Andy Hawes walks ‘La Voie Lactée’
The bones of St James lie dressed in a casket of gold in the cathedral church of Santiago de Compostella. In this, the month of his feast day, the activities of pilgrimage and tourism reach a crazy intensity and climax in a festival that is at one and the same time religious and patriotic. The cult of St James, in Spain, is a wonder to behold. Since the tenth century a city has grown up around a Roman burial site believed to hold the headless remains of James the son of Zebedee and two of his companions. Last year sixty thousand people from nineteen different countries made the pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago. The pilgrim routes to Santiago spring up in most European countries and their route is way-marked by a rich display of art and architecture.
For those travelling the routes from Paris and Le Puy in France the Council of Europe has erected signs from the South of France westwards which declare that ‘This is a cultural route of Europe’. There is no doubt that pilgrimage is now a big business; in the same way that Santiago is built upon the tomb, many smaller communities are built upon the passing trade of tens of thousands of pilgrims who journey there. The pilgrim routes and their historic heritage give depth and vitality to the tourism of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and all places in between.
The infrastructure supporting pilgrims, especially in Spain, is complex and well resourced. In most villages there are refugios, providing simple accommodation. These are often run by parishes and religious communities but also by individuals and parish councils. There are countless bars providing a menu peregrinos, there are information centres and pilgrim offices at major churches and cathedrals. Most pilgrims have detailed guides provided by national pilgrim associations; in England there is the Confraternity of St James, who provide every kind of information and support for prospective pilgrims.
It is from such organizations that the pilgrim obtains the ‘credential’ or ‘pilgrims passport.’ This document is worth its weight in gold, it allows access to the refugios and other pilgrimage resources. En route the pilgrim collects stamps from churches, hostels, bars and town halls as a record of his journey. It is the credential, duly completed, which is presented at the pilgrim office in Santiago. Here the officials, once satisfied, hand over the ‘Compostella’ or certificate. To qualify as a pilgrim over sixty miles on foot or over a hundred and twenty miles by bike (or horseback) must have been completed.
Thus it was armed with my ‘credential’, and riding a bike, I left home on 29th August last year to arrive at Santiago on the 29th September after 1,416 miles. I was joined in Canterbury by a friend, Fr John Allan, and it was there our pilgrimage began with a send off from a residentiary canon (who stamped our pilgrim passports). It so happened that a bishop drove by on his way to a meeting and stopped to find out what was happening. I had to convince him that we were serious about a blessing and then he duly blessed ‘these men and their machines’ and we were off!
By the time we reached the Camino Frances at St Jean pied de Porte, in the Pyrenees, we had pretty well settled into the rhythm of our journey. It had been quite a solitary experience until that point. Only two people had recognized the scallop shells on our bikes as a sign of pilgrimage; we were looking forward to the support and fellowship that we expected to find in Spain. We were to be profoundly disappointed.
From the Charlemagne Chapel, on the Col of the Roncevalles pass, it became evident that there was little support offered to the ‘Spiritual Pilgrim’. The Chapel – built for pilgrims in the nineteen sixties – was locked. This was the case in many of the ‘pilgrim’ churches. More significantly, the fellow pilgrims we met were what is now termed ‘cultural pilgrims’. We met three Englishmen who spent their holidays walking long distant footpaths, we met a young couple from New Zealand who thought that this was a cheap way to see Spain. We met a retired woman from Canada who was into photography. The company of pilgrims on the way to Santiago were representatives of a culture whose foundation is religious, but whose present expression of that religion is a loosely connected jumble of cultural interests. On the Camino people walk the route of the faithful, pass many a Holy Place, to one of the great shrines of Christendom, and many, it seems, are untouched by the gospel or the call of the Kingdom.
There was one type of pilgrim that appeared to be very prevalent. There were hundreds of white, middle-class, late middle aged women, either travelling alone or in small groups . They came from most western countries. For them the Camino is the road which marks the beginning of a second journey, a new beginning. The pilgrimage is for many people a journey of self -discovery. As a priest I found all this a very chastening experience. It seemed that the language and imagery of the Christian Faith had become so tired that even those walking by it and to it were not drawn to it for help and guidance.
The Cathedral at Santiago is a holy place and the apostolic ministry of the priests and religious to the pilgrims and tourists is quite remarkable. Their witness to the Lord and their preaching of him instilled in me a real hope that many a ‘cultural’ pilgrim will become a ‘Christian’ one. They exercised a singleness of purpose, and a self-sacrificial commitment that is an example to any who would witness to Christ ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life.’
Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham-on-the-Hill and Rural Dean of Bettisloe.