An Intentional Pilgrimage

Immediately after the apostle James, the brother of John, was killed, his disciples placed his body in a stone boat that had no oars and no sail and no crew. Guided by Angels the vessel traveled to Tarshish,  that is, to the end of the world. There, in the place we would now name the North Western coast of Spain, the miraculous craft was met by two disciples who took the body and buried it. The resting place of the great apostle was forgotten until, in 813, a monk named Playo had a dream in which a star fell to earth and landed in  a certain field. When Playo went to the field he had dreamt of and dug there, he found the remains of the apostle. The timing was perfect. The Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was almost complete, but the discovery of these important relics emboldened the Asturian Christians. In a battle at Clavijo, which took place soon afterwards, James himself, mounted on a white horse, appeared before the Christians and led them to a glorious victory.

Or so the story goes.

In fact, people walk the pilgrimage to Santiago not because of this story, but they tell the story as a way of explaining the pilgrimage. For two thousand years before Christians walked the path, pagans did it to practice a rebirthing ceremony at the end of the world, which involved pilgrims burning their clothes and donning new ones - a practice which is still followed, at least vestigially, by those who make it all the way to the sea. So why then, really, do people undertake this costly, difficult journey? I don't know. And I don't think anyone else knows either. As the story began, so also began the cult of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Killer) and as people began to visit his relics, that of Santiago Peregrino (St. James the Pilgrim). In the 12th Century the Bishop of Santiago, Diego Gelmirez devoted huge energy to promoting the cause of St. James, and the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela (Which may be a corruption of the Latin for St. James of the Star Field. Or perhaps St. James of the graveyard). He had huge success. At its height in the middle ages a half a million people a year traveled to Santiago Compostela to pray at the shrine of the saint. Over the centuries the pilgrimage fell into disuse, but in the last few years of the twentieth century it has seen a staggering revival, with well over 200,000 a year making the approximately 800 km  journey by foot, bicycle of horseback.

The pilgrimage isn't so much a route as a network of routes with several scores of tracks wending their way through every European  country, some from  as far away as Moscow or London. Within Spain there are six main routes, with several smaller tracks branching from them. The most popular route; the one Clemency and I have already walked, and the one many people know from the movie The Way is El Camino Frances, or the French Road,  which runs from St. Jean Pied de Port in France through Pamplona and Leon and Burgos. Longer and more difficult are El Camino de Madrid, which runs up the centre of the country from the Capital and the El Camino del Norte, The Northern Road, which runs along the coast, through the Basque Country and then through the ancient kingdoms of Asturia, Cantabria and Galicia, all of which are now autonomous regions, and all of which which only grudgingly accept their place in Federal Spain. .

 The crypt of Santiago cathedral, in which there is a silver coffin containing the saint is what the Celts would call a thin place: a place where the normal insulating layer between this world and whatever else there is, is torn. Or cracked. Or perhaps, more accurately, worn thin. And the whole path, all 120 - 900 km of all the 6 routes is a thin place - it isn't for nothing that many call it the Path of Miracles. And what makes it thin? Is it something to do with the way the universe is structured that in some parts of it,  the great silent secrets of the universe are more easily glimpsed? Or is it that the faithful tread of those millions of hopeful, prayerful feet over thousands of years leaves a sort of psychic footprint into which all those who follow must necessarily step? My Sabbatical will be about holy places. And as part of it I will enter this particular holy place as fully as I can, and I will also very deliberately go to perhaps the most unholy place on earth.

And so, in one months time I will be somewhere on the Camino Del Norte,  on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, not so much thinking about holy places as letting one of them speak to me and guide me as it sees fit.

Comments

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