The Way of St. James of Compostella
Also known in Spanish as Camino de Santiago, or Le Chemin St. Jacques in French, it is a path that pilgrims from all over the world take to get to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia in northwestern Spain, to venerate the alleged relics of the Apostle Saint James the Greater, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. This ancient and well-known Christian pilgrimage dates back to medieval times. After being slightly forgotten, it regained its appeal among Christians and non-Christians.
It is known that after the death of Christ, James the Greater embarked in an evangelizing mission to Spain. On his return to Palestine and after violating the prohibition of the preaching of Christianity, he was beheaded during the reign of Herod Agrippa. According to tradition, his corpse was stolen by the disciples Athanasius and Teodoro and carried by boat back in Spanish lands. Years later, in 1077, a hermit called “Pelayo” who lived in Solovio, in the forest of Libredón, began to observe during the nights mysterious lights. He reported the discovery to the bishop, who went to that place and found that the light revealed the place where the three bodies of James the Greater and his disciples Teodoro and Anastasio were buried. Bishop Teodomiro visited the court of King Alfonso II of Asturias, to inform him of such phenomenal event. The monarch organized a trip to this site surrounded by its main noble. As he arrived to the “Star Field” (Compostela), he ordered the construction of a small church of Asturian style.
Since this time, it gets officially established the tomb of the apostle in that location, close to the Cape Finisterre, located at the western end of Europe. The path to Finisterre was indicated from anywhere in Europe by the stars of the “Milky Way.” Possibly these astronomical and geographical facts helped strengthen the magnetism that since then has resulted in millions of souls walking the pilgrim’s way.
During the eleventh century the influx of pilgrims to the tomb of St. James intensified, this triggered the construction of various routes; the French Way was one of the most popular and hospitable.
The Way of Saint James became even more popular during XII and XIII centuries. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago were the three most important pilgrimages during the middle ages. Rome gave the concession to pilgrims to obtain a plenary indulgence (complete remission of temporal punishment). The conditions for obtaining plenary indulgence are the following:
- Visit the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to the tomb of James the Greater.
- “Pray (at least the Creed, the Our Father and ask for the intentions of the Pope). It is recommended that you attend the Holy Mass
- Receiving the Sacraments of Penance and Communion, within the period between the fifteen days prior and subsequent to the visit to Santiago de Compostela.
During the fourteenth century, the pilgrimages were seriously diminished due to the black plague, and the emergence of Protestantism two hundred years later.
The pilgrim’s Way earned back its reputation in the last quarter of the twentieth century, mainly because of its spiritual value and inspiring significance.
In 1993 UNESCO declared the Camino de Santiago a World Heritage Site.
Most long-distance footpaths deliberately pass through ancient architectural masterpieces rich in art, history, and splendid landscapes. It also offers shelters named “refugios” with low rates per night.
In modern times pilgrims walk for many reasons, not only religious. What attracts them to the Way of St. James, is the combination of adventure, camaraderie and simplicity. A vast majority of them are not expert walkers; many choose to make the walk by sections every year.
Those Pilgrims who choose to take the French Way, which is the most popular path, start in Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, and end up in the town of Santiago de Compostela about 30 days later. As they pass from town to town, a stamp is placed on their passports as a proof of their arrival. Once they get to their final destination at the Cathedral of St. James of Compostella, they are awarded with a certificate of completion.
During my research and interviews, I discovered that this journey is not an easy endeavor, which takes planning, effort and perseverance. The majority of people that I interviewed had profound experiences while reaching their goal.
The following are some quotes about their experiences:
Insights of the Way of St. James by USF Professor Louis Marcus:
“I can’t imagine not doing this walk each year, as long as my body cooperates. I don’t know if I will ever reach Santiago de Compostela but in truth the Chemin itself is a worthy destination, the process more than the goal.”
I would characterized myself as a secular pilgrim since I am Jewish (and non-observant) and when I first started out on this I was curious and somewhat skeptical about the resurgence of interest in the Chemin over the past 50 years or so and especially in the last two decades during which the number of people taking to it each year has grown substantially. But even after a few days of the walk in 2012 I became very much aware of the spiritual dimension of this experience. Certainly I am moved by the beauty of the churches and chapels that I have encountered in the walk, but the spiritual aspect for me has perhaps more to do with what I experience in movement through the landscape, a heightened awareness of my place on the earth and of my relationship to it. And then there is the relationship to the past and to the millions of others who have walked this path for the past thousand years. Perhaps because I do the walk alone (and without a desire to do it with a group or even with one other person), the solitude allows for the emergence of a voice within myself that I tend not to hear when immersed in the city, one which asks questions about my relationship to the world and to others and which reflects on my past and what has brought me to the exact place and moment of the present. When on the Chemin I have thought of Spinoza’s concept of God (for which he was excommunicated) that rather than being a singular entity as in monotheistic religions, God is infused in everything around us, the fields, the trees, the rocks, the animals, and human beings. The Chemin for me is an antidote to the anthropocentric conception of the world that is encouraged by the busyness of our lives, the notion that human beings are at the center of the world and that nature is an instrument of our desires, something to be mastered. I find it a humbling experience perhaps because every day on the path I am aware of the effort and limitations of my body, my vehicle. So I must know when to take rests along the way, or how to treat (or better yet avoid) blisters, and how to keep moving a bit in spite of the fatigue in order to arrive at the night’s destination, that becomes such an object of longing as the sun moves lower in the sky. (In fact I found myself after a few days gauging the time of day more from the position of the sun than from looking at my watch.) A profound sense of well-being and freedom comes from the knowledge of how little one really needs to be satisfied in this world, that everything I need to survive is contained in the pack that I carry on my back (around 6-7 kilograms). Admittedly, I am not a pauper on the trail and I would no doubt experience great anxiety if I did not have an ATM card in my wallet and some cash to carry me through the minimal daily purchases of food and the minimal cost of a bed at the pilgrims’ refuges each night.
The following are some poems, paitings and photographs by Stan Loper and Virginia Larrea during their journey on the Way of St. James of Compostella.