One Man’s Pilgrimage

Part One: The Outer Pilgrim

When I arrived home from Spain the other day, it occurred to me that perhaps you would like to read about some of my recent experiences as a peregrino (pilgrim) walking for 14 days on the Camino de Santiago. Let me tell you a bit about the Camino itself and a few of my less than holy experiences.

Just as we today have a passion for historic churches and well-preserved ancient sites, sometimes conferring on them a mystical and healing power, so also the people of the middle ages had a passion for religious relics. The medieval church was obsessed by the imminence of the Second Coming. One of the surest means by which forgiveness and a place in the heavenly kingdom could be obtained by a person was by contact with the saints who could intercede for him or her. If the saint was a martyred apostle, then better still.

In the early 9th century, the gravesite of the apostle James was discovered near the west coast of Spain, north of what is now known as Portugal, a place that came to be known as Santiago de Compostela (St. James in a starry field). There is some scant evidence that James had earlier preached in Spain, and that his followers had returned his beheaded body there for burial. What is said to be the remains of James now lie in a crypt below the main altar of the cathedral in a casket of white gold.

As a pilgrimage site, Santiago soon became a destination of choice. At the height of its popularity in the 11th and 12th centuries, over half a million people a year are said to have made the pilgrimage from different parts of Europe. Soon after that, though, changes in the theological and political climate caused the stream to turn into a trickle and finally, to cease.

The second half of this century has seen a resurgence of interest in the Camino on which five to ten thousand pilgrims a year now tread. Just as the ancient hospitales welcomed medieval pilgrims, modern refuges built by various support groups have sprung up to house the pilgrims along they way as they seek shelter at night. The main route begins at Roncevalles (France) in the Pyrenees and continues some 800 kilometers westward to Santiago.

With a party of three other gay men, my shortened route began west of León, some 170 miles east of Santiago. It required 13 days of walking. Besides a backpack, we each carried a credencial, a kind of passport which is stamped at each refuge as well as in city halls and churches along the way. Although our party of four stopped the same place each night, we each walked our own pilgrimage, which is to say we felt it was a good idea not to walk together during the day, but to give ourselves over to our own thoughts and prayers. Mostly a old Roman road, the Camino west of León seeks out the small Celtic villages along the way. Much of it is just footpath, and other parts of it parallel unimportant rural auto roads. Sometimes, though, it’s tough going on the mountain trails. And, to be honest, most of these roads were also cowpaths, so I did become thoroughly sick of having what I came to call Ca-ca de Baca on my boots!

Part Two: The Inner Pilgrim

“A pilgrimage? But why?” That was my first incredulous question to my friend of forty years, a question that was motivated by his invitation to join with him and two other men on a two week journey as pilgrims. To be sure, it was hardly unusual for my friend Bob and I to go trekking off somewhere. In fact we had just returned from Mexico where we had been poking around on the floor of Copper Canyon. But still, what exactly was a pilgrimage, and of what possible spiritual benefit could it be?

Yet I was unaccountably fascinated with the possibility, I began to do a little research, but that didn’t really help my initial skepticism. In my haughty persona as an intelligent, mature 20th century Christian, I scoffed at what I saw as the superstitions that had compelled millions of ignorant medieval souls to make the perilous journey. After all, I didn,t believe that journeying to the site of holy relics, in this case the bones of an Apostle, would cause the gates of heaven to open wider for me. In my smug, closed theology I was certain that to do that was to do vain works, and I knew that it was unearned grace, not vain works that would propel me into the presence of a loving God.

Still, I agreed to go. As the time drew near to leave, my friends would ask my motivations and, so as not to appear stupid, I conveniently invented some. “Oh,” I would say, “as I head into retirement, I’m seeking God’s will for the next phase of my life.” The lie became so facile I even began to believe it myself. Yet God’s mercy was already at work, for as I announced my imminent departure, many people urgently asked for my prayers. One person whom I knew only casually placed a treasured necklace into my hands and asked me to carry it on my journey and to have it blessed in Santiago de Compostela. What was going on here anyway?

I thought of my haughtiness the first evening out. Our group of four had walked with packs on our backs about twelve or fourteen miles during the only brutally hot day of the journey. My feet hurt! We had lost the way once. To top it off, that peculiar Spanish tradition of a late dinner hour meant that four very hungry pilgrims couldn’t even find a place that served food until after 9 p.m. Was this discomfort and inconvenience what a pilgrimage was all about?

In a word, no. For as the days stretched into other days, we soon fell into a routine that allowed a comfortable spiritual space. We would meet for breakfast, then hold a short, informal prayer service. Then, one by one, we would leave each other’s company to walk the day’s journey alone with our own reflections and prayers. Into that solitude I would first thrust my prayers for those who had asked for them. And then I would ask God to give me the discernment to find a new life to serve Him after retirement.

God, however, had a different agenda. As I trod in the very footsteps of millions of fellow Christians, he soon made it very clear that that while he welcomed my prayers for others, I really didn’t need his help right then in order to make a choice of a new life work. Instead, what he wanted to teach me was that this pilgrimage was a metaphor, an encapsulation of my life’s journey toward his sometimes murky presence with us in this strange land called Earth. I got a hint of it the fifth day out, but I shoved it aside. The sixth day, though, God’s will broke through my unwillingness, and unaccountably and without forethought I began to sing the Sanctus!

Aha, so that’s why he led me on this journey! Of course! I have been a pilgrim since he claimed me as his own. I have been walking this uncomfortable and dangerous route since the beginning of memory and too many times I have not so much doubted, as dismissed his presence with me. I was being taught to wait upon the Lord, and while I did, to turn my soul in his direction. Forget the prayers of dialogue for now, Larry. Just wait in awe at his presence.

And so it was. Several times each day on my solitary journey, I was compelled to sing:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are indeed full of your glory! Blessed am I who come to wait upon your goodness and mercy, O Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!