The museum attendant watched me quietly as I shuffled slowly from artifact to artifact before she gestured and asked, “Peregrina?”
Even on a rest day in a large city without my backpack and poles, I couldn’t blend in with the rest of the patrons. My telltale shuffle and pain-filled grimace identified me as a person who was willing to do unspeakable damage to her feet. It identified me as a pilgrim on the way of St. James.
I first walked the Camino de Santiago in 2015. I haven’t been back – yet – but I was already planning my second pilgrimage on the plane trip home. If you’ve made the way, you probably understand, but it you’re asking why anyone would walk 800 kilometers to go to church once, let alone multiple times, you’re not alone.
The history of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a mix of facts and legends that sometimes contradict each other. What follows here is my best summary of the story. I leave it to you to decide what is true, what is not, and if that matters.
“El Camino” is Spanish for “the way” and “Santiago” is a word created by saying “St. James” quickly and repetitively in Spanish (San Iago… SanIago… Santiago). “Compostela” means “field of stars.” So “El Camino de Santiago de Compostela” is “The way of St. James under a field of stars.”
After his death and resurrection, Jesus told his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In order to do this, the disciples divided up the then known world and James was given the area that is now Spain. After about 10 years in that region as a rather unsuccessful evangelist, James returned to Jerusalem where he was captured by Roman officials at the city gates, arrested, and beheaded. James was the first of Jesus’ disciples to be martyred.
While he may not have made thousands of converts, he did have some loyal disciples who put his body in a stone boat and then, guided by angels, transported his body back to the western coast of Spain. As they were approaching the shore, there was either a wedding taking place with a groom on horseback or a knight on a horse (depending on which story you prefer). The sight of a stone boat being guided by angels spooked the horse and both horse and rider plunged into the ocean. They escaped unharmed, but, when they emerged from the water, both horse and rider were covered in scallop shells. James had performed his first miracle, and the scallop shell remains a key symbol of both St. James and the Camino to this day.
James’ body was buried alongside two of his disciples, and he remained largely forgotten for about 800 years. Then, in the ninth century, a shepherd named Paio was out at night doing some star gazing when he noticed a particular star pointing to a particular place. He followed the star and discovered an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He rushed to tell the authorities about his exciting discovery.
The site was confirmed to be the burial site of James and two of his disciples based in part on the fact that someone had thoughtfully labelled the body with a tag that read: “Here lies James, son of Zebedee and Salome.” Alfonso II, king of Asturias and Galicia, ordered a small church to be built to mark the spot.
Pilgrims began to travel to venerate the body almost immediately, and miracles began to be attributed to St. James. This encouraged more people to embark on pilgrimage to Santiago, and, in turn, resulted in more stories of miracles. Originally, pilgrims didn’t follow a set route: they simply walked out their front door took the most direct route they could find to Santiago, venerated the bones, turned around, and walked back home.
Gradually, roads, a town, and other infrastructure were built to both accommodate the influx of pilgrims and take advantage of this new economic opportunity. Santiago de Compostela quickly became the top Christian pilgrimage site in the world, beating out Jerusalem and Rome for that honour, and St. James became the country’s patron saint. In 2017, 301,106 people made the pilgrimage.
I have so many treasured memories and life lessons from my time on the Camino, but one of the most beautiful things about that experience was the immediate solidarity that developed within a diverse group of people because we shared a common purpose and practice. Things which could have divided us like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or economic status fell away. If you were walking, you were family. This is what I miss the most from my time on the Camino.
But, I often get glimpses of that solidarity within the Church. At its best, we are also a diverse group of people with a common purpose and practice. In Spain, I knew that my cry of “Buen Camino!” would always be met with a similar salutation, just as now I can enter a room and say, “The Lord be with you,” and know that every Anglican in the room will stop whatever they are doing to respond, “And also with you.”
I’m excited, and a tad jealous, that a group of young people from our diocese is preparing to walk the Way. I’ll be praying for them as they prepare, and look forward to hearing some of their stories when they return. Buen Camino!
Rachel Twigg Boyce is on the staff team at saint benedict’s table, serving as a Deacon Associate. When she is not planning her next pilgrimage, she can be found drinking coffee, walking her dog, or doing both at the same time.