Why Santiago de Compostela?

caminodesantiagoOn 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.

On the road to Walsingham

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.

The grave of the Worcester Pilgrim and the feet that will follow (sort of) his journey to Santiago.

The grave of the Worcester Pilgrim and the feet that will follow (sort of) his journey to Santiago.

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.


  1. Have a fabulous trip. Very envious. And if you meet your demise enroute what little things would you like buried alongside you?

  2. I trust we’ll be doing a handcart re-enactment?

  3. I wonder how bad of a sin it is to covet this experience. Like on a scale of 1 to 10, what are we talking? 1, 2 maybe?

    Have a great time and post lots of pics.

  4. Vince,
    When I was about eight or nine, I wrote a weird thing at school about how I wanted to be buried with a copy of the Pearl of Great Price. My teacher must have thought I was bonkers. But in that vein, perhaps a hypocephalus under my head. Just cut out facsimile 2.


    Fowles has grand ideas of web-casting the experience. You are, of course, welcome to join us. Just meet in Sarria on the morning of Easter Monday. I’m serious.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I love this RJH. Godspeed.

  6. Holy envy here. May the sun be at your face, the wind at your back, and your friends at your side.

  7. RJH, I’d love to, but I need to save up a little more and renew my passport. Maybe the next time you make a pilgrimage, I’ll be there. :)

  8. Wishing I could go. Take lots of pics people.

  9. I hope you all make good on the promise to report here with pictures and descriptions on the way. Looking forward to our very own BCC version of The Canterbury Tales.

  10. John will put up a post that will be updated with pics etc. I will also use @ronanhead #camino.

  11. The Way is a fantastic little movie. I tend to roll my eyes at our handcart trek tendencies, but that film had me thinking that even the Way of St. James is just a very very old forerunner of trek. Does the repeated action of thousands or hundreds of thousands imbue the pilgrimage with sanctity, or does something else?
    At the very least, I envy you your pilgrimage. I hope to walk the Way of St. James sometime in my life.

  12. Santiago de compostela was the first area I served in on my mission many years ago. We spent a couple p-days doing short legs of the camino and they remain very fond memories.

    It’s a beautiful area and an incredibly impressive cathedral. Like many others I’m envious/covetous of you all. Enjoy!

  13. I would love to walk the pioneer trail across the plains. I think what makes Trek kitschy is when we dress in bonnets, pull handcarts, and otherwise manufacture the experience. If I were to do the camino wearing medieval pilgrim garb, it would be similarly kitschy.

  14. Well, I don’t know, Ronan. I think I’d like to see you medieval pilgrim garb.

  15. But I do find religious meaning in certain holy places…I find the common religious yearning more powerful than any sectarian concerns./blockquote>

    I had a similar experience at The Grotto in Portland, Oregon a year or two back. My first reaction at viewing the statuary and surroundings was that it was not all that interesting. However, when my wife and I came to the actual recess in the cliff wall that gives the statuary garden its name, we saw a statue of Mary, flanked on either side by racks full of burning votive candles. I was struck by the expressions of faith and yearning represented by all of those who came their with who knows what sorrow, grief, or gratitude in their hearts. I then realized that this was a sacred space, created through their faith, and at that time, I felt a part of that community of seekers after grace.

    In that sense, I envy you your pilgrimage.

  16. Darn those html tags…

  17. I’m doing a religious pilgrimage in Japan for similar reasons. One question – a problem with my pilgrimage is that much of the pilgrim trail has been paved over with highways so that much of walking must be done on asphalt next to traffic. Has a more naturalistic trail been preserved for the leg of the St. James trail you are doing?

  18. According to my guidebook, the trail we are walking is pretty leafy. Tell us about your trip to Japan!

    Kevin, I know exactly what you mean.

  19. Andy Hardwick says:

    When my wife and I traveled to Santaigo de Compostela we went into the massive shrine. Sitting down in one of the pews, I thought for a minute I was going crazy and having a vision of the St James statue in movement until i realized that the movement I saw was coming for the pilgrims who were embracing the statue of St James. I have visited holy sites of many different religions and I always feel a sesnse of reverence no matter the creed.

  20. Perfect intro. Ditto to everything. I’m already unbearably trunky for the pilgrimage!

    Steve, my brother Jordan, who is also coming along, has actually suggested that the Crawford young’uns could get double credit for this by pulling a handcart with all of our packs stacked in it. They get 1,000 years off of Purgatory for doing the pilgrimage and they get whatever we as Mormons get by doing Trek!

  21. John Mansfield says:

    The Arizona to Sonora version goes something like this. (The lead singer and the blonde back-up vocalist happen to be Latter-day Saints.)

  22. I loved that movie, so much so that I bought it.

  23. Karen Carter says:

    I don’t mind admitting that I’m filled with envy. What an awesome experience this would be! I remember the first time I visited the cathedral in Chartres. It was a pilgrimage day, and people from all over the region were arriving and filling the nave for what seemed like hours. Some were barefoot, many carrying standards. I snuck in with them, and just being there, not understanding a thing, was one of the most important spiritual experiences of my life. It was then that I knew that God could be found in many places outside of the LDS church. (I was very young and naive at the time.) It was this experience that led me to study religious history.

    Safe travels!

  24. Karen, Chartres rules. Aaron next to Melchizedek. The labyrinth. The black madonna of the crypt!

  25. Jesse Hurlbut says:

    I’ve spent several days on different sections of the French leg of the road to Compostella. Setting out from Le Puy en Vellay and walking into Conques. The tradition of this trail goes back 1000 years. I look forward to going back to finish the whole pilgrimage. Meeting people is a wonderful part of this particular pilgrimage. Everyone has interesting stories. I found it particularly easy to talk about my favorite verses in the book of James. Most folks know only that they are heading toward his grave and know little of what he has written. You’ll meet some people who are there strictly for physical fitness, but many others are wondering if something will happen to them while they’re on the trail. Others are actively seeking divine light. It is truly humbling to be in their presence.

    It’s also a great opportunity to explore the pace of life on the (unassisted) human scale and, if you can spend any time walking alone, develop and refine an ability for walking meditation.

    Buon camino!

  26. Hi Jesse,
    My wife, one of your former students, will be walking the Camino with all of us. I’ll have her send you some pics.

  27. Very cool, Jesse. Fun to see you hear and to learn that you’re a fellow pilgrim! Take a look at our liveblog of the trip now that we’ve completed it!


  28. (fun to see you here, that is, not “hear” — oops!)

  29. Andy, since you’ve walked The Way, feel free to join the Mormon Confraternity of St. James, a new Facebook group that’s open to all. Put some of your pictures and thoughts from the experience there!