IT WAS wonderful being at home, walking up the tractor trails on Sunday morning with the happy dogs running alongside, the bells calling over the fields to summon us all to church.
The pews are handmade from cheap pine. They wobble on the uneven floor. They are spectacularly uncomfortable, but mass rarely takes longer than 30 minutes. With all the standing and kneeling figured in, suffering is minimal.
It is a little church, humble. We’re not many people, but our location on the Camino de Santiago won us some special consideration. We still had a mass every Sunday, presented by Don Santiago, a small, smiling, snowy-haired man who was supposed to be retired.
Moratinos stands out from other congregations because we sing. We sing very loud and very badly, but no one cares. It is fun, it is healthy. And where else, when else, do we all get to sing together?
Still, at the climax of the weekly rite, almost nobody takes communion. Of the 15 or so people who attend on an average Sunday, only three or four of us regularly go up to have our little bit of Jesus.
I used to wonder if I should go to communion, if I was being self-righteous; but any time I skipped I had to answer to Remedios. Three is the minimum number permitted, she said. If the number of communicants fell below that, the bishop would suspend our weekly masses, and Moratinos would just dry up.
Later on, I realised how much I needed that communion. It’s spiritual food. My lifestyle could be a real drain on the spirits. I have to keep my strength up.
Maybe that’s why those of us who consistently took the sacrament were women. Maybe we didn’t have so many opportunities to sin during the week. Or maybe, as the ones taking care of everybody else, we needed that little bit of community-sanctioned self-care.
THE church bells sometimes pull pilgrims in from the trail. The devout among them leave their backpacks by the baptismal font and join us in the pews. Almost no one ever greets them. But me, the cheerful post-Evangelical, I do. Some Sundays in summer, when the plaza was full of pilgrims, I go out before the service and invite people to come in and join us.
They can’t say “No” quick enough. “I’m a pilgrim,” they say. “I don’t have time for church. I have to walk.”
It makes me smile, but I feel a little rejected, too. What the hell kind of pilgrim won’t go to church? They want to see inside the building. They want a museum of art or ethnography, something safely under glass. But if you offer them the living Christ, and pews full of sinners? No thanks, man. This is my camino, done on my terms.
Time was, not so long ago, that only one or two pilgrims ever passed through this town in a given year. They were always religious, always men. Proper women stayed at home, and men not linked to the Church didn’t wander the countryside unless they were up to no good, or atoning for some great sin.
If a pilgrim appeared, he’d often be asked inside to share whatever the family had — garlic soup, stewed lentils or garbanzos, an apple, a chunk of bread, and sheep’s milk cheese, a porron of wine. The traveller blessed the household, then took himself off to the church porch or the threshing floor to sleep. If he was lucky he could bed down in the barn, or sleep in the bunkhouse with the hired men.
There was never any question of him paying for his stay. Hosting a pilgrim was not a transaction.
IN SAHAGUN, right up through the 1960s, pilgrims slept in the town hall. There was a little room set aside for them, with a sleeping niche carved into the adobes. The straw bedding was changed once a year. A Belgian pilgrim who stayed there in the 1950s said it was hopping with fleas.
Pilgrims were penitents, professional sufferers. If there was a holy service anywhere, they’d be sure to attend. Having a pilgrim show up was a lucky sign, and the traveller often was invited home to share in the feast that followed. The family that took in pilgrims was publicly acknowledged as doing a Christian deed, and the pilgrim, conveniently, moved right along the following day. It was easier to be nice to pilgrims than, say, the neighbours. Or even family.
Big towns like Sahagún or Carrión de los Condes long ago had big pilgrim hostels, run by pious confraternities or monastic houses. But, by the 20th century, wars and enlightenment and the general suspicion that goes with dictatorship put an end to pilgrimages. The Camino de Santiago was dead but for a few academics and fanatics.
Generalissimo Franco saw himself as a conquering hero in the mould of St James, but his Camino was the N-120 highway. Church groups took buses and trains to Santiago for annual patriotic fiestas, but walking the Camino was just a memory in Spain. Large sections of the old pilgrim road were paved over or ploughed over.
NO ONE can say why the Camino de Santiago came blazing back to life in the past three decades. The death of Franco, a drive for athletic challenges, spiritual thirst, capitalism, nostalgia, historic memory — some, or all the above, have a part in it.
Little clutches of history students no longer roll out their sleeping bags on the floor of the abandoned schoolhouse. Gone are the grubby holy men, sleeping rough on the threshing floor, begging crusts from the farmers, praying their rosaries as they walk.
Now, the pilgrims come by the tens of thousands, and they’re met on arrival by travel agents, restaurateurs, guide-book publishers, tourist boards, and “personal-growth coaches”.
The dirty old schoolhouse is transformed to one of almost 500 inns, B&Bs, albergues, hostels, or other places geared to pilgrims, scattered along the main Camino pathways. Pilgrims are consumers now, with an array of choices on where to stay and how much to spend.
For the more spiritually minded, there are prayer books and spirit guides to ensure that they don’t miss a single Sacred Space on their Inner Journey. Others keep tabs on the “Best Value for Money” options, so their pilgrimage doesn’t start costing like a vacation. Pilgrims are ever vigilant about their money and time. Pilgrims like to believe the locals would still be living in Stone-Age huts if it weren’t for them and their cash.
What was a rugged path of repentance and suffering is now a series of day hikes for spiritual consumers. The historic Pilgrim Way is a collision of capitalism and old-time Christian simplicity. The outcomes are fascinating, moving, and sometimes grotesque.
We live in the middle of it.
For some people, walking the Camino has become an addiction. They return year after year; they walk over and over. Their trail diaries comprise a whole genre of Camino lore of wildly varying quality. Hobos live on the Camino, or live off it, travelling from one “free” albergue to the next, begging for their bed and board. Trail life is cheaper than daily life in many European cities; so laid-off workers just hang out on the Camino, killing time until they can go home and collect their pensions.
Creative, enterprising souls become “Camino coaches”: they ease the way for less confident pilgrims and thus subsidise their own wandering habits. Others create Camino-themed jewellery, ribbons, sunscreen, fortune-telling cards, hiking poles, water bottles, hats, socks, and stickers, and sell them on the internet. There are Camino trade shows, conferences, campaigns, and clubs.
Not all these things are bad. “Camino Amigos” groups run several albergues where pilgrims can sleep for a donation, and keep the trail open for truly poor pilgrims. Sadly, the facilities are often worn out and neglected, overrun by middle-class tourists gleefully sleeping for free, soaking up the grubby “Real Camino” ambience.
There still are real pilgrims out there. Many of them start out as tourists, but find their thoughts turning to deeper, wider things as they walk. No matter how pimped and paved the path becomes, it is still very long, hard, and sometimes lonely. It is an old, holy place, made sacred by the footsteps of millions of people, over a thousand years.
This is an edited extract from A Furnace Full of God (£13 plus p&p from the Confraternity of St James online shop, csj.org.uk).