The Spiritual Dimension of the Pilgrimage

The following article first appeared in our Bulletin no.60 in September 1997, and is included here by permission of the author and the editor. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.
Based on a talk by the Reverend Nigel Elbourne to the Northern Group Practical Pilgrim Day at Ripon on 1 March 1997.

I shall begin with what I hope foot-sore pilgrims will forgive me for calling a pre-‘amble’. Pilgrimage has long been seen as a metaphor for life itself: a life filled with a succession of problems which all pale into insignificance as the journey ends at the Celestial City. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress gives us the literary locus classicus. That is one reason I give no apology for introducing a spiritual dimension to a conference dedicated to the Practical Pilgrim. I am further emboldened by recently-published statistics from Jeannine Warcollier (of our sister organisation in France: La Société des Amis de St Jacques) which affirm that those who give ‘spirituelle‘ as their motivation for making the pilgrimage now out-number those who give ‘sportive‘ or ‘culturelle‘.

We begin with St James himself. There are three aspects of our patron which we might explore before we turn to the pilgrimage. First, of course, there is St James the Apostle. We read about him in the gospels and in the Acts. Not all we read of him is complimentary either – the Gospel for St James’s Day tells of a rebuke by our Lord, and a falling out with his fellow disciples over the question of pre-eminence. The account of the incident used in the Roman Missal blames his mother, but in these feminist days, I think we might discount that as an editorial gloss! Two things which need to be said, though: he didn’t write the Epistle of St James – that was probably by James the brother of our Lord; and, second, there is no scriptural evidence to say that St James went to Spain. But, conversely, it doesn’t say that he didn’t! So we may still expect to encounter the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela.

The second aspect of St James is Santiago Matamoros. This is not politically correct to us, but is still very real to the Spanish at a more or less conscious level. The reason I did not stay in Santiago to celebrate St James’s Day – having timed my walk for that very purpose in the Holy Year of 1993 – was that the arrival of the King and Queen the day before laid an inevitably greater emphasis on the nationalistic aspect of Santiago Matamoros. (See my article in Bulletin Nº 51.)

Lastly – and most congenial to us – comes St James the Pilgrim. We may see representations of him throughout Spain. But, best of all, we may see him in his hat and cockle, with his scrip and staff, in pictures and statues throughout Christendom. There is a St James window in the cathedral here in Ripon.

After three aspects of St James, we come to three aspects of pilgrimage. One of the things that originally attracted me to the Santiago pilgrimage was the fact that arriving is relatively unimportant – the journey’s the thing. The cultural and spiritual remains on the Way itself are as numerous and satisfying as at Santiago itself. This is reflected also in the walk itself. As one French person put it: “Ce n’est pas exactement une Grande Randonnée, c’est plutôt une Petite Randonnée … prolongée!” There are few serious challenges even to the moderate walker – beyond that of setting out again the next morning and fulfilling one’s daily average mileage.

The next – somewhat un-Christian – aspect of the pilgrimage is what one might call the Pilgrim Hierarchy: the fact that we all look down on someone! Walkers look down on cyclists; fully-laden cyclists look down on the racing cyclist with motorised back-up; those who set out from their own doorstep look down on those who set off from a more congenial starting point. We all look down on those who arrive by their hundreds in an air-conditioned coach, tripping over their broom-handle, plastic cockle-decorated, ‘pilgrim staves’ in their rush to join the queue at the shrine!

Which leads us to the third aspect – which is a question: what awaits us at Compostela? Is it the shrine? Then make sure you get there first thing in the morning when the cathedral opens at seven, or you won’t be able to spend enough time at the shrine to appreciate what, or the one who, is there – for those who are culturally motivated there is a wealth of other attractions – for those who are ‘sportifs‘ there is the walk to Finisterre. I personally would make a strong case for visiting Padrón a place of impeccable Jacobean connections – either on foot or by train (incidentally, subsidised trains are cheaper than buses in Spain – worth bearing in mind). I thoroughly appreciated the chance to walk up the hill from the church where St James’s river-side mooring post is preserved, past the fountain where he baptised his first converts, to the natural hill-top pulpit where he evangelised the Galicians.

I began this talk with a sort of preamble, so I will conclude with a Post-‘amble’! There has, in recent numbers of our Bulletin, been quite a discussion on the problems of returning home after the pilgrimage. Here are three suggestions, based, both on my own experience, and on what I have said above, which may be helpful in this difficult process.

First – remember the “Petite Randonnée prolongée“. Life, too, is a day-by-day journey – to be enjoyed for itself. When St James, along with Saints Peter and John, were privileged to join our Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration they tried to prolong the experience by fixing it in ‘three tabernacles’. For Christ, however, the Transfiguration was a major step on the Way of the Cross (read Mark 8:27-9:32) and the most commendable reaction to the whole event is that of the father of the epileptic boy who so anxiously awaited Christ’s descent from the Mount: “Lord I have faith – help me where my faith falls short” (9:24).

Which leads us to the different personae of St James. I suggest that St James the Apostle must be the role model for us – as he is for most other people. For he witnesses to a changed life in Christ which enabled him, not only to live the gospel, but to preach it – and to die for it.

Remember, too, that the Gospel for St James’s Day (Mark 10:35-45 for Anglicans or Matthew 20:20-28 for Roman Catholics) tackles the question of hierarchy which so bedevils pilgrims. We should never forget that, for the people getting off the plane or coach at Santiago, this will be one of the highlights of their life, for not everyone has the privilege of a three-month ‘holiday’ to walk from Le Puy! The close society of the refugio gives us ample opportunity to learn humility and tolerance. We shall have plenty of occasions to put that particular skill into practice on our return home.

And finally – a post scriptum for practical pilgrims. I cannot recommend highly enough the use of the feve narrow-gauge railway which links El Ferrol to the two ferry ports for the UK – and now, I believe, the French border too. The near walking speed, the spectacular rural scenery, the opportunity to stop off at Oviedo, the contact with real Spaniards as well as international tourists – all these give a splendid re-acclimatization to real life. So too does the 24 hour crossing of the Bay of Biscay. Let the train take the strain!

Source: Confraternity of St James Bulletin Nº 60 pp. 26-28.

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