Why would anyone of their own volition choose to walk over 800km? It still seems absurd to me that a few months ago I was waking up at the crack of dawn, donning yesterday’s clothes, having a quick cup of coffee before putting on my hiking pack and spending the day walking towards Santiago (de Compostela) in the north-east tip of Spain.
The route (or camino in Spanish) that I took is one of the many ancient ways known as El Camino de Santiago, which theoretically starts from your front door and ends at the Cathedral in Santiago.
This has been the centre of pilgrimage for hundreds of years.
In fact, it is one of the most ancient centres of pilgrimage alongside Rome and Jerusalem, and is becoming an increasingly popular walk for many secular people.
The day I arrived in Santiago, I think there were a total of 913 people who registered finishing their journey (both walking and cycling).
Let’s pause here, that was the day – not the week or month – and it wasn’t even during peak season.
The best place I can think to start answering the initial question, is decoding the name of the town. The name Santiago de Compostela comes from Saint James.
‘James’ is the English version of the latin Iacobus which comes from the Greek Ἰάκωβος (which can also be translated as Jacob). In Iberia, Jacobus is translated as Iago.
Sant was the local word for ‘saint’ and so St James is translated as Sant Iago, which then becomes Santiago.
St James was called by Jesus to be an apostle (Mk 1:19-20), one of the few allowed to accompany Jesus when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mk 5:37-42) and witnessed the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-7).
He wasn’t perfect, though. When a Samaritan town refused to receive Jesus since he was Jewish, James wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume the town (Lk 9:54).
I quite like that he had a feisty personality, and this may be the reason that King Herod “killed James, the brother of John, with a sword” (Acts 12:2).
According to tradition, James was transported back to Spain after his death, where he preached for many years. Eventually, he died, was buried and forgotten.
In approximately the 9th century, his remains were rediscovered and moved by King Alfonso II to another place where an adequate shrine to house the apostle could be built. Today, this is the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago.
Given this neat resume, I’m not at all surprised that people for hundreds of years have walked very large distances to see St James, except for one glaringly obvious fact: he’s dead – since approximately 44 AD, almost 2,000 years.
But the thing is, it isn’t a walk at all, it’s a pilgrimage.
Relics, which range from actual bodily remains to items of clothing, or even objects which were in regular contact with a holy person, have always held a special place in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
One of the earliest references to the miraculous power of relics comes from the Hebrew Scriptures.
When a dead man is thrown into Elisha’s tomb, for example, and comes in contact with Elisha’s bones, he is raised to life again (2 Kings 13:20-1).
Similarly, many other relics have attested to miracles, suggesting that they possess some supernatural quality.
This is one reason that people have often travelled to an actual relic, to touch it in the hope that their proximity to it will transform them in some way.
However, it’s important not to lose sight that a relic is not God, nor does it possess any power of its own accord, and would be a mere piece of cloth, for example, without God’s grace. St Jerome stated this idea quite clearly:
“We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are” (Jerome, Ad Riparium, i, PL, XXII, 907).
Relics are, however, a way to gain access to God in a more abstract sense. Perhaps the contemplation of an object, such as the Cross of Christ, can fill you with awe, understanding and many other spiritual gifts which in turn aid one’s relationship with God.
However nice and essential building a relationship with God may be, I know that the reality is that people usually pray and seek God out when they are desperate.
Because of this they usually want real physical results for a physical ailment, such as the curing of a cancer.
In desperate times, and sometimes not so desperate, Catholics usually pull out the big guns to aid their prayers, that is, the saints.
They call upon the saint to intercede for them before God, that is, to pray with and for them.
With this in mind, it makes sense that a person seeking the intercession of St James would desire to venerate him in some way and going to visit his tomb is one of the ways this can be done.
I’d quite happily say that a great number of pilgrims on the road, myself included, walk to petition the saint.
There are also the select few who walk simply to give thanks to God for a particular Grace or Gift.
I thought the Camino would be quite easy. In fact, I decided that I could walk the distance in 26 days when 34 was recommended. I was wrong.
Even though I completed the actual physical distance in 25 days, by no stretch of the imagination could I have completed the pilgrimage on my own.
I don’t feel as though I walked (or more accurately hobbled) so much as was carried along by people whom I met along the way.
By day three I had sustained such bad injuries to the tendon that runs across the top of my left ankle, I could no longer wear my hiking boots.
I was in so much agony I had to sit down and couldn’t bear any pressure on the tendon – not even the lightest touch.
As it so happened, I was walking with a girl called Rocio that day, who had recognised me “as the girl who invited her to pray the Rosary a few days earlier”.
She strapped my ankle, gave me painkillers and, when she saw I could not wear my boots, even gave me her sandals to walk in.
We (naturally) had exactly the same size feet. Since she knew that I was struggling with any weight in my pack, she even carried my boots for me, increasing her pack by 2kg, a relatively enormous weight for long-distance walkers.
I would not have completed even the first 100km without her. Later that day, which happened to be my 24th birthday, I lost all hope as I iced my ankle with the rain.
I could not bear to contemplate the thought that each step I would take would be agony. I did not think it possible to walk the entire way.
Yet I did, and I promise you, the injury did not get much better, despite copious amounts of anti-inflammatories.
I am still undertaking medical treatment to be able to walk without pain. The thing that kept me going was my petition.
It was that important to me, that the pain became almost insignificant. I decided that while I could take another step, I would; and so it was the entire way, step by step.
There were many other times I wanted to sit down and give up.
One day in particular, I was in so much pain from my feet that I sat down and cried three times.
I did not think I could make it. However, the urgency of my petition weighed down on me.
I don’t think I even realised how important it was to me until that point, and how much I was willing to fight and put everything on the line for it.
And that is why I walked.