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Destination Santiago: pilgrims learn to pray with their feet on the way to St. James' burial site in Spain.

THERE IS SOMETHING DEEPLY HUMAN--THE LONGING for what lies beyond the horizon, the mysterious, inner space, God--and popular about pilgrimage. It's a rich menu of holiday, sport, and devotion doused, according to taste, in a potent penitential sauce. The penitential aspect rarely dominates: Going on pilgrimage is just too much fun. Judging by the huge masses of pilgrims wandering along the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), as the pilgrimage route to Santiago is popularly called, the idea of pilgrimage is experiencing an acute revival in Europe.

Santiago's claims to such renewed attention are based on an ancient popular tradition that alleges that the apostle St. James traveled as far as Spain to preach the gospel. Following his execution at Caesarea in 44 A.D. by King Herod, his bones are said to have been transported back to and buried in Spain. Centuries later in 825 mysterious lights appeared over an open field and songs of angels were heard in a cluster of shrubs covering an ancient Roman burial place. The local bishop, called in to investigate, identified one of the tombs as being the sepulchre of St. James. Thus the name Santiago de Compostela (St. James of the Field of Stars) and a place of pilgrimage were born.

Since the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela has attracted a steady stream of pilgrims mostly traveling on foot along historic routes from across Europe. The present-day rehabilitation of the Camino has greatly improved the infrastructure of walking paths and refugios (hostels where pilgrims can stay for a small donation). Yellow arrows and images of seashells--the emblematic attribute of St. James--now guide the modern walking pilgrim from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago more than 500 miles to the west.

When I walked a large section of the Spanish Camino with six friends, we encountered a Swiss lady who was walking the whole Camino on her own. "I have become totally empty," she confided, referring to the inner silence generated by the steady rhythm of solitary walking. A friend encountered two Japanese Buddhist monks who kept a steady distance of some 60 feet between them as they walked along, presumably in order not to disturb one another's contemplative space.

Walking along a meandering footpath sometimes within earshot of a noisy motorway, as we did, creates the impression of being in a parallel zone of silence, a feeling of quiet communion with nature and with one another, an experience of praying with your feet, eyes wide open.

A rich variety of ancient rituals await the pilgrim upon arrival. We bathed in the admiring attention of less adventurous tourists as we entered the cathedral in full pilgrim gear with our pilgrim staffs, seashells, and rucksacks to visit the tomb of the apostle, embrace his effigy in the alcove behind the high altar, and then make our way to the cathedral office. There we received our Compostela, the official certificate accorded to those who have completed the pilgrimage.

To culminate it all was the pilgrim Mass, during which each day new arrivals are welcomed and the famous incense bowl, the Botafumerio, is swung. It is a picturesque reminder that medieval pilgrims usually bivouacked on balconies and in alcoves in the cathedral itself. The original purpose of this ritual was less playful than might appear: the wafts of "holy smoke" served to quell the inevitable cocktail of pungent odors emanating from the assembled pilgrims.

A FEW DAYS LATER I ACCOMPLISHED THE FINAL PILGRIM RITUAL at Finisterra (Land's End), a small coastal town some 40 miles west of Santiago on the Atlantic, and an optional last stopping place for pilgrims on the Camino. It consists of burning a piece of clothing or some other personal item as a sign of transition and new beginning. I chose to burn the T-shirt I had worn all the way from the start in the Pyrenees.

As we sat on the rocks quietly taking in the beautiful scenery, our eyes slowly scanning the deep blue ocean below, we ruminated on the meaning of the experience. Without speaking, we shared feelings of arrival and the start--rather, continuation--of another pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of life.

FATHER ALFONS EPPINK, M.H.M., a Mill Hill missionary now working in Africa. Reprinted with permission from Spirituality magazine, published by Dominican Publications, Dublin, Ireland.
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic; Santiago de Compostela
Author:Eppink, Alfons
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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