A View from El Camino

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, is a centuries-old pilgrimage route which traces its way across western France and northern Spain before ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The path wanders through countryside and small towns, and the cathedral features a massive thurible used for blessing the large crowds that gather in the cathedral. The town of Santiago is connected through legend with Saint James the Greater (much in the same way that folk mythology connects Joseph of Arimathea to Britain). Emilio Estevez’s movie The Way follows a group of pilgrims as they make their trip to the cathedral, and it’s well worth a watch.

The Camino has been on my bucket list for a few years now, and I have been following the adventures of Fr. Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk and cyber-scribe from Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN (another place near to my heart) as he makes his way towards the legendary resting place of Saint James, the son of Zebedee. His posts offer a quick glimpse, in word and picture, into the life of a pilgrim walking the Way of Saint James. Fr. Eric recorded a few trips over the past year, including to Lourdes and a Germany monastery. Reflecting on his time in Lourdes, he wrote:

…I led the stations of the cross for a large group….There we walked from one stone-carved station to the next, mentally retracing the passion and death of Jesus.  In the past when I’ve done that I’ve always been conscious of the layers of meaning that this exercise evokes; but this time the circumstances compounded it.  As a spiritual meditation it is a substitute for a trip to Jerusalem and walking the Via Dolorosa.  But that morning it was also an abbreviated pilgrimage within the pilgrimage to Lourdes.  And finally, it serves as a reminder to all of us who are Christian that our fundamental vocation is to be pilgrims.  As Saint Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless, until finally they find their rest in Jesus. [Emphasis added.]

His quote from Augustine is a particular favorite of mine as it speaks to the restlessness I so often feel after spending so much of my life on the move.

Back to the Camino, though, Fr. Eric has offered some brief thoughts on the beauty of moving between country side and rural village, of traveling with pilgrims from across the wold and dogs from just down the street, and of wandering along the same path that has been trod for centuries. He says:

…[P]eople have lived along the Camino for ages.  That was evident in the Celtic earthwork fortress that we passed one day.  It also was evident in the stone villages that include lots of buildings that date well back into the Middle Ages.  In fact, a personal highlight of the trip was my concelebration of a Mass in an early 11th-century church built by monks of the French Abbey of Cluny.  They built priories with guest hostels along the way to encourage the pilgrimage, and it was great to see first-hand evidence of that.

In the US, where most of our sacred buildings date back only a few hundred years, it’s important to turn our minds east and to recall that the great cathedrals of Europe stand as a testament to our faith a millennia ago — and they themselves dwarf those earliest Christian sites from the first centuries.

But more than buildings, ours has always been a faith on the move: to visit and worship in the sites of our ancestors, to walk as we pray and pray as we walk.

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