Although I’d been on a ten day pilgrimage to Israel with my family at the age of 17, I didn’t think about the meaning of pilgrimage, defined as a spiritual or cultural experience, beyond visiting sacred places, or the deep significance of such a journey on the spirit until much later in life.
I remember sitting in my meditation group in Sydney one Monday morning and during the group discussion someone mentioning the words Camino de Santiago and Santiago de Compostella. I’d never heard either of these phrases before and felt immediately confused and fascinated. “It’s a pilgrimage across Spain,” a friend explained.
Thoughts of the Camino were buried away in my heart until they were bursting to emerge years later. I knew very little about The Camino (Spanish for The Way) or Saint James (San Tiago), until I began to plan my own pilgrimage.
I’d read Shirley MacLaines book “The Camino – Journey of the Spirit” (published in 2000) more from an interest in travel and spirituality and loved “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, which I’d read several times as well as his various other novels. For some reason I never came across a copy of his first book, “The Pilgrimage” about Coelho’s own journey across Spain (published in 1987).
The translation of Camino
I discovered “El Camino” meant the road and led all the way beyond Santiago de Compostella, to Finisterre, or Lands End, a name I was familiar with from the BBC Radio 4 shipping broadcast listened to regularly as a child growing up in England. It always sounded like an ominous and mysterious place, somewhere to be avoided at all costs, whether you’re a fisherman on a foggy night or a pilgrim travelling on foot.
Historically, the legend of Saint James began around the 8th Century. The remains of the apostle James were brought to Galicia in Spain, in the early 9th century on a boat made of stone and his remains are buried in the Catedral de Santiago. The first recorded pilgrim came to Santiago de Compostella in 947.
Philip Carr-Gomm writes about the Camino in his book “Sacred Places” saying that 1140 is the year of one of history’s first guidebooks, called “The Pilgrim’s Guide.” This appealed to my sense of always trying to find the source of information, the essence of knowledge. During the 12 – 15th century the Camino reached the height of it’s popularity, with the advent of the Reformation in the 16th century it went into a decline, until it’s revival in modern times.
The revival of the Walk
After the Second World War, pilgrims started to follow the Way, reviving it’s appeal and triggering a major study in 1948. The first modern day pocket guide book was published 23 years later, in 1971, the year I was born. I liked this connection, it somehow symbolised to me that I was destined to be one of the pilgrims.
In 1982 the way marking of the Camino Frances (The French Way) began and in 1987 the Council of Europe declared The Way the first European Cultural Route. In 1993, The Way was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I walked 27 years after the way marking began, I did so in the confidence that the route was well signposted, I just needed to stay present and attentive. One of the many lessons in life taught so beautifully by the Camino.
In Shirley MacLaine’s book, she mentions past pilgrims including St. Francis of Assisi, Napolean, Charlemagne, King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, Dante and Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century about a group of pilgrims travelling to Canterbury in England.
The meaning of Pilgrimage
Researching Pilgrimage in Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia explains, “In religion and spirituality, a pilgrimage is a long journey or search of great moral significance. Sometimes, it is a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. Members of many major religions participate in pilgrimages.” A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim and there are places of pilgrimage around the world within the various religious faiths.
Wikipedia explains further that “Christian pilgrimage was first made to sites connected with the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Surviving descriptions of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land date from the 4th century, when pilgrimage was encouraged by church fathers like Saint Jerome. Pilgrimages also began to be made to Rome and other sites associated with the Apostles, saints and Christian martyrs, as well as to places where there have been apparitions of the Virgin Mary.” Hence the pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James over the centuries which continues to the present day.
There are three main places of pilgrimage in the Christian World; Rome, which I had visited a few times as a child on family holidays; Jerusalam which I had visited twice as a young adult; and Santiago de Compostella a place I hadn’t heard of until much later in life. In 2009 it was time for me to complete the third, in the most traditional sense, by walking all the way. It was more for spiritual than religious reasons, to follow an ancient path, to simply walk and allow life to unfold.
If you’d like to read about the pilgrimage, this is a good place to begin.