Pilgrimage to the Stars

“Herod the king stretched forth his hands to afflict some of the Church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.”

That stark recounting from the Book of Acts begins a marvel of God’s grace for the devoted apostle. James “the Great”; his younger brother, St. John the Evangelist; and St. Peter were the three intimates of Christ—they alone wit­nessed His transfiguration and the agony in the garden. Two millennia after his decapitation at the hands of Herod, tens of thousands of pilgrims each year set off on the fascinating trek along an ancient path to honor St. James at his shrine in Santiago de Compostela—St. James of the Starry Field—in northwestern Spain. Modern peregrinos (pilgrims) walk “The Way of St. James” in the footsteps of such early pil­grims as St. Godric of Norfolk, El Cid, St. Francis of Assisi, John of Gaunt, and Lorenzo de Medici. Henry IL father of Richard the Lionhearted, offered to make the pilgrimage in expiation for the murder of St. Thomas Becket.

The Tradition of St. James

After Pentecost, the apostles dispersed to take the message of Christ to the nations. According to Anastasius, patriarch of Antioch, James traveled to Spain, at the time a wealthy province of the Roman empire. St. Isidore confirms this tra­dition in the Breviary of Toledo. The church at Zaragoza in Aragon is said to be built on the site of the apostle’s dwelling. Perhaps called back to Jerusalem for consultation, James became the victim of Herod’s wrath against the infant Church. He was the first apostle to suffer martyrdom, fulfill­ing his intemperate boast to Jesus: “Can you drink the cup of suffering I must drink?” Christ asked the sons of Zebedee. “We can,” they answered. “You will indeed drink the cup I must drink,” Christ replied. (Matthew 20:20-23)

Historical accounts and legends record that James’s devoted disciples, Theodore and Athanasius, pirated away the beheaded “son of thunder” and sailed back to Spain to bury him in the land to which he had been called. They landed at Finisterre (Finis terre—end of the earth) in north­western Spain at the Roman port of Iria Flavia. Following tense immigration negotiations with Queen Lupa, the local power, the disciples moved inland to the wilds of Galicia. They entrusted the saint to the surrounding forest, burying his relics under an altar, leaving them until history and Spain had need of a powerful patron.

Centuries afterward, a company of contemplatives grouped their hermitages near the overgrown burial site. On a clear night in 813, the hermit Pelayo followed a shower of stars that appeared to fall on a mound over the forgotten tomb. As he approached the mound, he heard a celestial cho­rus. Pelayo sent for Bishop Teodomir, who excavated the wooded hill. Beneath the mound lay a small arch above a sar­cophagus bearing an inscription identifying the crypt as belonging to James. Tradition holds that a papyrus was also found in the excavation that read, “Jacobus, son of Zebedee and Salome.”

The report of Bishop Teodomir was providential news for King Alfonso II. The holy relics were God’s answer to the Moors: Spain lay in anguish under the cruel Sara­cen boot, its faithful pinned in the austere mountains of the North. Their pleas for interces­sion were answered at last in the discovery of the relics of one of Christ’s own. Recon­quista, the holy war against the Moslem invaders, was now assured victory; a heavenly champion had come to its aid.

The fierce Moors struck terror in the hearts of the noblest. Four decades earlier, Charlemagne’s ill-fated foray into Moorish Spain ended with the tragic death of his loyal nephew, Roland—the beloved hero of the Middle Ages. The threat of Moors surging over the Pyrenees again (they had been defeated by Charlemagne’s grandfather at Poitiers in 732) to ravage Christendom haunted Charlemagne. And no more romantic a knight lived than Roland, with his ivory horn, Oliphant, and his relic-studded sword, Durendal. The tooth of St. Peter and the blood of St. Basil secreted in its hilt rendered Durendal mythic. In the famous battle at the Pyre­nees pass of Roncesvalles, Roland led the rear guard. His lord, stymied at Zaragoza, was leading the army home through the treacherously narrow pass at the summit. Charlemagne lamented the tenacity of the infidel ruler, “who feareth not God’s name, Mahumet’s man, he invokes Apollin’s aid.” Darkness edged the eastern sky; Charlemagne passed safely through.

Saracens galloped howling down the pass. Roland blew Oliphant to summon help; its plaintive wail came too late. History now lays Roland’s ambush that August afternoon in 788 at the feet of Basque guerrillas, but the slaughter, immortalized in Chason de Roland, portrayed the Moor as his pitiless foe.

The Cult of St. James

Charlemagne had Roland and his men buried at Roncesvalles beneath the beeches and marked the spot where a chapel would be built: “My friend Roland, God lay your soul on flowers…no day shall pass henceforth that I shall not mourn.” Charlemagne would soldier on through his guilt and grief to become emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D. But until St. James was discovered in far Galicia, Spain lay abandoned to the cruel grip of the Mohammedans; it awaited a stronger champion. Centuries afterward, pil‑ grims who struggled up the historic pass en route to Santi‑ ago never failed to venerate the sacrifice of Roland and his peers as symbolic first pilgrims of the Reconquista.

The twelfth-century col­lection of history, verse, liturgy, and travelogue about the Camino, known as Codex Calixtinus, records a legend that Charlemagne himself had a vision of a knightly protector who identified himself as St. James (Sant Iago, Santiago), the apostle of Jesus Christ.

Look you, my body is in Galicia, but no man knoweth where and the Saracens oppress the land…the starry sky signifies you shall go to Galicia at the head of a great host and after you all peoples shall come in pilgrimage even till the end of time…and your name shall abide in the memory of man until the Day of Judgment.

The king’s mission was to liberate the roadway to the tomb. The way was marked in the heavens above with the starry path of the Milky Way leading westward across northern Spain.

Following the discovery of the sacred relics, King Alfonso “The Chaste” and Bishop Teodomir declared St. James patron saint of Spain. The bishop built a humble church over the excavated relics. Those who scoffed at the timely discovery were quickly silenced by the multitude of miracles reported by the first pilgrims. Soon the starry road to the shrine, the Camino de Santiago (road of St. James) was thick with sojourners. Alfonso, after relaying the wondrous news to Pope Leo III and Emperor Charlemagne, built a second church with three altars dedicated to the Savior, St. Peter, and St. John. He ordered a monastery be built with a walled enclosure to protect the churches, the shrine, and the monks who were to attend the faithful on pilgrimage. He named the encampment “Compostela” (Campus stellae—field of stars) in memory of the miraculous discovery.

The bloody, wearying war of Reconquista raged on, the Christians stiffening against overwhelming odds to hold on to a sliver of territory and their faith. The refusal of King Ramiro to continue a degrading tribute of 100 maidens paid yearly to the emir of Cordoba precipitated the Battle of Clavijo in 845. In a dream the night before the battle, St. James promised Ramiro the victory. Filled with faith in the apos­tle’s promise, Ramiro fought with valor, but the victory came with St. James himself riding a white charger embla­zoned with a blood-red cross and a flashing sword, which slew 60,000 infidels before evening fell. The legend of Santi­ago Matamoros—St. James the Moor-Slayer—was born.

Santiago’s reputation for powerful intercession in aid of Christians spread far and wide. The earliest references to the discovery of the relics and the growing cult of St. James are in the Martyrdom of Adon, 860 A.D. Legend claims that William the Conqueror rode to battle on a charger that had been sanctified on pilgrimage to Santiago. And so a twelfth- century chanson seems to hint, invoking as it does, for the sake of courage at Hastings, the Christian bravery of that earlier battle at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees:

Tallifer who was famed for song

Mounted on a charger strong,

Rode on before the Duke and sang

Of Roland and of Charlemagne,

Of Oliver and the vassals all

Who fell in fight at Roncesvals.

Henry Adams wrote in Mont St. Michel and Chartres:

Our age has lost much of its ear for poetry as it has its eye for colour and line, and its taste for war and worship, wine and women. Not one man in a hundred thousand could now feel what the eleventh century felt in these verses…God the Father was the feudal seigneur, who raised Lazarus—His baron or vassal—from the grave…. To this seigneur, Roland is dying…. Death was an act of homage…nothing could seem more natural and correct.

As the first millennium drew to a close, fear of the Second Coming propelled thousands of pilgrims through the Pyre­nees pass at Roncesvalles. Many sought intercession for des­perate needs. The pious paid their vows as pilgrimage in preparation for the coming millennium. Guilds raised money for a member sent to the Camino by bishops who assigned the pilgrimage as penance for a scandalous public sin. A human constellation followed the Milky Way westward, bound for the apostle buried in a silver crypt. Europeans trekked alongside one another in great caval­cades—penitent princes incognito, bishops, boot makers, stonemasons, crusading knights, wayfaring ladies, relic mongers, barefoot peasants, and merry-eyed jongleurs to keep the rhythm—a lively culture of cathedral building blos­somed along the well-trod routes. Monasteries and hospi­tals, minor shrines and sturdy bridges, all erected to serve the sinner, the poor, and the ill on pilgrimage. Spiritually exultant, these God-lovers built 1,000 new European churches, cathedrals, and basilicas in a mere 300 years.

Historians credit the building of a unified European cul­ture to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As the pil­grims streamed across Europe converging on the “Road of Stars,” they exchanged ideas about architecture, fashion, bal­lads, politics, food, and philosophy. Intriguingly, music histo­rians locate some of the first forms of polyphony in the Masses written for the pilgrims to Santiago. Sean M. Raleigh of Van­derbilt University, writing in reference to the Codex Calixtinus, observes, “The study of this early organum has provided new and often controversial insights into the development of the genre, owing to the fact that it is some of the earliest polyphony in our literature.” The pilgrim’s Mass, with its antiphonal choirs, includes the chorus of pilgrims’ voices lifted in exultant unison. In art, the pilgrim of Santiago, with a long black cape, a broad-brimmed hat to screen the Castillian sun, and a staff in hand, wears a scallop shell around his neck. He is found in El Greco, Bosch, and particularly Velazquez, who painted the blood-red cross of the military order Knights of St. James on his own cloak in Las Meninas (Maids of Honor).

The Codex is itself a treasure of history, riotously funny travel advice (such as “In this country there are evil toll keepers—may they be utterly damned,” and “These people are repulsively dressed…they eat with their hands”), and touching devotion to the holy apostle who inspired such affection by the working of many miracles along the Camino. Perhaps nothing so advanced the cult of St. James as the reports of miraculous healings and blessings attrib­uted to his intercession. For the sick and injured, a hospice or a monastery bed and Christian charity were the rule. The Codex says of the hospices, “They are sacred places…for the comfort of the sick and the salvation of the dead.”

The common spirituality and culture of Europe forged on the pilgrimage was so momentous that Pope Calixtus II made Compostela a metropolitan see in 1120. Eight cen­turies later, in 1948, his successor, the saintly Pope Pius XII, made a plea, broadcast to a war-ravaged world, in which he recounted the deep faith of Europeans who had been unified in the pilgrimages to the holy shrine at Compostela:

And thus it had to be; because if the pilgrim was an indispensable figure on the chess board of the medieval world; if the pilgrimage had the noble function of consolidating the people’s faith, of drawing together the most divergent nations, of relieving the unfortunate and comforting all, surely amid the vast sorrows and sufferings of the present hour they will continue to be a blessing to the world.

During the twelfth century, a new basilica was built at Com­postela. Pope Calixtus declared every year in which the feast of St. James (July 25) fell on Sunday to be a holy year with particular graces granted, including the remission of the most grievous sins. In 1175, Pope Alexander III designated Compostela a holy city as worthy of pilgrimage as was Rome and Jerusalem. Today, it remains the most visited shrine in Christendom. Said Pope Pius XII, on the eve of the feast of St. James in 1940:

After the Tabernacle, where Our Lord Jesus Christ really lives, present, though invisible; after Palestine, which preserves as well the Holy Sepul­cher with the vestiges of His sojourn on earth; after Rome which possesses the glorious tombs of the Apostles, there is perhaps no place on earth where all through the centuries the pilgrims have gathered as the historical capital of Galicia, Santi­ago de Compostela.

St. James and the Modern Millennial Pilgrim

Dante Alighieri defined “pilgrim” in Vita Nova: “…in the narrow sense, none is called a pilgrim save he who is jour­neying toward the sanctuary of St. James at Compostela:’ Shakespeare’s Hamlet pays homage to St. James, invoking the universal symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago, the scal­lop shell and staff:

How should I your true love know

from another one?

By his cockle hat and staff

And his sandal shoon.

I threaded a simple Florida scallop shell on a black silk cord and hung it around my neck. At a haberdashery on the old central square in Pamplona, my sister and I each thought­fully chose a walking staff. The tight laces of my new high- tech hiking boots brought a wince as I put weight on my heel. I remembered how chroniclers of distant centuries praised the devout pilgrims who trudged the Camino with pebbles in their boots for added mortification.

I cannot recall precisely when I began feeling the urge to make this pilgrimage. Perhaps the romance of the Camino history, perhaps belonging to St. James parish—at some undisclosed moment I became enamored of the idea. There were skeptics: “It is only a legend. You can’t believe those bones are real! And, if you do—what of it? What’s the point of visiting bones?”

The bones are real. A search was made in 1879, bones were found, and the Holy See had them studied. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII issued the apostolic letter Deus Omnipotens (Almighty God), recounting the Jacobean history and con­firming the identity of St. James and his disciples, Athana­sius and Theodore.

So many questions arose from intrigued people, such as: “It’s too hard and you are not an athlete—nor are you young.” or “Two women alone walking a footpath across Spain? With nothing but a backpack? You have never had a backpack in your life! How will you do this? Will you sleep in the fields with the cows?”

There are pilgrim’s maps, and there are convents and monasteries at least as close as a day’s walk from the last pil­grims’ refugio (pilgrim’s refuge), I explained patiently. A pil­grim’s passport is required at the start of the journey; it entitles the bearer to an inexpensive meal and lodging at little or no charge, but it must be stamped at each stop along the way by a cleric or a local official. A completed passport is scrutinized at the basilica in Santiago, and for those who have completed the required sections of the Camino within the proper time frame, the coveted Ecclesiae Compostellanae (Compostela of the Church), the Church’s official document attesting to one’s status as a true pilgrim to Santiago de Com­postela, is bestowed on the dazed peregrino.

There are four main pil­grimage routes from France into Spain; we chose to begin at the foot of the Pyrenees, in the French border village of St. Jean Pied de Port. Here, the entry into Spain retraces Charle­magne’s fateful route. The pil­grimage route is rich in history and natural beauty and winds past many of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in the world. The physical challenge of the Way is an adventure drama in its own right. Occa­sionally, a wistful look would flicker momentarily in a listener’s eyes as I detailed the plans. Predictably, most smiled in amuse­ment, a signal that they understood my pilgrimage as a pecu­liar midlife bubble. It was simpler than that.

The Holy Father wrote in Tertio Mellennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near, 1994), “The whole of the Christian life is like a great pilgrimage [emphasis added] to the house of the Father…. This pilgrimage takes place in the heart of each person, extends to the believing commu­nity and then reaches to the whole of humanity.” The time of our sojourn on earth is ours in a particular way, for we know that God intended us to exist at the time in which we live. The faithful at the turn of the first millennium, expecting the Second Coming, had a deep awareness of their identity as Christians called to that time and place, much as if they were participating in a moment as important as the first shep­herds and magi who traveled to the stable to see the infant Savior. Tertio Mellennio Adveniente presses us to make a Jubilee preparation:

…the sense of being on a “journey to the Father” should encourage everyone to undertake, by holding fast to Christ the redeemer of man, a journey of authentic conversion…and more intense celebration of the sacrament of penance in its most profound meaning. The call to con­version as the indispensable condition of Christian love is particularly important in contemporary society, where the very founda­tions of an ethically correct vision of human exis­tence often seem to have been lost…

The Jubilee’s start was swiftly approaching; a pilgrimage, a journey, penance, a conversion, an ethically correct vision— somehow this meant, for me, a millennial pilgrimage. Being alive at the second millennium was not insignificant, and I sensed a particular need to acknowledge this time in a most significant way. A carapace of secularism has settled over the world, and I desired to shrug it free for a while, to deepen my awareness of being a Catholic at this millennial moment. I hoped to gain the indulgence, perhaps even a thaumaturgic motivation propelled me, but I longed most to experience a physical communion of saints—to put my own foot in the footsteps of the penitent, the wayward hopeful, the petitioning, the grieving, the searching, and, yes, the holy.

Pope John Paul II visited Santiago de Compostela in 1983. His affection for the shrine is very great: During the midst of the war in Kosovo, the pope sought the intercession of St. James for the people of Europe. He set the European Youth Congress in Compostela this past summer, as well as the ninth Eucharistic Congress held in May 1999. In addition to ancient indulgences of a holy year of St. James, which 1999 was, the Jubilee Year of 2000 has also been designated by the Holy Father as an occasion meriting a plenary indulgence for all who complete the final section of the pilgrimage to Santi­ago de Compostela—on foot, bicycle, or horseback.

The cult of St. James is remarkably strong and active in Europe, South America, and, surprisingly, Japan. England has the preeminent Confraternity of St. James, an organization that provides the modern seeker a list of guides, histori­cal accounts, maps, and practical advice. English bicycle pilgrimages regularly depart from Rue St. Jacques in Paris (after a dinner of Coquille St. Jacques in honor of the saint and his cockleshell symbol). The United States has yet to awaken to the renewed fervor for Santiago de Compostela, but it may soon, thanks to the efforts of Camino Tours of Seattle, which has instituted guided pilgrimages. For the most part, however, pilgrims strike out alone, though a natural arrangement of fellow travelers soon develops.

The modern route through Spain follows as closely as possible the ancient route traveled by peregrinos for a thou­sand years. The complete Spanish portion is a six-week journey. Most people manage only a segment, hoping to return in succeeding years to complete the Camino. The Way is marked by yellow arrows splash-painted on what­ever presents itself—a rock, tree trunk, fence post—as you stride across meadows and cart paths, rocky streams, and deep woods. The pilgrims also have (if they are wise!) a detailed map that outlines each day’s route. An average day’s trek is 18 miles.

Our pilgrimage began at the foot of the French Pyrenees, in the village of St. Jean Pied de Port. We hiked over the lush mountains, praying all the while that we might accomplish the steep ascent to the fairy-tale- like monastery at Ronces­valles, just over the Spanish border. The setting of this ancient fortress is mysterious and medieval. Pilgrims are revered at Roncesvalles, blessed on their way by a solemn pil­grim’s Mass. The monastery records the nationalities of pil­grims—many Europeans, a fair sprinkling of Australians and Japanese, thousands of South Americans, and, on May 14, my sister and I were the 42nd and 43rd Americans for the Holy Year of 1999.

Each day we met kind villagers anxious that we remem­ber to pray for them when we arrived at the tomb of St. James. In cities, our welcome was often gruff, if not outright rude. We saw many shepherds at work—an aid to medita­tion on Christ as the Good Shepherd. By day’s end, exhila­rated by historic cities, magnificent scenery, and incredible churches but weary deep into the marrow, the footsore way­farer has strength for only the simplest, yet, heartfelt prayers. Somewhere between contemplation and sleep it comes to you—how the day meditating on infinitude is interrupted by the immediate: The spectacular scenery points to eter­nity; the feet stumble on the stony path underneath. Metaphors abound.

After weeks along the Camino, the pilgrim almost regrets arriving at the basilica guarding the precious relics of the saint who has sent favors and minor miracles to you each day. Pressing throngs of people—many irreverent—crowded into the ancient stone cathedral to pray at the crypt and to receive the blessing at the pilgrim’s Mass: a juxtaposition of the holy and the profane, wheat and tares. The dramatic close of the Mass comes with the lighting of the botafumeiro, a giant censer that swings from a pendulum high above the worship­pers. A final kiss for the saint, our unseen companion on the Camino, and we begin to think of home.

Modern man is in urgent need of detachment from tele­phones, pagers, fax machines, TV, and all the gizmos that clamor for his attention and preclude listening to “the small, still voice.” Once the rhythm of the day is adjusted to a more humane pace, one is sudden y conscious of the known but forgotten truths. Because the terrain is difficult and most pilgrims are not ath­letes, because food and water may not be readily available, the battle of the will over the body is a minute-by-minute strug­gle—the pilgrim is forced to confront both himself and that domination the body has gained over the will. We want our comforts and that leads to “body domination.” The pilgrim gains insight into the almost abandoned Catholic teaching on mortification of the flesh. Sublimate the flesh to the will. This subjugation is the fruit of much prayer.

The most difficult commitments are accomplished in tiny, hourly fidelities. The urge to give up, to renounce the goal, was at times like a gorilla riding on one’s back—even ten more yards was out of the question—so you make only five more yards, then five more. The image of manna in the desert comes to mind—just enough for the day, no more, but not less.

Though my sister and I were together, we walked most often alone—at our own pace, because it was the only way. We had the same commitment, the same goal. We encour­aged one another, but in the last analysis, each put her own foot in front of the next. We learned to have respect for the journey each was making in her own way, at her own pace. We are all pilgrims in this world: Each has a journey marked out by heaven to perfectly fit our souls, and in patience and charity, we must respect the other pilgrims along the Way.


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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