As May begins, I will be leaving for France, where I will start the Camino de Santiago, the renowned 800 km spiritual pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. Well over a thousand years old, in medieval times it was one of three important Christian pilgrimages undertaken by devout followers of the religion. Today, it calls to people of all faiths and spiritual inclinations, and many pilgrims from all over the world find themselves doing this arduous, yet beautiful journey into the soul.
7th and 8th century documents suggest that James the Apostle spent time preaching on the Iberian peninsula and legend has it that after his death at the hands of Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, his disciples carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat. Guided by angels, it landed near Finisterre at Padrón, in northern Spain. The reigning Queen ordered the body to be taken from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb on which the city of Santiago de Compostela was eventually built. 800 years later, a 9th century hermit had a vision of a large bright star surrounded by a circle of smaller stars indicating an important location in the Libradón mountains. The hermit reported his vision to the Bishop of Iria Flavia, who after some investigation, discovered the tomb containing the body of Saint James and two of his disciples. Word spread, and the Road to Santiago de Compostela became an important Catholic pilgrimage.
I’ve longed to do this trip since I learned about it in 2000, when I first read Shirley MacLaine’s book The Camino. With her words, she painted a strange and beautiful picture of her pilgrimage and the deep spiritual impact that it had upon her. Following the publications of similar accounts written by Carlos Castaneda and Paolo Coelho, the ancient route was brought into contemporary public awareness, and the Camino has become a popular journey for tens of thousands of spiritual pilgrims every year. Many walk, others travel by bicycle, and a few travel on horse-back, recapturing the nostalgia of medieval times.
In May, the journey begins for me in St. Jean Pied de Port, near the Spanish border. Following tradition, I will begin by purchasing my Credencial, or Pilgrim’s Passport, which identifies my status as a pilgrim, and allows me entry to the Albergues (or Refugios) along The Way. These are dormitories which are spread out along the route, providing overnight accommodation at a nominal fee for pilgrims. At each overnight stop, my pilgrim’s passport is stamped, so that when I reach Santiago de Compostela, I can obtain my Pilgrim’s Certificate (a compostela) which attests to my spiritual journey. Once this is received, I attend the noon Pilgrim’s Mass, which is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day. At Mass, the pilgrims who have received the compostela have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced. The choir sings The Hymn to Santiago as the huge Botafumeiro, a metal censor filled with incense, swings with great splendour throughout the cathedral, marking the end of an important inner journey.
The Camino for me holds the promise of a quiet space in which I can refocus my awareness, and witness my world and my personal circumstances through the eyes of my True Self. I have reached a moment in my existence when critical decisions must be made, decisions that can only arise within my smaller self through this quietude. The Way of St. James has called for me for a long time, telling me that when the time is right, I will find myself walking the road where my own inner Truth will be revealed. In St. Jean Pied de Port, I will obtain my scallop shell, which will hang from my rucksack, marking me as a pilgrim to the locals that we pass along the way. The scallop shell is a spiritual metaphor, the grooves in the shell all arriving at a single point, symbolizing the fact that though we all take different paths in life, the journey back to the True Self ends in union of all souls.
I will try to blog a little along the way, sharing some thoughts and insights, and of course some lovely photos. I’ll be on the road for about six to eight weeks. Please wish me the inner fortitude to complete the pilgrimage. The locals, when they come upon the pilgrims as they struggle along the pathway, call ‘Ultreya!’ to them. It means ‘Onward! Keep going!’ It is spoken as encouragement, a way to boost tired and discouraged pilgrims. It is my heartfelt dream to complete this journey, and I know that I am going to have to draw on as much inner strength as I can, as I do this journey alone.
So, my friends, it is goodbye for now, and HOPEFULLY, I’ll see you on the better side of this journey! Lots of love to you all.