The Well-Trod Path of the Pilgrims

The 4-foot-tall botafumeiro left behind a thick trail of smoke as it swung toward the ceiling, to which it was anchored by a thick rope.

As it crested and fell back toward earth, it saturated the nave with the scent of incense. Our senses thus alerted to the presence of the Holy Spirit, we were ready to pray.

The place: the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Beneath the altar of this mighty edifice the bones of St. James are said to rest. A strong devotion to the apostle has been in place here since at least the 10th century. For many, this devotion takes its most ardent expression in a walk — a millennium-old walk across Spain.

Santiago de Compostela, a city of 100,000 in the northwest part of the country, is the final destination. In fact, the Mount of Joy just outside the city is where the pilgrims (peregrino s) first see Santiago. A large granite monument testifies to Pope John Paul II's visit in 1993.

But, once here, the pereginos’ journey has not quite ended. First, they must enter the Cathedral of St. James, go behind the altar and hug the saint's statue from the back. Next, they stroll down the center aisle to the Romanesque sculpture of the Portico of Glory. Here they place their right thumb and another finger into the Tree of Jesse, which is 1,000 years old and has the marks to show for all the human hands that have laid hold of it.

Finally the trip is finished. The pilgrim receives a certificate, the Compostelam, written in Latin and attesting to the accomplishment. To obtain it, you must have walked at least 100 kilometers (about 80 miles). All along the way, there are stops where designated officials stamp your book, much like a passport.

Following the March 11 commuter-train bombings that killed 200 people and injured 1,500 in Madrid, I thought again about my recent Spanish pilgrimage — and the good people of the nation across the Atlantic that was once “ground zero” in the struggle between Christians and Moors (Muslims) for control of Europe.

Divine Distractions

I sought out the staff in the Oficina de Acogida del Peregrino (Office of the Pilgrim) among the rococo arches at Rua del Villar, No. 1. This is where the peregrinos go to receive the Compostelam. Near the entrance, one enterprising Santiagoan had his dog decked out in the traditional pilgrim hat with a staff thrust between its paws. For two euros you could take his picture.

I asked Oscar, a staff member, what type of person takes a month out of his or her life to walk across Spain. The answer: all types of people.

For 28-year-old Andrew Popp of the Netherlands, the trek was part of a spiritual quest. He had just completed the Camino de Pereginos (Pathway of the Pilgrims) and was standing, staff in hand, in front of the cathedral. “I would wake up in the morning and know the Lord was with me,” he told me. “You are so conscious of a higher being. I could even see him. He told me not to worry. I was even robbed, but here I am.”

Nearby, a German peregrino in a large, floppy hat and khaki shorts held the same requisite staff. His sun-burnished face scanned a map of the old city.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it would be a minute-by-minute struggle. I couldn't go 10 yards, but I could go five. I went the five, now maybe I could go another five. The urge to give up was always present for me. Other peregrinos gave me encouragement.”

At the Santiago train station, I met an American peregrino from Virginia as he was negotiating a ticket to Fatima, Portugal, in halting Spanish. A two-months’ growth of beard gave testimony to his time on the road.

“Last year I started the Camino but didn't finish. This year I went all the way back to France. It was late March and snow was on the ground. It's hard to put one foot ahead of the other against a freezing wind. I didn't give up. Now I want to experience Fatima.”

We picked up part of the Camino outside the town of Ourense, an hour's drive from Santiago. Here, the imprint of the scallop shell had been embedded into a stone pillar. We walked through farmland along a rutted dirt road lined with the burgeoning blossoms of fruit trees. A stork's nest was visible through the tree branches. At one point the crowing of roosters mixed with the buzzing of bees as if to remind us that many sights and sounds here have not changed much over the past millennium.

We followed a path that sloped down to a stream and waterfall. In the distance a farmer was hunched over with bundles on her back.

There came the realization that, by presenting us with such vast treasures of tranquility along our way, the Lord was beckoning us not to rush toward our destination with such haste but rather to rest. Stop by a stream just to hear it gurgle. Enter into the coolness of an old church. Several times, we took him up on the invitation.

A Holy Year (Ano Santo) is declared here whenever the 25th of July (the feast of St. James) falls on a Sunday. The last time that happened was in 1999. Pope John Paul II came to Santiago to open the puerta sacra (sacred door).

The next time of such special celebration is less than four months away. There's still time to book a flight.

If you can make it, chances are you'll become as convinced as we were that, in spite of the absence of concrete proof, the mortal remains of St. James are indeed in the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.

Such faith that inspires one of the world's greatest — and most demanding — pilgrimages could not exist otherwise.

Wynne Crombie writes from Huntley, Illinois.