James’ Journey: Reflections on Traversing the 2022 Camino
COMMENTARY: I had walked the Way of St. James imperfectly but sincerely.
I had always wanted to walk “The Way” of my namesake, St. James, so when turning 70 the opportunity came to join a pilgrimage sponsored by the Catholic Herald, I figured it was now or never.
We were to walk the last leg of the Portuguese Route, one of many Camino de Santiago paths that have evolved over the centuries — English, French, Italian, Northern, etc. The Portuguese Way begins in Lisbon, but we picked it up for the last 100 km (62.1 miles).
I made my Camino intention all who had gone before us, all who were now with us and all who would come after. I especially walked for several dear friends who had recently died or become severely incapacitated. But, most of all, I walked for my three grandchildren, including Little Lanie, to be born in October and named for my late wife.
In preparation for the pilgrimage, I had read my longtime friend Father Gerald Murray’s new book, Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises facing the Catholic Church and Society. I also reread Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome and a book that proved to be well known to my Brit fellow pilgrims, as well, Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion: A Life, and other English Catholic classics.
Along the way, the words of St. John Paul II in 1988 about the Camino proved true:
“Santiago de Compostela is a place that has рlауеd a very important role in the history of Christianity; and so, its spiritual message is in itself very eloquent.”
The first day, we walked six hours into the hills above Vigo, with gorgeous views of the sea to the west and then down a sloping valley into the town of Redondela. We chatted, prayed privately, recited the Rosary and got to know each other. Among our pilgrim band were two senior Civil Service retirees, Mark and Mary, a devout Anglican, one specializing in human rights and the other the National Health Service; Amanda, married to Mark, a painter and iconographer; Michael, a French teacher with a hearty Lancashire accent; Tracy, an English toffee candy entrepreneur now living in Texas; Father Nicholas Leviseur, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham; two ardent young Catholic converts, Rachel Moberly and Tom Colsy, and Catholic Herald editor William Cash.
We had started late, and the descent into Redondela grew hotter under the searing Spanish sun. Thanks to the combination of jet lag, dehydration and the brutal heat, I began to struggle with my balance, and my left hand grew numb.
My pace slowed further, and James, our guide, came out to walk with me the last 200 yards. In front of me, I saw Michael collapse in front of the door to the hotel and be carried into the lobby.
With James’ help I staggered in, and Father Nicholas doused me with a bottle of water as I sank into a chair. Then he gave me a Coca-Cola to restore my sugar level, and, instantly, I began to feel brighter. Meanwhile, Rachel sank to her knees and prayed for Michael’s and my recovery. In a few minutes, I was able to climb the stairs to my room, shed my soggy clothes and take the most beautiful cold shower of my life.
Two hours’ rest, contemplation and grateful prayer later, I assisted at our evening Mass. Then we went into town for a “street food” restaurant meal.
Meanwhile, the second miracle of our Camino had occurred: Unbeknownst to me, as I struggled down the steep steps into the hotel courtyard, my Tiffany wristwatch had scraped against the wall, the wrist band came loose and fell off. Two workmen found it, approached the hotel door later and asked if the watch belonged to one of our group. It was a precious possession, inscribed by my mother to my father on their 25th anniversary in 1966, and I was grateful to have it back. I slept poorly and tried to stretch my very sore legs, more stressed than they had felt since early football practice in the 1960s.
The next morning, Father Nicholas and I set out early so he could hear my “walking confession.” An Oxonian former soldier and still a barrister as well, he was an Anglican priest before joining the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, created by Pope Benedict XVI to enable married Anglican priests a path to Rome. “They hated me in the Anglican seminary and tried to paint me as a sexist when I upheld the traditional teaching on the male priesthood. I replied, ‘I pledged to serve and be obedient to Her Majesty the Queen, and I also rather admired Baroness Thatcher, so don’t give me any more of your rubbish.’”
It was a lovely walk in which I expanded at much greater length than usual on my fruitful but ultimately failed marriage, my desert experience after, and the sublime happiness of my subsequent years, he gave me some sound advice about not making perfection the enemy of the good.
My penance was lenient, my soul was refreshed, and I was one step closer to earning the plenary indulgence available to Camino pilgrims, provided one has gone to confession within two weeks of starting or finishing the Camino and attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. James. The indulgence remits one from time in purgatory for sins committed up until that time.
Two young Polish ladies brightened our path at a rest stop that morning, one of the more than 300,000 who make the Camino every year. Farther on, we encountered a Galician piper lady making beautiful music in a shaded glade. And the day ended entering Pontevedre, crossing over the “new bridge,” so called because it was built by the Romans in the seventh century. We dined on scallops and goat cheese salad in the Old City. I slept deeply for the first time and woke up late.
The next morning, I walked with Michael, the French teacher, until we emerged into the countryside, accompanied by boy scouts, a pretty young Eastern European nun, and many more bicyclists than we had seen before.
About 8 kilometers out we came to the lovely Posaodo de Pelegrines in Armaro and found Tracy, who was brooding over Amanda having called her a “radical feminist.” A divorced mother and nonbeliever who nonetheless aspires to be (and plainly is) “a good person,” she assumes the Church has always oppressed women. I gently pointed out the historical evidence in support of the opposite. William came in, needing to charge his phone and reported that Tom and Rachel had turned back after 2 miles when they realized they had left their 1962, pre-Vatican II Missal in the circular Church of the Pilgrim Virgin in Pontevedra. Rachel wears a dress and her black lace mantilla entering a house of God, and Tom misplaced the Missal as he was donning long trousers to enter the Church to be properly reverential. They have also pledged celibacy until marriage, per Church teaching, and plan to take their honeymoon on the French Route.
Our hotel in Caldas de Reis had a swimming pool, which Father Nicholas and I enjoyed after a cold beer. I walked into the town and met some older Irish pilgrims in the church dedicated to St. Thomas à Becket, whom I invited to Mass, which Father Nick celebrated under an apricot tree behind the pool.
We ended the evening in a café beside the Umia River with salmon and wine. On the way home several of our group detoured to bathe in the ancient thermal waters for which the town is famous.
On Day 4, we walked the 19.1 km from Caldas de Reis to Padron. It was cooler and cloudier. The Iglesias de Santiago in Padron is built above the original landing place of St. James on the River Sar with the stone bollard where his boat was moored visible underneath the tabernacle. Tradition says St. James preached in Spain and after his martyrdom by Herod in Jerusalem his remains were taken back to Spain.
We then decamped to a compound called Os Lambrans just outside of town. At our last private Mass, we all sang the Salve Regina. In the evening we ate at a small restaurant back in town, where the feast-day festival was already starting with marching bands and fireworks.
On the feast of St. James, we were up at dawn to make an early start. In so far as toes on both my feet had turned black and my right knee had given out, I volunteered to help James move our baggage into the hotel in Santiago de Compestela 23 km away. Since our intended parador workers had gone on strike on the most important day of the year, we lodged nearby at the Palacio del Carmen. William called at 5 to summon me back into the center for wine and tapas. We enjoyed Padron peppers, garlic shrimp, meat and cheese and proceeded to the cathedral. A pretty Czech girl took our photo by the west entrance to the cathedral, and we began snaking along the line to enter, when William presented his Catholic Herald business card, and we rushed the cathedral entrance as “Press.”
Inside, we prayed at the tomb of St. James in the crypt and saw the massive thurible, botafumerio, requiring six men to operate, that has incensed the congregation for centuries.
I reflected, as John Paul II put it, on this “pathway to conversion and an extraordinary witness to faith” I had been on the last few days. Coming together with my fellow travelers and pilgrims, I saw how, on our trek, we experienced “a pilgrimage as a ‘way’ to interior renewal, to a deepening of faith, a strengthening of the sense of communion and solidarity.”
A long list of pilgrim groups from around the world was read as Mass began. We received Communion from a rather cross-looking monsignor in the rear, who, when Rachel knelt and extended her tongue to receive, pressed the Host into her palm forcefully. She burst into distraught tears and remained upset despite the kindly intervention of a Spanish nun, Amanda and Father Nicholas. She had done nothing wrong, having just walked 100 km devoutly to bear witness to her found faith.
After dinner at a restaurant in the New Town specializing in “Old Cow” (i.e., aged beef), we strolled back to the hotel under a full moon, the towering cathedral beautifully illuminated in the distance.
The one-day strike having ended at the Parador Hotel Les Reyes Catholico as soon as our evening Pilgrims’ Mass was over, Mark, Amanda and I moved into it, a splendid building that had originally been built as a foundling hospital in the 18th century. I took the opportunity to cross the Praza do Obradoiro (the “Golden Square”) back to the now-uncrowded cathedral and examined more closely its Baroque façade and Romanesque interior. I acquired my compestela, the certificate attesting to my walk, at the Pilgrims’ Office nearby and reflected on the words of Sir Walter Raleigh, near his death in 1603, related to the symbol of the Camino, the scallop shell:
Give me a scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My battle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
In the Middle Ages the Camino had been described as the busiest trunk road in Christendom, with half a million pilgrims a year. The goal was to achieve redemption by the hard slog of walking — and by standing at journey’s end in the presence of the relics of one of Jesus’ apostles.
Now, 45% of pilgrims list their reason for walking as religious, an impressive number in a post-Christian era.
For me, the Camino was a joyous, prayerfuI, if sometimes painful, “Cloud of Unknowing,” the results of which will only emerge as the future slowly unfolds.
As John Paul discussed, I was able “to recapture the spirit of the pilgrims of old.”
I had walked the Way of St. James imperfectly but sincerely, strengthened by the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit shared with my fellow pilgrims, and resolved to persevere with courage in whatever the Good Lord holds in store.
James P. MacGuire is the U.S. managing editor of the Catholic Herald.
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