I cheated. I know.
If you are going to be a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella, you are supposed to hike nearly all of northern Spain, with nothing more than a backpack, on a route that takes a couple weeks. Instead I put over half of my belongings in a locker at the train station, and hiked maybe a mile, with my now, much lighter backpack.
Santiago de Compostella is one of the oldest pilgrimage sites in Europe. The legend goes, that the body of St. James was carried to Spain and buried here. The grave was lost until, in the ninth century, a hermit by the name of Pelayo saw a vision in the sky pointing to the tomb, directly under the city of Compostella. The church authorities then dug under the spot that Pelayo indicated, and they found the tomb of Santiago (In English we say “St. James”.)
Journeying here is the stuff that legends are made of. It is the dream of many a Christian, and sports enthusiast, to have made the full route of the Camino de Santiago. I didn’t do the Camino de Santiago, but somehow, I thought traversing three continents as a pilgrim, was enough to justify a visit, even if I didn’t walk the whole way.
I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to be there.
I still have a dream to hike the full Camino de Santiago, but I gleaned a great sense of satisfaction in walking up, and seeing the cathedral that millions of pilgrims have journeyed to see. For the first time on this pilgrimage, I really felt like I was walking in the footsteps of, and with, other pilgrims. It filled me with joy.
The only problem was, on the way there, I lost the trail. I had to wonder around the city for a little while searching for the path to the Cathedral.
It is OK. I found meaning in that too.
You see, the path I am taking is different than those before me. For example, I am carrying a laptop and a GPS, not the typical pilgrim’s fare. The path ahead of me is different as well. The course of history has never included a church which ministers to people in the information age. Though we walk in the footsteps of the Saints, we also forge new trails, and to form those trails, we are naturally going to make a few mistakes.
The destination for all of us is the same, but the way to get there? Well, pilgrims have been finding new routes all the time. Every life is an adventure worth writing a novel about, if we only take the time to discover the fantastic journey. The excitement of life sometimes gets dulled by the belief that all the paths have already been traversed by the masses of people, but rest assured, the future holds infinite possibilities. You can get to Santiago in many, many ways, and at then end of the journey… there is a sense of solidarity amongst everyone, no matter which path you took, no matter if you hiked all of Spain, or just from the train station. Isn’t our life’s pilgrimage quite the same?
Maybe that is a big leap for me to make in a reflection for simply walking off the path of the Camino de Santiago for a couple blocks, but it is honestly what I was thinking as I found my way back.
Walking into St. James Cathedral, I just felt overwhelmed. This was not the shrine I was most looking forward to visiting, but it gave me the most satisfaction so far. It is the center for so many pilgrims, though our journeys are all different.
I realized something about pilgrims while at Mass in Santiago. It happened when a pilgrim backpacker wished me the sign of peace. It was the humblest, warmest, greeting I can ever remember from a stranger. It is then when I realized that pilgrims are people of peace. They can’t be otherwise. Everything you can depend on is on your back, and even that you are ready to forgo for the sake of the pilgrimage. At that point of vulnerability, there is nothing left but to be at peace. You literally have nothing to do but give thanks for everyone you encounter.
I’m not as successful as this pilgrim was. I’m still very attached to what I am carrying. Probably because I know the financial cost of all my equipment, and I know that people will start worrying if I lose my computer, stop emailing, blogging, and making communicating with people back home. But even with my attachments on this pilgrimage, I feel free. Especially now, because I know there are other pilgrims out there. Whether literally, or figuratively, I am in a world filled with pilgrims. I am surrounded by people who have let go of everything, to be on a journey towards God. It is quite, quite liberating. Maybe that is why I felt so happy?