The Walk of a Lifetime – The Way of St. James –
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela
By Lou Dinnella
I could never really understand why people would choose to walk hundreds of miles to pay homage to a saint. But, for some reason, I was always fascinated by people who said that they were going to do a walking pilgrimage to see the burial place of the Apostle James; and perhaps knowing the legend that surrounds this Apostle is what compelled me to consider joining the ranks of these pilgrims. The legend begins after the Resurrection, when Jesus Christ came back to visit his Apostles to send them out all over the world to preach the “Good News” - the Good News being that God loves us so much that he sent his only son to die for our sins on the cross, so through his death, man could be free from the sting of death – sin , and especially that original sin committed by Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit; and through Christ’s death and resurrection man could overcome the fear of death because now man has a promise of eternal life. Well, in this effort, James was sent to, what was considered at that time, the end of the known world – Finisterre, located in the northwestern corner of Spain’s present-day Galician region. So James set out on his long arduous journey only to realize that the local Celts were not very interested in his story, his preaching, or his message. He went back to Palestine where he was eventually beheaded - he was the first Apostle to be martyred. For some reason, it was decided that his body would be sent back, via a rudderless boat, to Finisterre. His remains arrived and they were taken to a spot and buried. However, where they were buried was a mystery. So for hundreds of years the remains of St. James were lost until, sometime in the 9th century, a hermit named Pelayo saw stars in the sky shinning over a field (field- campus, stars – stella), he followed the path of the stars and discovered the tomb of St. James (Sant Iago), along with the tomb of two of his disciples. He reported his find to the local bishop who in turn informed the king, and it was decided to establish a small church with a monastery to house the remains, thus the name of the city – Santiago de Compostela. People started to visit and many miracles were attributed to visits to the site. The legend gets better, in an effort by the Spanish to expel the Moors from their land, they prayed to St. James and, as a result of their petitions, St. James mystically appeared on the battlefield to help slay these Moorish intruders, and he became known as Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor slayer); these efforts also were cause for him to be named the patron saint of Spain.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela, along with Jerusalem and Rome, became one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage sites. Nevertheless, historical events in the 15th and 16th centuries led to making this a difficult pilgrimage and the number of pilgrims greatly dwindled. It was not until the 1980’s that a resurgence of interest took place. Some of this interest was due to a true spiritual need by some believers, others felt culturally and historically motivated to do it. Today, you hear people say that they want to walk the Camino to find themselves, to have a spiritual encounter (whether they believe in a God or not), to commune with nature, or to have an adventure of trekking through Europe. The local Galician government is also keen on promoting the Camino because it has helped local tourism and as a result the economic growth of the area is seen in the stores, bars, cafes, hostels, and hotels that have sprung up along the route which has helped boost the employment rate in the region. The Camino is a win win both for the pilgrim and the local populace.
From a personal standpoint, my wife, Grisell, my son, Luis, and I decided this past winter to walk the Camino at the end of June. Our reasons were varied: spiritually, we wanted to pay homage to a man who gave his live for the evangelization; culturally, we love to visit Spain, we find its people wonderful and its food and drink are not far behind; and physically, while we live rather sedentary lives here in Homestead, Florida, we thought it would be a great way to get some much needed exercise while communing with nature.
Now, there are many Caminos, there is the French Way, The English Way, the Portuguese Way, and others. With a little research, we decided to do what is considered the last stage of the Portuguese Way since this was the path that James took in life and death. It starts in the Portuguese border town of Valença and goes for about 121 kilometers to Santiago. This was an important number for us because we wanted to receive the certificate called the Compostela given by the Pilgrim Office in Santiago that attests to one’s completion of at least the last 100 kilometers of the Way. We felt we needed this goal to motivate us to complete the walk.
My wife and I wanted to walk the Camino before we arrive at the time in our lives that perhaps would not allow us to do the walk. I am 73, my wife is 70. The fact that our 34 years old son wanted to accompany us also helped our decision. We had a little concern about walking over 65 miles. However, our interest in the Camino overcame our trepidation. Since the Camino is not about finishing first, one can do it at one’s own pace. Our plan was to walk about 12k a day over a 10 day period. I do not know why we thought that walking about 7.5 miles a day was in our wheelhouse when, in Homestead, we do not even want to walk to the gym in our complex. I guess it seemed that walking 12k a day was better that walking 20k a day.
Once we embarked on our walk we discovered that on the Camino, the path is pretty well indicated by a series of way markers with a yellow scallop shell (the scallop shell is the symbol of the Way) on a blue background followed by a yellow arrow pointing to the direction one needs to take, and the distance remaining to reach Santiago. In addition, many of these paths (called Camino Natural) follow beautiful settings where one finds oneself walking through an enchanting forest next to a stream, or on a dirt path where all you hear are the sounds of birds, the wind, and trickling water. Some sections take you through acres and acres of vineyards and farmlands, through small rural villages, chestnut groves and eucalyptus forests. On certain sections, it felt that my wife, my son, and I were all alone, and the sounds and smells of the forest were a real treat that revealed to us God’s secrets that are only found in natural settings.
During our ten-day journey, we encountered certain realities. We saw that like life, some parts of our walk were easy, like waking on a clean path, and sometimes some parts were difficult, like when we had a steep incline ahead of us which was covered by big rocks only to encounter a steep decline afterwards and more rocks. In the end, whether the road was easy or hard, had obstacles or not, you just had to keep walking – another life lesson. Also, sometimes when we were diverted from our path, we were delighted by a beautiful experience , like in the town of Barosa where we saw beautiful natural cascades; and sometimes when one deviates one finds an unpleasant experience, like a wide dangerous highway that we had to cross. The Camino teaches many life lessons.
Our journey also gave us the opportunity to see life at its best. One day, even though the path is pretty well marked, we just wanted to be sure we were going the right way. I saw a bread delivery man, and I asked him if we were going in the right direction. He got all excited – “Wow, you are doing the Camino – that’s great. Yes, you are going the right way, let me give you some of my freshly baked bread.” I said that he was very kind to offer us bread but I initially said no thank you but he insisted. So we took the bread and ate some of the best baked bread we ever had.
Another time, we arrived in the town of Cesantes, we heard that we could see a beautiful view of the Bay of Vigo from the back of the local church, but to our disappointment, the church was closed. Apparently, there was a local religious holiday and it was customary to place freshly cut flowers in a special design on the ground, and the church was locked to protect anyone from inadvertently stepping on the flowers. A local lady saw us at the locked gates and asked us why we there. When we told her that we were disappointed because the church was locked and we would not be able to see the view, her response was, “ you are pilgrims, come to my house, from my terrace you will see the beautiful view.” I do not know if I would be so generous and trusting of strangers, even if they said they were pilgrims.
On one other occasion, we were walking through kilometers of farmland and passing through a hamlet, we encountered an elderly lady cleaning the front section of a gorgeous mansion – here we are in the middle of nowhere and there is this tremendous mansion made from local rock. We commented to her on the beauty of her house, and she told us that to get the house this way it took generations of work by her family. She pointed to an old dilapidated house across the street and told us that her family also owned that house, and that her fantastic house used to originally look like that one but over the years starting with her great grandparents, the family worked hard and little by little transformed the ramshackled house into the great mansion it is today. They still kept the old house across the street as a reminder of their beginnings. She told us if we looked carefully at the newer dwelling we would see how they incorporated some of the old stone into its walls. Once again, we complimented her family’s efforts and she said, “I know you are pilgrims, please come inside, I would like to show you our patio.”
We accepted her offer and were treated to the site of a beautiful flower filled patio. Between the beauty of nature, and the beauty of people’s ways, our journey always seemed to be enhanced. I might add that it is easy to tell pilgrims from tourists, the pilgrim is usually carrying a backpack with a scallop shell painted with the cross of Santiago hanging on it, wears a hat, and is carrying walking sticks to help traverse the terrain.
On our first eight days of walking, from time to time, we ran into pilgrims from all over the world, but we never felt overwhelmed by pilgrims. In fact, many times we would walk for four or five kilometers and saw no one. Once, we were walking through a wooded section and we heard the melodious voices of pilgrims singing some religious songs. It was a surreal experience – here we were walking in the woods alone and suddenly, we felt uplifted by these voices singing ever so softly, it was as if they came from heaven. When they passed us, it was a small group of about eight Italian pilgrims, accompanied by their local parish priest – the experience was truly moving.
As we got closer to Santiago, the weather, for some reason, got hotter, and we encountered many pilgrims, and even some very large youth groups. They were vibrant and happy but it changed, for us, the tenor of the walk. Finally, as we entered the city, we were basically walking on city streets and we had the specific goal of getting to the Cathedral, to enter it, to hug the statue of St, James located behind the altar, and to visit his tomb. Normally, one would attend the noon pilgrim mass at the Cathedral but the inside is undergoing renovations in preparation for the Xacobeo Year in 2021 (the year when the feast day of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday and special indulgences may be obtained).
I have to admit, after walking so much, it was a tremendous feeling to arrive at the Praza de Obradoiro, the large plaza in front of the mammoth Cathedral - we were overcome with a true sense of accomplishment. We walked to the pilgrim office , showed our credential (every pilgrim who wishes starts off their pilgrimage with a booklet called the credential, If you would like to receive the certificate of completion, those who are walking the last 100 kilometers must have this credential stamped at least twice a day as they journey to Santiago. The stamps may be obtained from a local church, municipal office, bar, café, hostel, or hotel, etc.). After answering a few questions as to why we did the Camino, where we started , what was our nationality, we were presented with our Compostela, a document printed in Latin that attests to one’s completion of the Way. Looking at this document gave me a true sense of pride for having finished the Way but, in the end, I realized that I really had not finished the Way, I just began it, and as the traditional greeting among pilgrims says – Buen Camino!
Lou Dinnella, 3541 Se 4th Street, Homestead, Fl 3303 – firstname.lastname@example.org – 201-960-7403