On Easter Monday, some of us here at BCC are converging on a small town in Galicia, Spain. The journey to our meeting place in Sarria begins for us from Germany, from England, and from the United States. In Sarria we shall meet as old friends, shake hands, chew the cud. And then for the following five days we will be walking the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago) to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela.
How it is that a group of Mormons are making this most Catholic of pilgrimages will be further explored in a later post. In the meantime, here is why I personally feel the draw of St. James’s shrine:
Partly it’s because I simply like walking in the countryside, particularly with friends. Partly it’s because I have that deep human need to travel from A to B simply because B is there. I do this with my family all the time — hiking national trails and “bagging” peaks across the United Kingdom and Europe. Santiago is a “B” and the road there looks beautiful and the logistics rather exciting. I will fly from London to Biarritz in France, spend the night in San Sebastian in the Basque country, and then take the train across Spain to Sarria. On the Camino, and armed with special pilgrim passes, we will spend the night in cheap pilgrim hostels. The whole trip will cost me ~$500 which is pretty good, although I do have moments of shame thinking about what a first world luxury this is. That said, that is the least of my sins of privilege.
I am also drawn to spiritual places. It’s partly romantic — to walk up Glastonbury Tor is, for example, to have one’s English blood burn splendidly in one’s veins. But I do find religious meaning in certain holy places, whether it’s the Sacred Grove or Walsingham. I find the common religious yearning more powerful than any sectarian concerns. Thus, I will be moved at Gadfield Elm chapel but also at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or at a ring of stones in Wiltshire. In that sense, a Catholic pilgrimage is easily co-opted by my own sense of God — not that I want to make it into a Mormon pilgrimage, but because I can allow the meaning of a Catholic pilgrimage became part of that one great whole we are taught about in our own holiest place.
Then there is the serendipity of it all. John Fowles, my friend and brother, has often mentioned the Camino to me and insisted we do it. To be honest, while it sounded good I didn’t feel compelled towards it until very recently. Last year I began a job at the cathedral school in Worcester. One day I noticed a decorated slab on the floor of the nave marking the tomb of the “Worcester pilgrim.” Excavations in the 1980s uncovered the skeleton of a pilgrim, complete with boots, staff, and a cockleshell. It is this last that associates him (probably) with Santiago: the sigil of St. James is the scallop shell and it is an ancient souvenir of the Camino. Now I had a second reason to be aware of Santiago and the fact that a man from my home city had made the journey — albeit all the way from England! — was delightful to my sense of place and being.
Within days of this discovery, my sister, not knowing about all this St. James stuff, recommended the film The Way, about an American’s experience of the pilgrimage. I watched it and decided then and there I was going. So, I emailed John and now we are only a few weeks away from Sarria.
So there it is. The rest of us will give our reasons here before we go and then we shall report to the blog with pictures and descriptions on the way. Or, as I prefer, on The Way.