Two pilgrims journey to Santiago de Compostela

“Pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” are words that have become archaic in our modern world. Yet the life in Christ is a pilgrimage, a journey. At baptism we begin the journey with God, and it continues into eternity. A pilgrimage, then, is a journey that we take with Christ, a journey in which we are asked to step out in faith and trust. A pilgrimage means that we do not necessarily know the way and that we have to step out of the safety and comfort of the world, which we have created for ourselves. A pilgrimage also means that we open ourselves to Christ to be transformed and changed.

In northern Spain the Camino de Santiago is a trail that is a microcosm of the pilgrimage of life.The Camino leads to Santiago de Compostela, where a cathedral marks the tomb of St. James the Apostle. As early as A.D. 844, pilgrims began making the trek to Compostela to pray at the apostle’s tomb. By the Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims were walking the trail, including St. Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen. Today, thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino each year.

My wife, Martha, and I were nudged and called by the Holy Spirit to undertake the journey. It is probably the last thing either of us would have done. We are not campers, hikers, or outdoorsmen. Yet, in a journey to Spain in 2002, we began to be strangely beckoned by mysterious yellow arrows we saw painted on roads, rocks, and walls.

We flew out of Charleston on Easter Sunday afternoon this year. Our luggage consisted of two backpacks with the barest minimum of necessities. We also carried walking sticks, which proved to be our best friends. We took with us scallop shells from Charleston, which we wore on our backpacks. The shells, symbols of St. James, identified us as pilgrims.

After a day’s rest in Madrid, we took a train to Pamplona and a taxi up into Roncesvalles, a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. At Roncesvalles we presented our pilgrim’s passports, which were necessary certification for the trail, and were assigned a couple of bunk beds in a large stone building, our first experience of the “refugios,” or pilgrim’s hostels, along the trail. That evening we went to a Mass in the 13th century Colegiata Real Church that concluded with the pilgrim’s blessing.

The first night in a refugio begins a rapid erosion of privacy. The refugios are run by the state and are clean, but they generally are large coed rooms that offer only mattresses. There may or may not be hot water. We found ourselves sleeping in a large room with total strangers, most of whom did not speak English. The next morning we began the walk in the pristine beauty of the Pyrenees.

The first steps are, indeed, a step of faith. We had a guidebook that had the daily walk mapped out. The day’s walk is always dictated by the location of the refugios. The trail is marked with yellow arrows that are hand-painted on rocks, roads, and walls. The trail is mostly through rural areas but also goes through the cities of Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon.

The terrain varies from mountains to plateaus and plains. The temperatures ranged from 40 to 80 degrees, and our mileage each day ranged from 12 to almost 30. The trail is very, very difficult. One day we struggled to reach the top of a mountain, only to have to carefully tread down a steep rocky slope. Another day we literally slid down a hillside up to our ankles in mud. Each evening we wearily arrived at the refugios and gratefully removed our walking boots, only to limp to supper. However, the next morning a mystical energy stood us on our feet and once more set us on our way.

Hour after hour, we walked in complete silence. In the silence, God had no difficulty in getting our attention. One day, for example, in a very difficult descent, I was impressed that no longer could I consider things to be inconvenient. On a hot, dreary day,

I came to a new understanding of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The trail was the easiest when you could see your destination even kilometers away. The hardest part was to walk hour after hour with no civilization in sight. That is when St. Paul’s words about walking by faith and not by sight took on new and special meaning.

On the trail, all pretense and self-satisfaction quickly melts away. The artificial barriers with which we divide ourselves — denominations, economic standing, nationalities, and politics — vanish. Our fellow pilgrims were some of the most magnificent people we have ever met. Everyone on the trail is walking for the same reason: to become closer to Christ. Two Lutheran nurses from Sweden told us that they were walking so that they might have a more powerful and compassionate healing ministry. All in all, we met people from 18 countries. There were very few Americans. A majority of the pilgrims were older than we, and many of them were walking the trail in their retirement. When meeting others on the road the greeting was always “bon camino,” which means “good journey.”

The Spanish people along the trail are the most hospitable we have ever met. In many cases you are walking literally through their yards. They always spoke, and many asked for our prayers at the tomb of St. James. They were also there to point you along the way. One day an elderly woman offered freshly baked crepes to the pilgrims.

On the 28th day, after walking 348 miles, we reached Santiago de Compostela. We went immediately to the magnificent cathedral, which dates from the 11th and 12th centuries and stands on the site of an original 9th century basilica. In a passageway behind the high altar, pilgrims climb a stairway to hug the silver mantle of a 13th century statue of St. James. We then proceeded to the pilgrim’s office where they checked our stamped passports and awarded us our certificates or “Compostelas.” Needless to say, these are prized possessions. The next day we attended the pilgrim’s Mass, during which a list of those who arrived the day before was read. We were recognized as “two Americans who came from Roncesvalles.” Then, with the organ playing in full volume, we were thrilled to our souls as we watched seven men swing the huge thurible.

Some have asked what was the hardest part of the trail. Without a doubt, the hardest part of the journey is re-entry into a materialistic, self-centered, noisy, and frenetic society. The Christ who walks with you on the trail transforms you, and you simply are not the person you once were. Many things do not matter anymore. Many of the self-protective habits no longer exist. Above all, there is a profound sense of the constant presence of God. In a way, the Camino continues, for life is a journey which can offer many kinds of terrain. So the journey does continue, in the presence of the same Christ who walked with us on the Camino de Santiago.

Rev. Bailey is pastor of St. Johannes Lutheran Church in Charleston.