Sometimes I forget that the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage.
I know that it’s a pilgrimage, of course. When I tell people what I’m doing this summer, most have never heard of the Camino, so understandably they have lots of questions. I always start by explaining that it’s a pilgrimage route to Santiago that was popular in the Middle Ages. Sometimes I mention that many believe the remains of St James are buried at the site of the cathedral. But mostly I talk about the walk: how far it is and where I’ll stay, what I’ll eat and what I’ll wear. Always, I answer questions about going alone.
All of that has kind of been my focus, as well. The length of the walk and my gear and my training and the logistics.
Sometimes I forget how this all started.
A lot of people (though not the majority) still walk the Camino for religious reasons: to make a pilgrimage to the burial site of St James, one of the 12 Apostles. James spent time in Spain, preaching the Gospel, and legend has it that after his death (beheaded by King Herod in 44 AD, the first Apostle to be martyred), his body was carried on a boat steered by angels, and landed on the coast of Galicia, near Finisterre. His body was then carried inland to where it was buried, forgotten until the 9th century when a hermit was led by a vision to the site of the grave. A chapel was built over the remains, James became the patron saint of (what would become) Spain, word got out, and people began walking. Eventually a cathedral was built in place of the chapel, and more and more people walked the Camino de Santiago- The Way of St James.
The pilgrimage was in its heyday in the 12th century; the guidebook in those days was the Codex Calixtinus, pilgrims wore a scallop shell (the symbol of St James) to gain free meals and to sleep in churches. They walked for a penance; to be forgiven for their sins. And they walked because they were believers.
I didn’t decide to walk the Camino de Santiago because I wanted to make a pilgrimage. I have other reasons (start here). But in walking the Camino de Santiago, I will make a pilgrimage. I will have a destination, and I will have a goal. When I arrive in Santiago, I will enter the cathedral and touch the statue of St. James, where a groove has been left in the stone from the hands of millions of pilgrims.
I think this will be a powerful experience.
This past weekend, I celebrated Easter with my family. I grew up going to an Eastern Orthodox church, and as a kid, I developed a strong faith and belief in God. But my faith has always been very personal to me. At some points in my life I have attended church regularly, and at other times, only on major religious holidays.
On Saturday night, as I stood in a darkened church with candlelight slowly spreading through the congregation, I thought about the miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection. I thought about my family and the traditions of our faith at this time of the year. Of helping my mom bake 12 loaves of pascha bread in tin coffee cans, of the basket of meats and eggs and cheeses that we bring to church to be blessed, of standing in a pew with my father on Good Friday, singing the Lamentations.
And I thought about the Camino. I thought about my own faith, and wondered how much of a part it would play in my journey this summer.
And I have no idea. I can’t predict what kind of meaning this entire experience will have for me. I’m not doing this long walk for religious reasons- it’s for my own personal, spiritual journey- but I can’t say that religion will have no part in this.
I’m excited to pass through small villages and to peer inside churches. I’m excited to learn more about the history of this path, and I can’t wait to stand before the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and to know that I’ve made a pilgrimage.