This is the 14th installment in “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas, a series of reflections on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
The last days on the Camino de Santiago usually turn into a race. This is particularly true of the final week before the Feast of Saint James on the 25th of July in a Holy Year.
Many extra pilgrims join the route at Sarria to walk the final 100k, which is the minimum to qualify for the compostelana (pilgrim certificate), so the Camino is filled to capacity in the last four or five days of walking. Pilgrim hostels fill up quickly and it is unwise to continue walking after mid-afternoon unless you carry a tent.
So the last part of the journey can be challenging for pilgrims who have walked hundreds of miles or in some cases count their miles in thousands. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself in the year I walked all the way from the west of England to Compostela, but in the last days I met a woman who was eighty years old, walking quite slowly, and had walked from Norway on a circuitous route through Germany, Belgium, and France and had completed nearly a thousand miles more than me! All the long-distance walkers in this last stretch are now in competition with those fresh starters who walk with a spring in their step, who have begun during these last days. The only solution is to wake up early, at 5 a.m., and start walking by torchlight before dawn, thus finishing by 2 p.m. to get in the queue for a hostel bed. On the pilgrim road, it can now seem like a Monday morning commute in the city, pounding the busy main street along with the crowd, to get to the office in time.
Sometimes on this last stretch you find the sight of those whose physical struggle to complete that 100k minimum—to get their compostelana—is very inspiring and a reminder that each person fulfills their pilgrimage obligation according to their capacity. The heroic walk across Europe can be quickly put into less heroic perspective when the striding pilgrim meets a party of severely incapacitated people with motor neuron disease, with their helpers struggling to haul wheelchairs up a rough track in the rain.
The landscape of these last days is gentler, with the pleasant green pastures of Galicia cooled by Atlantic-driven breezes and the occasional refreshing shower of rain. This is a welcome change for those who have walked the entire route and have spent weeks in the arid plains of the Meseta and climbed rugged mountains. Long gone are the days of nervously checking water bottles in a scorched landscape with few sources of drinking water. For those who have walked across Europe and spent many days or weeks trudging through continuous rain, the temperate climate of Galicia is also a welcome reminder of earlier days in wet northern climates, in a journey whose first days after setting off from home are now a fading memory. A three-month walk from home to Compostela can seem like a lifetime within a lifetime, and the pilgrim will be conscious in these last days approaching Compostela that there will be a reckoning at journey’s end. How will it feel to end such a long journey? And think of those in medieval times: arrival in Compostela was merely the halfway point: for they had to walk all the way home again!
I have frequently heard it said by some pilgrims that their arrival at Compostela seemed an anti-climax. The road itself—the Camino—can become the endpoint of the experience and the destination is of lesser importance. Bland statements such as ‘the Camino will teach you everything’ are sometimes substituted for the Catholic idea of being guided by God and the saints in a journey to venerate an apostle at his shrine. That is a spirituality more focused on linear time, and the End of Time, the Last Judgment. If your worldview is governed by cyclical time, maybe arrival in Compostela is an anti-climax because you missed the point of the journey.
All this was brought into sharp relief on one occasion when I had reached the Monte del Gozo (the Mount of Joy) overlooking Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims have always paused for their first sight of the cathedral—another half-day’s walk ahead—and I sat down for a lunch of sandwiches and fruit, with another pilgrim I had been walking alongside that morning. It was the very place where Pope Saint John-Paul II had celebrated Mass in the open air during an earlier Compostela Holy Year. We picnicked on the step of the commemorative bronze sculpture.
“Just think of the millions of pilgrims who have stopped and looked at this view, seeing journey’s end so close!” I said.
There was a heat haze over the city but the towers of the cathedral could be plainly seen in the distance. My companion on that day’s walk was from Germany. He had walked from the Pyrenees on the full length of the Camino Francés and he was beginning to feel sorry the journey was nearly over. We had set out from a hostel that morning and breakfasted together, exchanging stories of our journeys.
“I think it will be just an anti-climax to arrive there,” he said. “I already think it’s over, now that I can see the cathedral and I feel sad. I enjoyed the Camino and I don’t really want to reach the end already.”
“A Catholic pilgrim does not feel a sense of anti-climax on arrival at the shrine of Saint James in epilogue,” I replied. “It is like a practice run for presenting yourself at the Judgment Seat of Christ at the end of time, and walking into the cathedral square in Compostela, approaching the figure of Christ in Glory above the door… it’s like the soul’s preparation to be received in judgment.”
“I don’t believe in organized religion,” he said. His name was Hermann. “I’m more of a Buddhist, really.”
“Ah good,” I said. “So you at least follow some guiding ideas. Have you read Siddharta?”
“What is that?” said Hermann.
“It’s the name of the young man who became the Buddha,” I said. “A good novel by your fellow countryman and namesake, Hermann Hesse. I read it long before I became a Christian. But you don’t believe in reading about organized religion either, not even the one you say you feel closest to?”
He gazed at the cathedral in the distance, the resting place of the relics of the saint and apostle of the Christ and His Church that Hermann didn’t believe in, but had walked five hundred miles to reach. He formulated his question with great care but voiced it in the tone of skepticism of his own dismissal.
“You believe the body of Saint James was brought all the way from the Middle East in a stone boat with no pilot, and it sailed up the Atlantic coast to northwest Spain and washed up on a beach, then people all recognized that it was the body of the Apostle because of miraculous signs in the stars?”
“Apart from one small detail,” I replied.
“A small correction, but it was the Holy Land. Not the ‘Middle East.’”
“But you really believe it?” he asked, incredulously.
“You’re asking the wrong question,” I said. “The question you need to ask is, do I follow the tradition? And yes I do. I find the tradition inspiring. Saint James preached the Gospel in Spain, according to tradition, and it is fitting that we recognize his shrine in the west, just as Saint Thomas went to the east, to India, and that tradition inspires the Christians of Syrian-Malabar tradition. They took the Gospel to the four corners of the world. That is the tradition. That is what they did. To focus on the stone boat is to enter a world of medieval narrative but bringing a 21st-century scientific view with you. No wonder you are confused!”
We both laughed at the outcome of the discussion and stood up to continue our last stage into the city. But I was left with some sadness for his sense of emptiness, and I pondered it further as we walked, wondering—ever the parish missioner!—if I could help him make the jump to faith. I suggested he follow me when we arrived at the cathedral. We would walk together through the Pórtal de la Gloria and imagine how we would stand before the throne of judgment in the Last Days, and then embrace the statue of Saint James. Just to see if it helped overcome his sense of anti-climax.
“You’re actually going to hug the statue of Saint James?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s the thing to do. Sometimes pilgrims used to put their hat on the saint and put his crown on their own head. That all stopped one day when the crown got stolen, two hundred years ago. But we can still hug the Apostle.”
“You won’t see me doing that!” he said.
But Hermann did go up the steps and entered through the Pórtico de la Gloria. I interpreted the iconography for him, looking at the figure of Christ seated in majesty on the throne of judgment, and quoted the creed: “He will judge the living and the dead.” I explained that these are powerful and intimidating words if you put the emphasis on the word judge, but when you put the emphasis instead on the pronoun He, the weight is lifted. He will be my judge. He, and not some other. He who has accompanied me on this pilgrimage. Out in the wild places. Through the rains and the blistering sun. Sustaining through my temptations to give up or occasionally want to stop walking and just get on a bus. He who is forgiving and merciful. He will be our judge in the Last Days. Not some other…
I walked through the door into the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, knowing I have walked every step of the way, and I am the guest of honor here: the Christian pilgrim for whom this magnificent building was constructed, to provide a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem, and the special blessing of a moment of encounter with Saint James the Greater, the Apostle whose mortal remains we believe are kept in this place. I strode forward to the queue to the stairs leading up to the silver-covered statue of Saint James, and Hermann trailed behind me. Journey’s end but not an anti-climax.
In this series of Postcards from the Camino, I have tried to give a pilgrim’s perspective on people and places, visited in no particular order, with some occasional thoughts on contemporary discussion. This is the way that pilgrims converse informally as they are traveling together. The timescale of the series ranged over half a century of my experience of the Camino—from the 1960s to the present—in a changing Europe. The history, geography, and art of the Way of Saint James are a source of fascination, but in the end—from a Catholic perspective—the pilgrimage is a devotional exercise and that is central. This is the way I have tried to present it, exactly as I have experienced it. For some of us, whether cradle Catholics or converts, the faith is inseparably intertwined with European history and culture, which was fundamentally and lastingly informed by Christian tradition. The Camino de Santiago is one of its concrete expressions and a continuing means of evangelization.
Oh yes, and let’s take one last glance back at the German pilgrim, Hermann, who thought the end of his journey would be an anti-climax. As I began descending the few short stairs after my brief tactile greeting of the statue of Saint James, I paused and looked back. Hermann was hugging the Apostle, very tightly. Other pilgrims waited patiently in the queue behind him. It seemed he would never let go. I continued down the steps and made my way to the pilgrim Mass.
The pilgrim’s entry into the cathedral through the Pórtal de la Gloria as described in this piece is now no longer possible, as the magnificent polychrome restoration work has meant that the entire front area with the medieval statuary is now enclosed in a temperature-controlled zone and incorporated into the cathedral museum complex. It can be visited but is no longer the pilgrim entry into the cathedral. This sadly ends a pilgrim tradition that is over a thousand years old but is justified for scientific reasons of the preservation and conservation of a piece of outstanding world heritage.
In the Holy Year 2021, entry into the cathedral is by the Holy Door which is open until December 31, 2022, and afterward it will be bricked up again, following tradition. This is the last of the present series of Postcards from the Camino but I have yet to return to the road in this Holy Year. When I do so—and plans are underway—I will write a shorter series of additional postcards, direct from the Camino in two sections of the route, one in France and the other in Spain in the last stage to Compostela, and I look forward to passing through that Holy Door. Forward we go, “Ultreïa et suseia!”
Images: Photo of restored Pórtal de la Gloria, Compostela Tourism board; all other photos, the author.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).