Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela today

poster at St Nicolas

poster at St Nicolas

‘These travellers were called pilgrims, and their symbol was the scallop shell.’ — Paulo Coelho

‘I looked up at the sky; the Milky Way spread across it, reflecting the immensity of the Road we would have to travel.’ — Paulo Coelho

‘We will come back changed. Of that I am certain. But, of course that is why you go on pilgrimage in the first place; to find the holy, stumble upon God in action, and be changed for ever by the experience.’ — Canon Trevor Dennis

Last week when Dr Catherine Ferguson talked of the history of the pilgrimage she showed a graph showing how the numbers of pilgrims had grown exponentially since the mid-1980s, a growth that coincided with the publication of The Pilgrimage by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. This week Catherine was to talk about the pilgrimage today and the modern day pilgrim, herself being one of the pilgrims having just returned from walking part of the walk.

Her talk was split into two halves, the first the practicalities of actually walking the route, the second what it meant to be a pilgrim.

Catherine made a grand entrance, dressed as she would be walking the route with her rucksack on her back. She then proceeded to empty her rucksack explaining what each item was for.

She managed to travel surprising light. A single change of clothing, water, minimalist medical kit, a banana (essential as you never knew when you would find food), water, books (the heaviest items), toilet paper (essential), torch, journal, camera, phone, charger for both, change of shoes, sleeping bag.

On her rucksack she had a scallop shell. The sign she was a pilgrim.

For the pilgrim it is not a rucksack or back pack, it is a mochillo, in which you carry your life’s possessions.

The medieval pilgrim would have wore a cape and a hat and carried a stick. Paulo Coelho provides an excellent description in The Pilgrimage, his journal of walking the Way of St James.

Every pilgrim has his credencial. This is essential as it is stamped en route and is required as proof that you have actually walked the route.

To obtain the compostela, you have to have walked the last 100km (or cycled the last 200km). This means the statistics on who has walked the route are not that sound, as they only count those who are awarded a compostela, those who walk that final 100km. Many walk different parts of the route, many do not make claim for the compostela.

way marker

way marker

The route is waymarked with yellow arrows and scallop shells. Though not always easy to find!

Don Elias Valiña Sampedro, a priest at O Cebreiro, did his 1967 Doctoral Thesis on the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Then it was but a memory he wrote ‘there survives only a remote memory of the Jacobean pilgrimage.’ He wrote and published a book on the route, Caminos a Compostela (1971). In 1972 just six pilgrims were awarded their compostela. Caminos a Compostela did not therefore have a major impact! It was then he decided, with the help of his family, to mark the route with yellow arrows. The route though you follow is your own personal route. This he started to do in 1973. He died in 1989.

The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho was published in Portuguese in 1987. An estimated in excess of 200,000 pilgrims are expected to walk the route in 2010, a Holy or Jubilee year when 25 July falls on a Sunday.

Places to stay are mixed and varied. Barns, churches private houses, monasteries, bars, church towers. Most of the places are fairly basic.

You are only allowed to stay one night, then you have to move on. This very much forces one to live in the here and now, for the moment, as how ever much you are enjoying it, it is not to be repeated, you have to move on.

Very much as Youth Hosteling used to be like up until the mid-1980s, when the YHA degenerated into a cheap chain of doss houses. You collected your hostel stamps at each hostel you stayed at, you had to arrive under your own steam, and could only stay a maximum of three nights.

When on a pilgrimage your requirements become very minimal: where will I sleep, find shelter, food and water? This is good for the soul. It reminds us how most of the world who subsist on less than a dollar a day have to survive.

You very quickly shed your socio-economic status. You are a lonely pilgrim on a route. What you see is what you get.

Eivind Luthen:

Liminality: to be a pilgrim is to opt out of one society and join another. To be a pilgrim is to tear away from the standard way of thinking. As a pilgrim you aim towards the unknown. In an age stamped by individualism and self-assertion the pilgrim dares towards humility: there is no class distinction on the way. People will take you for what you are, not what you represent.’

Why do we go on a pilgrimage? Ask a pilgrim and you are unlikely to get a straight answer.

The reasons for going on a pilgrimage are as many and varied and individual as the pilgrims on the pilgrimage: in memory of a much loved wife who has died, to forget finding the bodies of brutally killed neighbours, to leave behind crosses bearing the names of ones grandchildren. One lady brought along her harp and would give a recital whenever wherever. When Paulo Coelho undertook the pilgrimage it was to recover his sword.

It is the pilgrimage that is important not the destination. Paulo Coelho had to be reminded of this by his guide Petrus after spending several days walking around in circles.

For medieval man it was simple. It was good for the soul. It reduced time in purgatory. It could be a penance for a crime committed. When Paulo Coelho walked the Way of Saint James it was as a penance.

You were required to leave a will. If you were away a year and a day your wife could re-marry. It offered an easy way, maybe the only way, to get rid of your wife bar killing her.

There is stunning scenery and whose soul could not be uplifted.

On some days Catherine hardly noticed the landscape she was walking through. On those days she prayed.

The pilgrimage is not only a physical journey, it is also an inner journey, a spiritual journey. Those who undertake the pilgrimage come back changed.

The pilgrimage is a personal journey, that is why it is important that you do it on your own.

Halfway through Catherine became dispirited, she wanted to give up. Her eye was then caught by a poster for a monastery. It was a place she had always wished to visit and so she took a two day sabbatical from her pilgrimage and went off on a detour. She was glad she did. Beautiful cloisters, a beautiful service. One of the monks who befriended her was surprised to find she was there from England. She went off walking. The next day, about to catch the bus and return to her pilgrimage, the same monk from the previous day asked her why she was there. She said the beautiful architecture, the service, the singing. The monk said no, it was not beautiful, only God was beautiful. He blessed her and sent her on her way.

John Brierley (from The Route to Compostela):

‘The true temple is not a structure at all. Its true holiness lies at the inner altar around which the structure is built – yet the real beauty of the inner temple cannot be seen with the physical eye. An emphasis on beautiful structures can be a sign of unwillingness to exercise spiritual vision. As we walk through the landscape temple that is the camino and through the towns and cities spread out along the way, we pass some of the most physically striking religious buildings to be found anywhere in the world. But let us not confuse the messenger with the message and also help each other to search out that elusive inner altar.’

In answer to a question, Catherine said one fanatical young man who was expressing his own personal opinion thought that non-Catholics should not participate in Mass. He was not Spanish and did not in any way represent the experience of walking the route. Catherine actually could because she had been given a personal dispensation by the Catholic church.

I reminded of The Witch of Portobello where Athena is barred from taking Mass because she is divorced. She walks out and curses the church. The rules of the church being more important than grace. Paulo Coelho has Jesus looking in thinking he would not be welcome either.

I am also reminded of a scene in The Idiot described by Philip Yancey in What’s So Amazing About Grace . Jesus returns to earth at the time of the Inquisition. An old cardinal spots and recognises Jesus for who He is and orders His arrest and imprisonment. Visiting Jesus in his cell he tells Him that he will have to be executed a second time as the Church has had to spend the last millennium undoing all the harm he caused. [see The Grand Inquisitor]

Jesus dismissal of the Pharisees also comes to mind.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The Church of England discusses the exclusion or not of women and gays. To do so is to exclude more than half of the population!

Jesus welcomed everyone. He mixed with all stratas of society. No one was excluded!

Desmond Tutu (from a sermon at the Chapel of King’s College, London):

‘When Jesus spoke of being lifted up on the cross he said “I, if I be lifted up will draw..” – he didn’t say “I will draw some” – he said “I, if I be lifted up will draw ALL – draw all to me to hold them” all of us drawn into the divine embrace that excludes no-one – black, yellow, white, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, young, old, gay, lesbian, so-called straight – yes it IS radical. All, all, ALL belong – Arafat, Sharon, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, George Bush, Tony Blair, Palestinian, Israeli, Jew, Arab, Protestant, Catholic – all, ALL, all belong in this family.’

Whenever and wherever Catherine participated in Mass. It was a multicultural experience. Everyone was welcome and it was an uplifting experience. The official figures underestimate the multinational aspect of the pilgrimage, at least from Catherine’s personal observation.

Catherine described a lovely example of synchronicity. An absolute must for her to stay was San Nicolas, once belonging to the Knights Templar. She arrived only to find it was full. She walked off down the road and rested on a bridge to consider her options. A car pulled up and the driver asked where she wished to go. He said he would take her. He then offered her a stay at San Nicolas, it was he who ran it. There she met an Australian lady who she had met a few days previously. This lady had been on a pilgrimage to Walsingham. She showed her pictures of candles and the names inscribed. One was what Catherine had left with the name of her daughter Lucy! Another of the pilgrims was coming to work in the hospital in Guildford!

Talking to Catherine I explained why I was there. That I had walked to Loseley Park for the Celebrating Surrey Festival and had seen the poster at St Nicolas for the talks. Oh you must come to my talk on the Loseley Manuscripts she said. She then went on to tell me that the family were buried in the chapel at St Nicolas which was currently being restored.

The talk was preceded by Mass followed by eats and drinks. Catherine generously provided the wine and the food. Red wine from the region, though not the white (though Paulo Coelho would dismissively say white is not wine).

On leaving, Father Andrew (if it be he) thanked me for coming. No I said, it is I who should be thanking you for hosting such a wonderful talk and Catherine for giving it. Father Andrew has a blog Heart to Heart.

In discussing her personal experience of the pilgrimage Catherine radiated an aura of spirituality and belief that you would not find in most churches in a month of Sundays. It was a pleasure and honour to hear her speak.

After completing the pilgrimage you have to contribute or create something. Paulo Coelho wrote The Alchemist, many of his books have their roots somewhere along the Way to Saint James. His guide Petrus painted ‘a beautiful, immense picture’ that depicted all that had happened to him. Dr Catherine Ferguson gave two wonderful talks!

Synchronicity: A couple of days later I walked past Holy Trinity Church at the top of the High Street in Guildford and saw a large poster outside calling for equality of women in the church. Well done Holy Trinity! Late that night listening to the midnight news I heard that the Vatican had changed Church Law to make the attempted ordination of women a grave crime! Methinks the endemic sexual abuse within the Church is a grave crime, aided and abetted by cover-ups, more concerned with the tarnished reputation of the Church than the pain and suffering of the victims. It is not though a grave crime under Church Law to not report these sex crimes to the civil authorities.

Synchronicity: A few days after writing and publishing I learnt from Paulo Coelho that he has a street named after him in Santiago de Compostela, Rua Paulo Coelho. His comment was in response to a suggestion that Santiago de Compostela erects a statue in his honour for popularizing the pilgrimage.

Also see

The History of the Pilgrimage to Compostela

The Pilgrimage

Carolena’s Quest for the Sword

Tourists to Pilgrims

Cantigas de Santa Maria

Pilgrimage to Aylesford Priory with the Knights of St Columba

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6 Responses to “Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela today”

  1. Lainee Says:

    Keith,

    Thanks once again for bringing us into one of your beautiful moments. I do wish I could have been there too.

    I think the part of your note that affected me most was Desmond Tutu’s quote , “‘When Jesus spoke of being lifted up on the cross he said “I, if I be lifted up will draw..” – he didn’t say “I will draw some” – he said “I, if I be lifted up will draw ALL – draw all to me to hold them” all of us drawn into the divine embrace that excludes no-one.”

    …..and hold and intensely love he and the others shall 😉 …. My journey to the other side proves to me that this is so true. “If your eye be single to his glory, you will be filled with light and there will be no darkness in you and you will comprehend all things.”

    Love and warm blue light to you,
    Lainee

  2. Catherine Ferguson Says:

    Dear Keith

    Thanks for coming to the lectures and for writing this up generally accurately. There is just one point that I should like you to alter. The person who believed that non-Catholics should not attend the pilgrim masses was just ONE young fanatic, not a general opinion. It was very much not the opinion of the Catholic churches in Spain or of anyone else I met. This was, as you remember, a response to a question at the end and not part of my main commentary. Can I ask that you remove this statment as it was not part of my lecture.
    Best wishes
    Catherine

    • keithpp Says:

      Thanks Catherine for your kind words. It was a pleasure to attend your talks.

      I have thought long and hard on this. You did not in any way show a lack of grace and you were not wrong to mention it (or me to report it), the young man showed a lack of grace and by doing so illustrated much that is wrong in the church today, like for example cover-ups by Catholic Church.

      I have rewritten, and I hope it passes muster.

      Best wishes and thanks again for two wonderful talks.

    • keithpp Says:

      I am pleased to hear my write up was generally accurate as it was entirely from memory, not a single note taken. I could not though remember the T S Eliot poem you mentioned.

  3. Ruta Camino Santiago Says:

    Thanks friends of the Way of Saint James. The project http://www.rutacaminosantiago.com, is a merger between the passion for the Way of Saint James and love of old maps, all together to create a product that allows immortalize the experience of the way through a custom map with antique style.

    Best Regards and BUEN CAMINO!!

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