On Foot to Santiago

My first night as a pilgrim – in the Pyrenees after a long journey from California – was sleepless: a fellow pilgrim was snoring. But I could not have been happier. I was about to walk 500 miles across Spain to the tomb of the Apostle Saint James – the most explicitly religious thing I have ever done.  

In the middle ages, pilgrims from all over Europe set out for Santiago de Compostela – in Finnisterre, literally the end of the then known world. Getting there was an arduous and chancy proposition. It took well over a year for St. Brigid and her husband to get there and back from Sweden in the 1340s. The snoring stranger I started out with had to stop in Pamplona. Hospitals and bridges, churches and towns sprung up along the Camino de Santiago to accommodate the stream of pilgrims headed to one of Christendom’s premier pilgrimage sites (with Jerusalem and Rome). 

The accumulation of individual acts of this precise Christian observance led, according to Goethe, to the formation of Europe itself – not an insignificant observation today when large swaths of the continent have, unlike Spain under Muslim rule, voluntarily abandoned the Catholic faith. Benedict XVI – deeply committed to a revitalized, Christian Europe – plans to visit in November to mark the Jubilee year which occurs whenever the feast of the Apostle St. James (July 25) falls on a Sunday.  John Paul II marked the last one by saying: “Spain and the whole of Europe need to recover the awareness of their identity.”

I personally set out on foot to Santiago in order to reconnect with my own Catholic identity. A newfound yet keen awareness of my own need for reconciliation attracted me to the penitential dimension of this pilgrimage. In centuries past, some criminals were given the option to walk to Santiago as penance in lieu of their prison sentence (a practice still “officially” on the books in Belgium today). I was equally motivated by the need to express gratitude for blessings too numerous to count, let alone relate here. In short, I wanted tangibly to immerse myself more deeply into the living heritage of the faith. 

At Mass in Roncesvalles (just inside Spain, site of the epic 778 battle that gave us The Song of Roland), every pilgrim received a special blessing for the long journey that lay ahead. After the first week, I turned up in the medieval town of Estella with a swollen foot. Every parish in town had, until the 1500s, its own pilgrim’s hospital. It happened that an elderly local man frequented the refugio (shelters available only to pilgrims for a night) to tend to pilgrims’ ailments. Here was a simple man whom I would never see again, yet who believed enough in the worth of my own journey to provide the most precious of commodities for any weary pilgrim: succor and sincere hospitality.

During siesta in one already sleepy town, a grandmother who lived next door to the town’s gem – a twelfth-century octagonal church –graciously let me in. By the time I had crossed the plains of Castille, I had fallen in love with the simplicity and intimacy of Romanesque architecture – of which I had previously been ignorant. Yet I was simply blown away by the beauty of Leon’s Gothic cathedral (even more than that of Burgos, where El Cid is buried), with its expansive stained glass windows.

Years later, I picked up (non-Catholic) James Michener’s 1968 book Iberia, and found that he shared that admiration:

I have seen most of the fine sights of the world …. but so far as sheer visual pleasure is concerned, I have seen nothing to excel Leon’s cathedral at three in the morning, lit from within, and I say this as a man who likes neither stain glassed windows nor Gothic.

Leon’s Romanesque basilica of San Isidro is only a few blocks away. Consecrated in 1063, it contains magnificently preserved frescoes – the “Sistine Chapels of Spanish Romanesque art.” Such is the riqueza of the Camino.

Another highlight was arriving in the charming Galician town of O Cebreiro – with its ninth-century pre-Romanesque church and Celtic straw-roof dwellings – after walking for hours through dense fog and driving wind. The day’s chill was more than offset around the table that evening by a roaring fire, the house’s wine, and the company of fellow pilgrims who were by now to be counted as friends. 

Upon entering Santiago’s cathedral, the pilgrim passes through the Portico de la Gloria – the masterpiece of Spanish Romanesque art (completed in 1188) – and encounters a marvelously depicted, smiling Saint James. The impact of such a welcome is hard to describe. I placed my hand in the marble column precisely where the hands of so many other pilgrims over the centuries had left a visibly indented handprint, in gratitude for a safe arrival.

But I did not want it to end. St. Francis had to walk back to Assisi in 1214, I thought wistfully; I was to get on a bus.

Of course, life itself is a pilgrimage. But leading daily life with the spirit of a pilgrim can be more difficult at times than the particular hardships of being on an actual pilgrimage. Pursuing our ultimate destination with perseverance and trust is no small feat when life’s pressures are bearing down. 

The fact is that the structured yet adventurous act of pilgrimage – walking and praying away from the clutter – focused and freed my easily distracted mind in a way that is unusual, almost singular.

Yet every liturgy reminds me that ours is truly a pilgrim Church on earth. Despite my frequent stumbles, that never fails to stir hope. 

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.