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Not just travelling hopefully

by
29 July 2022

John Inge reflects on a recent pilgrimage

Marc Hill/Alamy

The pilgrim Camino monument at Alto del Perdón, near Uterga, in Spain

The pilgrim Camino monument at Alto del Perdón, near Uterga, in Spain

THIS week, there will have been great celebrations in Spain for the feast of St James the Great. St James is the patron saint of Spain, and his feast day is Spain’s National Day. The festivities focus on Santiago, because tradition has it that, in 813, a shepherd, Pelayo, was drawn by a bright light or star to a field, where he discovered the tomb of the Apostle James. The field was in what we now know as Santiago de Compostela: “St James of the Field of the Stars”. Since that time, many thousands of pilgrims have been attracted to Santiago — in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was more popular than Rome.

In 1987, the remains of a 15th-century pilgrim were discovered at the base of the tower of Worcester Cathedral. We know he was a pilgrim, because he was buried in his boots with a staff and a cockleshell. The cockleshell was the “badge” carried by medieval pilgrims to Santiago.

 

MY WIFE, H-J, and I decided to follow in his footsteps, but using bicycles. We set off in late May from St Jean Pierre de Port, in the Pyrenees, and cycled the 500 miles to Santiago following the route known as “The Camino”, “The Way”. While on it, we encountered many modern-day pilgrims from all over Europe and beyond. Since we were cycling, we generally went a bit faster than the walkers. Every time we passed them, we hailed each other with the traditional greeting, “Buen Camino.” There’s no adequate English translation of that salutation: I suppose “go well” is probably the nearest.

Literally, it means “Good way.” Jesus is frequently described in the New Testament as being “on the way”, and he wants us to join him. The cure of blind Bartimaeus in chapter 10 marks the goal of St Mark’s Gospel in the life of its readers: Bartimaeus was at the side of the way, in the gutter, but, after his healing, he followed Jesus “on the way” (en to hodo). Jesus wants us all to follow him “on the way”; and, of course, Jesus himself is described as the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14.6).

It is in the Acts of the Apostles that we first come across the Christian faith referred to as “the Way” (Acts 29.21, and several times thereafter). That, we can infer, is how early Christians described their faith. It’s how Paul referred to himself in his trial before Felix: “I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way.” Maybe “Buen Camino” would be a good thing for us to say to other Christians when we see them.

 

PILGRIMAGE is a helpful way of understanding our lives: it gives them meaning and purpose. We’re on a journey with Jesus. An actual pilgrimage gives time out from all the usual demands of life to reassess our priorities and focus on following Jesus “on the way”. H-J and I took very little with us, and didn’t book more than 24 hours ahead. It enabled us to live in the present, reflect on what’s important — and give our Christian journey pride of place in our lives.

We generally set off each day before 7 a.m., and pedalled until the afternoon. We didn’t have much idea where we were going, but, fortunately, the route is well marked. Way-markers left by fellow travellers are invaluable on our Christian journey. The saints do that for us: they show us the way, and they pray for us. I like to think of them being on the side of the road, cheering us on.

We need the encouragement of others on the way, as there are many pitfalls, and, despite all the directions, it’s very easy to go “off-piste” on the journey. Sometimes, the saints can encourage us by showing us that they got things wrong, too. Even St James the Great — whose shrine has attracted all those pilgrims along the way to Santiago for hundreds of years — and his brother, John, had to be rebuked by Jesus for getting it wrong (Luke 9.55), as did St Peter, the rock on whom Jesus chose to build his Church (Matthew 16.23).

 

NOWADAYS, although pilgrimage is a popular metaphor in Christian and other circles, the emphasis tends to be on the journey. For the medieval pilgrim, though, the destination was at least as important, if not more so. Medieval cathedrals such as Santiago were designed to be a foretaste of heaven: a feast of exquisite carvings and stupendous stained glass. It amazes and inspires the contemporary pilgrim, but must have been even more awe-inspiring to medieval pilgrims, coming from their wattle-and-daub dwellings.

The cathedrals to which our forebears made their journeys, including Santiago, reminded them that they were on a journey somewhere. Another greeting of medieval pilgrims on the way to Santiago was “Ultreia,” a Latin word meaning “beyond”. Those of us who choose to travel with Jesus “on the way” believe that we, too, are on a journey beyond the here and now, beyond this life. We have no idea what it will be like: it is sufficient to know that God’s love is stronger than death, and that we shall be in the company of Jesus eternally.

Meanwhile, I wish you “Buen Camino.
 

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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