The Camino de Santiago

The year 44 a.d. is a memorable year for Christians; it was the year that the first of the apostles of Jesus Christ was to die a martyr.   This first of Apostle-Martyrs was St. James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, one of the so called “sons of thunder”.    James had, following the Ascension of Christ, carried the Gospel to Spain (not Spain at that time, but for simplicity sake…), following Jesus’ command that the Gospel should be spread to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).  James returned to Jerusalem for the first council in the Church’s history, but he was not to return to Spain in a mortal life.  As the Acts of the Apostles tells us: “about that time Herod the King laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church.  He killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2).  After his death, James’ co-workers and disciples took his body to Spain and buried it in the northwest part of the country.  The body however was with time forgotten, even though the church of Spain knew that James was its father, the man who had brought them the Gospel.   It wasn’t until the 9th century that his body was miraculously rediscovered, a hermit in the area saw a light emanating from a field nearby, which led him to the discovery of the tomb.  Since then, the place was known as Compostela – a derivative of the Latin campus stellae – meaning the field of the star.

Ever since that time, Santiago has become one of the three primary pilgrimage sites for Christians, in truth, third only to Jerusalem and Rome.   St. James was not only an apostle, he was a member of the inner circle within the Apostles, that of Peter, himself and John.  Jesus took these three with him at key moments in his life, where he left the other 8 apostles behind: at the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:51), at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28), and as he sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).   James, as a man who personally saw the glory of Jesus (John 1:14), along with his sufferings, is truly one of the foundation stones of the Church built by Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:20, Revelation 21:14). 

What makes the Camino so special in my own mind, and in some ways a greater pilgrimage than going to Rome or Jerusalem (although I recommend all three) is what it demands of the pilgrim.  Today, many “pilgrims” going to Rome or Jerusalem have the best of intentions, but nevertheless, it becomes all too easy to make the pilgrimage into an American style vacation.  Fine hotels, air conditioned buses, souvenir shopping and of course little excursions to resort towns are all too easy to justify.  In the midst of such activities however, one feels less and less like someone on pilgrimage and more like a sight-seer; and let me assure you that there is a profound difference.  I have been in many Cathedrals in Europe where crowds of tourists meander all through the church taking pictures, walking in sacred spaces seemingly oblivious that anything could possibly be “sacred”, and even taking pictures of me – someone praying, as if I were a member of a race they thought extinct.  “Look honey – an actual Christian!! I didn’t think there were any left.”   Such people are amazed by the beautiful architecture, the magnificent art, and the small towns that built disproportionately large churches, yet they tragically know nothing of the faith, hope and love which was the beating heart behind it all, and has (in many places) since stopped beating.  For them, these churches are artifacts, interesting historical monuments of a bygone culture; no longer living sanctuaries of meaning which surround a believer, and speak to him of the love and truth which transcend us, and can come only from God.  

Amazingly, such a spirit is even found on the Camino, but it is less likely for a Christian to fall prey to it.   The Camino is a route which traverses its way across northern Spain from east to west (although there are other routes).  Unlike Rome or Jerusalem, Santiago remains a destination particularly designed to be arrived at on foot, by pilgrims who have walked great distances.   This is what makes the Camino so unique and so great; the one who walks it spends most of his time on dusty, hot roads – with aching feet, a heavy backpack, and a little espresso to warm his heart and his faith.  Pilgrimage is undertaken to undergo penance for one’s sins, and to grow in the love of God, not for photo ops, post cards and trinkets to bring home to the family.  

As many of you have heard me preach before, the first name for Christianity was Hodos, which means the Way; in Spanish that word is Camino.   Life is meant to be a pilgrimage, and today, people might be walking but they have long since given up on any real destination, there is no goal they say, only walking, and hence no real pilgrimage.  You and I are different, we wake up with hope in our hearts and faith in our bones, we know there is a destination and that destination gives purpose to our footsteps and our blisters, it fills our minds with images of rest and joy, and it binds us together.  We don’t judge those who walk aimlessly, but we know that we are different from them, and we hope that they will someday join in our pilgrim fellowship. 

The culmination of our little pilgrimage was of course in Santiago itself.  My heart warmed as we reached the city, and we silently walked through its streets to the place where an apostle of the lamb was buried so long ago.  That day was a Sunday, and the mass we celebrated in the Cathedral of St. James was, I think, the most beautiful mass I have ever been privileged to be at.  No one who had not shared in the sufferings of the walk could appreciate the joys of the arrival, and the shared worship of the God who had brought us there.   Four of my brother priests from the Companions of Christ celebrated the mass with me, and thirty of our fellow pilgrims sat in a stunning chapel with us as we offered the sacrifice of the savior on the altar.  The only word which could describe such a moment was communion; communion with each other, but a communion flowing from the communion flowing from God himself.  The singing arising from the hearts of our fellowship and echoing in that chapel was beautiful beyond words; I thank God for that moment which passed all too quickly.

That mass was a foretaste of what heaven will be like.  As we worship the Triune God in eternity, we will look around not at strangers, but with those we have come to love as we suffered together on the way.