Camino de Santiago: The Path to Spain's Soul

Don Harris | June 2016

Every year in Galicia, the Celtic province located in the far northwest corner of Spain, thousands of men and women gather to celebrate the Feast of Santiago. Pilgrims and hikers join with local students and townspeople in the town of Santiago de Compostela where, legend has it, the remains of the apostle James were buried. The 25th of July is set aside as a holy day honoring Santiago (Sant Iago=Saint James) as the patron saint of Spain.

Legend has it that in the 1st century, Saint James’ martyred body was placed in the hold of a stone boat and set to sea from Palestine. The craft traversed westward across the Mediterranean Sea, sailed through Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules before heading north along the Iberian coast until it came to rest at the village of Padrón on the Atlantic shore of Galicia. Saint James’ remains were laid to rest in a field near what is now the pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela. 

In the early 9th century, legend has it that a vision of Santiago appeared in the sky before a group of Christian soldiers who were struggling to repel the Islamic armies that had conquered most of Spain. Santiago was mounted on a white steed and urged the outnumbered force on into battle. This extraordinary vision gave them the courage necessary to defeat the enemy at the Battle of Clavijo. This inspiring story became a unifying narrative, and marked the beginning of the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The final victory came almost 800 years later at Granada in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus set sail. Throughout this time, Spanish warriors galloping to battle followed the rallying cry, “Santiago!”

A church was built in the late 9th century to house the relics of the saint. In 997 Al-Mansur, the great Moorish general, burnt the church to the ground and transported the bells of the church to the mosque in Cordoba. Amazingly the relics were undisturbed, and some say that Al-Mansur ordered them protected because he was aware of the power of the relics. In the 12th century a sublime Romanesque cathedral was built which has been embellished and enlarged over the centuries.

Over this time, Santiago de Compostela became a major pilgrimage site, and the church even granted full forgiveness of sins to those who walked all the way to Santiago, or died on the way. The pilgrimage route, also known as “El Camino de Santiago” or “The Way of Saint James,” attracted pilgrims from across Europe. Chaucer tells us, in his Canterbury Tales, of English pilgrims joining others on the Camino de Santiago. Those pilgrims walked through France and across the Pyrenees, joining other faithful in following the trail 400 miles across northern Spain.

What at first was just a trickle of pilgrims eventually grew into a stream of men and women from all over Europe and the Middle East. Saint Francis of Assisi and Charlemagne are said to have travelled there. Some communities found the Camino a convenient method of purging their towns of minor criminals, sentencing them to walk to Santiago in penance. No doubt they hoped that these troublemakers would come back transformed by the journey – or that they would never return at all! During the Middle Ages, when Jerusalem was in Muslim hands and Rome was sacked by hostile forces, Santiago became the most important pilgrimage site in Europe.

Throughout the centuries it has been traditional for local people to welcome pilgrim hikers passing through their villages, and housing and feeding the crowds became a prosperous activity. To this day, there are towns within walking distance all along the way, no doubt supported by the pilgrims. The pilgrims were identified by their wooden staffs, often with a gourd filled with water serving as a canteen. Most importantly, the emblem which distinguished them most was the scallop shell of Santiago.

The centuries passed and for many the idea of pilgrimages, visions and relics became a historical oddity. These legends became seen as fairy tales – viewed with skepticism and amusement. Especially during our profoundly materialist age, with the reign of science as the source of verifiable truth, the story of Santiago is fanciful, much like Washington and the cherry tree. As a result, by the 20th century only a small number of pilgrims chose to follow the well-trod paths of the earlier pilgrims. Eventually the paths became overgrown and in many places indistinguishable from the foot paths around them. But then remarkable things began to take hold. 

Beginning in the 1970’s there was a groundswell of interest in the Camino de Santiago – the pilgrimage route. Scholars and hikers discovered the profound meaning that a contemplative journey can have – a truth that millions of ancient pilgrims experienced in the past. The motivation of the modern travelers came from a broader perspective. I have heard from many of our La Tienda community that they were choosing to walk the Camino as a reflective break from the lives they were living. Some told me they just wanted to hike in nature, and the 400 miles from France to Santiago was an exciting challenge.

One of these pilgrims lives in my hometown. She was an active woman in her sixties who saw the Camino as both a spiritual and physical challenge. I was humbled by her preparation and dedication. Sure enough, when she felt she was properly prepared she headed off to northern Spain and walked the Camino de Santiago by herself. But she soon discovered she was never alone, as she would bond with fellow travelers along the way.

She told me that she was able to completely detach. For her the trip to Spain was not a vacation, it was a spiritual journey in which she was completely out of her element. It was an extraordinary experience where she was on her own, traveling in a foreign land lacking the familiar props of books or maps or even a common language. She even had the experience of being lost, but soon would find fellow pilgrims along the way to help her – many of whom were from far off countries, and hardly spoke her language. But the common language was “caring.”

She told me the greatest insight she achieved traveling along the way was the compassion and caring she received from strangers. In those early days she was touched by the townspeople who would anticipate her need for protection at night. One night a villager asked if she would mind if he locked the door of the small bunkhouse so that my friend would be safe! 

She has returned to the Camino several times over the following years, each time experiencing a new sense of renewal. Of course many changes have occurred as more and more people have decided to walk the Camino. What was merely a trickle of hikers is now more than one hundred thousand a year. My friend said that she missed the intimacy and solitude of her first journeys but she is thankful that others are now able to share the experience. The movie entitled The Way has been an inspiration to many, a labor of love by the actor Martin Sheen that has reached millions.

One of those was another friend I met through La Tienda. He and his wife joined Ruth and me in Williamsburg and together we shared their enthusiasm about the Spanish people and their view of life. Not long after, he went on the Camino for the first time. Then he returned bringing a dozen or so friends from his church, dedicating his walk the Camino to his nephew who had sustained a crippling injury.

El Camino de Santiago is more than a hike through beautiful Spain. Whether you are religious or not, walking for weeks on end in the footsteps of the millions of pilgrims who travelled before you can be a deeply profound personal journey. It is not only a chance to challenge yourself and separate from the daily demands of modern living, but also a time to find a deeper understanding of yourself and your fellow humans who travel with you down the path of life.