road with the Lord.
In a few days my friend will reach Sahagún, which is the site of a once-great Benedictine abbey. It was in Sahagún where I learned my last and best lesson from the pilgrimage. It was there that I met a young German woman who had decided to start her pilgrimage in Seville, far in the south of Spain. Nobody does the pilgrimage from Seville, because there is no hiking path from Seville. My first thought was that she must be crazy. Then I recalled the parable of the wedding banquet, when the host went out to the byways and invited any and all into the feast. That’s when I realized that this woman may have been eccentric, but she was a metaphor for the Church. Whether we start in Seville or Arles or in Barcelona, it is the Lord who will gather us in. And many other surprises will await us as well.
+On May 18th and 19th I attended the annual retreat of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, held at Saint John’s.
+On May 23rd Saint John’s Preparatory School held its graduation exercises in the abbey church.
+The pictures in today’s post were taken by Michael Becker, who photographed the recent ordination of Fr. Nick Kleespie as priest and Brother Lew Grobe as deacon, with Bishop Donald Kettler presiding. On May 24th Fr. Nick celebrated the Eucharist at his home parish in Morris, MN.
+Santiago Compostela was likely the most popular medieval shrine in Europe, after Rome itself. But it held no monopoly on pilgrimage, and many local and regional pilgrimage destinations emerged to entice visitors from near and far. In the gallery on the Cathedral of Chartres you will see samples of the sculpture and stained glass that dazzled visitors from France and beyond.