Pilgrimage Paper

Tonight we begin our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  Many say that the pilgrimage begins when you leave your house.  We will stay in Toronto overnight, leave our dog with J, and travel to the airport in Buffalo on Tuesday morning.

For me, this pilgrimage is part of a course.  The first paper was due today and is an overview of the history of the site.

Here it is:

 The Camino de Santiago de Compostela could be literally translated as the road, or way, to the burial place of Saint James the Great. This pilgrimage route, to the last resting place of a member of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, has been travelled by pilgrims since the discovery of what have been recognized as the bones of the saint in 813.  Over the following centuries this site became one of the principal destinations for Christian pilgrims, following onlyJerusalemandRomein significance and importance.

     Legend has it, the bones of St James were transported by nine of his disciples, in a stone ship, after his execution by Herod in A.D. 44.  Following the crucifixion of Jesus the twelve disciples had been dispersed and led by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel throughout the known world.  James was the apostle toSpain, working as a missionary there, and had returned toJerusalemwhere he was executed.  His transportation back toSpainafter his death is surrounded by wonder, as wind and waves carried his remains and his followers to the shores ofGaliciain record time. The remains of the saint were interred and were guarded by two of his loyal followers who eventually were buried beside their master.

      War and the persecution of Christians inGaliciaended the veneration of the remains of the saint and actually lead to the loss of the location of the tomb and the knowledge of its contents for nearly eight centuries.  In 813 a tomb was discovered by a shepherd under unusual circumstances and the remains found there were identified as the remains of Saint James the Great, by Bishop Teodomiro, the bishop of Iria.  He reported his findings to the king, Alfonso II.  Alfonso II and Bishop Teodomiro returned to the site, becoming the first pilgrims to the tomb. A church was built by Alfonso II to house the relics, only to be replaced by a larger one built by Alfonso III, accommodating the many visitors  coming to visit this holy site. Over the centuries, wars have taken place in the area, but the tomb of the saint has been spared destruction, even though the city around it was razed. Having been destroyed, the church built by Alfonso III was replaced by another, less grand, structure in the tenth century. In the eleventh century a new cathedral was built which included the tomb.

     Pilgrimage to this site began shortly after the discovery of the relics, growing in intensity into the thirteenth century and declining after the sixteenth century.  Roads and other facilities for pilgrims were built, often by religious orders. These amenities were virtually destroyed as the route declined in popularity due to war, plague and reformation in the church. Most travelers from the seventeenth century onward arrived by means of modern transport and not on foot. In the 1980’s, a renewed interest in tradition and a growth in tourism, along with a searching for spiritual experiences, has lead to a renewed interest in the Camino. This renewed interest is both a religious and secular one and not necessarily a result of an interest in, or adherence to, Roman Catholic beliefs.  With the designation of the pilgrimage route as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the pilgrimage route has become better known and very popular; a strong infrastructure for pilgrims has been put in place along the routes.

     There are a number of routes available to the modern pilgrim to Santiago de Compestela, the most popular of which originates inFrance, known as theFrench Way. Growth in the popularity of the trek has seen the purpose of pilgrimage change as well. While historically, the pilgrimage was a religious one, often undertaken as a form of penance or to gain favour from God and the church, it has moved to becoming a spiritual pilgrimage of a much wider scope.  Many modern pilgrims see the trip as a time of self reflection, possibly including a search for the divine.  Pilgrimages are often undertaken at a time of stress or change in life and become the means for finding meaning in a planned time of solitude and separation from the normal activities of life. Certainly many pilgrims enter into this pilgrimage from a religious perspective as seen in the very large numbers who are found on the road during holy years (particularly years when the feast day of St James falls on a Sunday).  Many pilgrims fromNorth America, however, as evidenced by the articles written by them in the popular press, appear to be taking the pilgrimage for personal spiritual growth and discovery rather than as part of a Roman Catholic tradition.  The Camino has a mystique, somehow holding the hopes and dreams, the goals and aspirations of travelers on her paths for over thirteen centuries. Some claim that this aura makes the pilgrimage on the Camino more than a long walk, but rather an experience that that touches a spiritual place in the most unspiritual people, bringing them back changed.

     Each traveler on the Camino will have a different experience. David Loxterkamp describes it this way:

It offers us a universal road, one that designates us pilgrims and marches us to God. It yields its wisdom incrementally for as often and as long as we return to it – whether in body or in spirit – in search of self awareness and hope. [1]

The Camino continues to attract pilgrims, as it has for centuries, who follow the sign of the shell, some to follow the tradition of the church, some to find meaning for their lives, some seeking healing for their souls, and others just out for a long walk.


[1] Loxterkamp, D. (2004) The Road to Compostela, a doctor takes stock, Commonweal, February 27 2004

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