Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wikimedia Commons

Santiago de Compostela: My Journey Begins Here

The journey covers almost 500 miles, from the Pyrenees to where St. James bore witness to Christ. In this Holy Year, seven million pilgrims will visit his tomb. We discovered that “if God wants to touch your heart, He uses just about everything.”
Fabrizio Rossi

“Follow your shadow.” You put on your backpack; it’s time to get back on the road. Eight people had spent the night at the Hospital San Nicolás de Puente Fitero, an ancient Romanic hermitage 30 miles west of Burgos, set among the wheat fields of Spain’s Meseta Central. “May the sun light up your way” is the blessing given us by the two hospitaleros, who keep the house. As soon as it rises, you see the trick, your shadow shows you the direction: west. Everyone is going there, to Santiago de Compostela, and the tomb of St. James the Apostle.

We are on the Camino Francés, the road followed by pilgrims for over a thousand years. Step by step, 15–20 miles a day (in all, you have to cover 60 to get the indulgence, or double that if you’re on a bicycle), the road travels from one end of Spain to the other, almost 500 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, or 60 less for those setting off from Puente La Reina, south of the Roncisvalle Pass. Here the four routes from France flow into each other, from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy, and Arles. Other people come from farther away, from Rome, for example, following the Via Francigena. It is a constant flow of people–every year more than two million pilgrims, who come for various reasons, but they reach six or seven million in the Jubilee years (when the Feast of St. James, July 25th, falls on a Sunday), like in 2010. In this Holy Year, we set off ourselves, to see what is behind the numbers, and what it is that fascinates all these people who leave their homes to spend their nights in one hostel after another.

All along the way, you find albergues, hostales, hospitales… like that of San Nicolás, which a group of pilgrims from Perugia, Italy–the Confraternity of San Jacopo di Compostela–decided to restore 20 years ago. There are four bunk beds on one side of the room, and a table with benches on the other. Light comes in from the single window in the apse. Behind a curtain is a coffee pot for ten cups, a sign that the welcome is “made in Italy.” You don’t switch off the gas–once you’ve drunk your coffee you prepare another to offer to passers-by. The eight people who spent the night here have already left less than half an hour ago, and already two brothers from South Africa are at the door. “Come in! Are you thirsty?” People keep calling in, till late afternoon, when pilgrims begin to arrive to spend the night. Christian, the custodian, who for the rest of the year is an elementary school teacher in Cologne, washes the guests’ feet in a basin, by the light of a candle. “In 2004, I was a guest who arrived by chance. That rite made me ashamed. Why should that man kneel down in front of me?” Now, as a volunteer of the Confraternity, he does the same for others, to remember that it is Jesus who wants to wash our feet, and who wants to love us. “Many visitors are not Christians,” says Judit, from Budapest, who prepares supper and treats the pilgrims’ sores. “They enjoy trekking, they make the journey for sport, but when they receive this gift, they sense the meaning. They don’t say anything, they just weep.”

The goal and the gift. The whole pilgrimage is a gift, at every step, “because it is rich with miracles, small and great,” as Christian tells us. In March, he set off from St. Peter’s Square. Nothing particularly striking–often it’s just another pilgrim who smiles at you under the rain, or a peasant who wishes you “Buen camino” or “Ultréya,” the greeting that since the Middle Ages has been given along the way, encouraging the pilgrims to go ahead. Other cases, on the contrary, you will never forget: “Like what happened to me two months ago, after passing Monginevro. One evening, I went into a town. It was late, it was cold and I had no money for the hotel. I rang the door of the priest, but he wasn’t there, and there was no one in the church. I waited for an hour, but nothing happened. Then, as I got up to go, a man came toward me. ‘Are you a pilgrim?’ he asked me. ‘Where are you going to sleep?’ I thought he was the police, but it was the owner of a hotel, and he offered me a bed for the night. ‘You know, the mayor phoned me. He saw you from his window and he is going to pay for your bed for the night.’” Christian still doesn’t know why, but it happened. “There, you know you are not alone. God is there.” And He comes to meet you. You are trying to reach a goal, and the goal comes to find you.

Before infinity. Life’s like that. Homo viator. You set off, you plan the day, then it pours down with rain. You stop, you entrust yourself, and set off again. You lose the way, and someone puts you back on the right road. You find yourself alongside someone who shares your journey just for a while. You know that you do not belong to the places you are passing through, you have no fatherland, you are always in exile. You learn to wait, you learn to be patient. If you think of your limitations, you become paralyzed. You go ahead if you lift up your eyes, to those stars of the Milky Way which, for the pilgrims of the Middle Ages, were the reflection of the Way to Santiago in heaven. It’s important not to lose sight of the signs–an arrow, a signpost, a stone with a scallop shell painted on it. The scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrims, who, after reaching Santiago, traveled three more days to reach Cape Finisterre, the ends of the earth. Beyond, there was only the unknown. On the beach, they would pick up shells to take home, a piece of the infinite, a remembrance of the journey. It is here that tradition says the disciples of St. James landed, looking for a place to bury him. James is the Apostle who, along with John, his brother, asked Jesus to sit beside Him in heaven, and was asked, “Can you drink of My chalice?” To witness to Him, James journeyed to the farthest land it was possible to reach. Unable to convert anyone, he went back to Jerusalem, where King Herod Agrippa had him decapitated. And James chose to drink from that chalice. He was the first of the Twelve to be martyred. Eight centuries later, a shower of stars revealed to a hermit of Galicia the point where James’ friends had taken the casket with his bones–Compostela, the field of stars. From that time, that place became the goal of humanity in movement, simple Christians, jesters, bishops, beggars, prisoners (the pilgrimage could expiate a sentence), and great saints, like St. Francis of Assisi.

And today? “Many do not set off for Christian motives,” explains Jean, while we pass through El Ganso, a half-ruined village, three days’ journey from León. We leave behind a bell-tower with a stork’s nest in it. “I really don’t understand walking for the sake of walking,” he says, as he wipes the sweat from under his military beret. He is about 50, and teaches modern letters at the University of Perpignan. Every year, he makes one stage of the journey, and expects to finish in 2013. Why does he do it? “For something greater, but without expecting to get anything out of it. We, of the modern generation, always look for a profit. The gift is already there in being able to leave your own things and set off–conversion starts there. Getting there doesn’t depend on me.” Touché.

One thing is certain: whoever sets off for the tomb of St. James is fascinated by the journey. And there are a lot of people who travel a long way, from Europe and from every other part of the world–Brazil, Vietnam, United States, and even South Korea, like Min, 67, after a life spent selling shoes. We met him some miles on, as we came into Rabanal del Camino–a dozen stone houses, strewed along a mule-track (which all the same bears the name of Calle Real, “Royal Street”). As soon as he retired, he asked his wife to travel with him to Santiago. Now, though, he is heading for a hostel that has a television; his national team is playing Argentina, and not even St. James could move him from that bench! The sun is merciless. Five miles further on, at 4,500 feet, is the summit, historically one of the most important points of the Way, Cruz de Hierro. There is a metal cross, less than three feet tall, on a mast that rises above a hill of stones. For centuries, pilgrims have brought the stones here, as if to lay down their worries–their evil, their sorrows–and entrust them to Someone Else. On some of the stones, prayers are inscribed, or thanks; on many of them there is only a signature. But the base of the mast is an explosion of colors: ribbons, bandannas, flowers, notes, flags, and a thousand photos of people dear to those who passed by. And while you hear the singing from a Mass in German being celebrated nearby, you think of those who left the stones. You feel for a moment part of their history, and you pray.

Without a penny. The monks of Samos, four days’ journey from Cruz de Hierro, have been on the Way all their lives. They do not move a yard, but they have been on this pilgrimage for a thousand years, always ready to open to those who knock. “St. Benedict taught us to welcome pilgrims as Christ,” says Fr. José Luis, the prior of one of the most ancient cloisters in Spain. The other day, this didn’t stop a guest disappearing with the offerings of the Mass! And recently a pilgrim from Andorra, about 30 years old, arrived without a penny; in a hostel, he had been robbed of everything, even his backpack and sleeping bag. “So one monk gave him a mattress and another a tee shirt. We clothed him, and when he left he was moved to tears: ‘I will pray for you in Santiago.’”
Beside the monastery they have an albergue with 30 bunk beds (but, when the Pope came in 1989, using the rooms and the cloisters, there were 500 people sleeping there). At the entrance, Marc, the hospitalero, welcomes the pilgrims making use of all the languages he knows. Until his retirement, eight years ago, he was the manager of an auto parts firm. Now, behind the counter, he records meticulously the data of those who arrive, and explains how the “donation” works. It is a pillar on which rests the whole pilgrimage–everyone is free to make an offering for the night, in this way paying also for those who cannot afford it. He asks your date of birth and shows you a painting on the wall–some of his colleagues decorated the room with a fresco of the month-cycle of León Cathedral, a way of making the place more beautiful–along with the cleaning. “Our hospitality begins here,” he explains. Now he has to go; four pilgrims from Alabama are coming. He gets to the point: “Buen camino. In life, too.”

Saints wating for you. You set off again with these facts in your heart. Where before you saw the light of the broom trees, now you see the damp shadows of the oaks. It’s all up and down, meadows and woods. The end is near–you see it written on some of the walls: “Todo se cumple!” In Santiago, “everything is accomplished.” You hardly notice that the paths give way to tarmac roads, to the gray of the suburbs, to the distraction of pilgrims just arrived by coach, to the mass of shops that live off the pilgrimage, selling ointments and souvenirs. A bridge, a stop light, the city center streets, the traffic of just another working day. But the Cathedral is there, with its towers and its mossy façade. You feel the Atlantic air, you climb the steps–these are the final paces–and you find yourself embraced by the Portico of Glory, as if all the prophets and saints, carved more than 800 years ago, had always been waiting for you. St. James is up on a column, in the center, he too with his pilgrim’s staff. He seems to be inviting you to lift up your eyes, to Christ the King, to those open arms that say: “You are at home, what are you afraid of?” A young man with curly hair and a blond beard is looking at Him with tears in his eyes. His name is Ivars and he is from Latvia. At the age of 35, he has everything–career, good health, and family. He tells you he is not very religious; he attends the Protestant church only at Christmas and Easter. So why did he do two weeks of the pilgrimage? “For sport,” he admits, “but also because I felt that I was missing something.” And what did you find? “I would like to understand. All I know is that I can’t stop crying. I didn’t expect it–I set off more or less by chance, and I reached here a stunned man.” He tells of some episodes he cannot get out of his mind, like when he got lost and a peasant took him to heart and brought him by tractor to the proper junction. Day after day, facts like this mounted up, until after traveling all those miles he was able to say, “Now I see that I have not yet arrived; my journey begins here.”

God is indulgent. You see from facts like this that you can’t calculate the reasons that bring people to St. James’ tomb. And you understand that God can grab you even by a whisker. If you want confirmation, just ask Fr. José. Since the time of his ordination in 1965, he has spent every morning in one of the confessionals in the Cathedral, witnessing millions of miracles. “Because God is indulgent,” he tells us. “Yesterday, for example, a man came to confess. When I asked him how long it was since the last time, he burst into tears. ‘It must be 50 years, Father…’ Many make the pilgrimage for the most stupid reasons, but we should not be afraid of that. If God wants to touch someone’s heart, He makes use of everything.” He is indulgent.