The Camino de Santiago de Compostela

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world. A series of routes collectively known as The Way of St. James, the Camino radiates out from north western Spain in spider-webs across the terrain of Iberia. B and I became interested in experiencing this pilgrimage last year, doing what research we could online, and decided that this would provide an excellent opportunity to process our time in Zambia and prepare ourselves spiritually for the next chapter in our lives.

The Way has its roots in the pre-Christian era when pagans from across Iberia made pilgrimage to what they believed was the end of the living world This area became known as Finis Terrae during the Roman conquests over the Celts and grew as an important trade settlement. A destination of immense spiritual significance, Finis Terrae was home to Ara Solis (the Altar to the Sun) and the last outpost of the living before endless sea, setting sun, and the otherworldly land of the young (known as Tir na Nog to the Celts). Traveling to the Ara Solis was rite of death and rebirth, giving pilgrims a rejuvenation of the soul and a chance to begin again.

The significance of the Ara Solis and the nearby coastal settlements facilitating trade with the British Isles made this area attractive for early Christians seeking to proselytize in Iberia. Legend holds that the apostle James (the greater) arrived in Finis Terrae to spread the word of Christ shortly after the crucifixion. This mission was reportedly met with only limited success and James returned to Jerusalem shortly thereafter where he was summarily executed by King Herod. Concurrent with a trend during this period, the apostle’s followers brought his remains back to the land in which he preached. After some controversy (which I will explore later), James was laid to rest and forgotten for several centuries until (according to legend) a shepherd boy was led to the remains in 813 AD by a bright light near a settlement known as Libredon. The town was renamed for the discovery, becoming San Tiago (Saint James) de Compostela (of the field of stars), and grew significantly in importance during the following years.

The image of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the moor slayer) was born during this period as a rallying point against the muslim occupation of Spain and made St. James an integral role in Spanish identity. The town of Santiago prospered in Christian Spain. A cathedral was erected to house the holy remains and the pilgrims began to come. Using many of the same routes that their ancestors had traveled to reach the Ara Solis, Spaniards came to pray at the remains of the Saint to give thanks and gain plenary indulgences. The towns along the Camino prospered following the failure of the crusades and the loss of access to Jerusalem. The relatively safe route to Santiago beckoned pilgrims from all over Europe. In time, the number of travelers eclipsed those to Rome as well and the Way of St. James became the most popular of the Christian pilgrimages. Our world is a shifting one however, and the Camino saw a dramatic decline over the past two centuries. Less than 20% of Spaniards today identify themselves as practicing Catholicism, a result perhaps of rampant materialism, bad press, and years of corrosive nationalism.

The Camino has seen a revival in recent years, despite the apparent decrease in faith, with hundreds of thousands of "neo-pilgrims" completing the journey every summer. The most popular route, the Camino Frances, winds its way from the French Pyrenees to the Galician coast across the length of northern Spain. B and I chose this trail for its popularity and the likelihood of accommodation late in the season. We were beginning our walk in mid-October, when most pilgrims had already arrived in Santiago, and knew little of what to expect outside of the excitement that only an adventure looming can provide. We didn’t know if we had the right provisions or even how to really begin (the only image of a pilgrimage in my head was cartoonishly archaic) and the only Spanish words I knew were “hables ingles?” (do you speak English?) but I did have the one thing that made up for all the lack of preparation on our backs. I had faith...

1 comment:

  1. Hi there,

    Can't wait to see your posts about the Camino. I am currently a PC Nominee and already plan to walk The Way, assuming I am invited and complete my service.

    Buen Camino!