For three weeks last month, I stayed in a house right along the medieval pilgrimage route, Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle [better known to Americans by the Spanish name, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela].
The summer rush was long past, but through my open window I often heard the toc toc of a staff or pole that signaled another pilgrim was coming. Every day at least a half-dozen would walk by on their way to the western edge of Spain where the body of the apostle James was said to be found in the 9th century and a shrine was later built.
Almost finished with the day’s 12 mile stretch from Moissac to Auvillar, the pilgrims would pause for a drink or look at the map or use the public toilets, before hiking up a very steep incline to spend the night in the village.
The majority looked more like hikers than what I expected pilgrims to look like. Actually I don’t know what kind of outfit I thought they should wear, just not something that looked like it came straight from the REI catalog or whatever the European equivalent of high end outdoor clothing is.
Some came on a donkey or with a horse hauling their pack [though there are companies that will transport your bags for you from one stop to another.] Others were biking the 940 mile route from Le Puy, France to Santiago, Spain.
There are four main pilgrimage routes through France, but the Le Puy route is probably the most popular. In the summer, they say 40 to 50 pilgrims pass through every day. But many who make the pilgrimage start further south, on the French border for a 30 day walk to Santiago, though you only need to walk 100 kilometers or bike 200 kilometers to get the authentic ‘I hiked the Camino’ pilgrim’s certificate.
Most of the time, I just watched the parade from my window, an observer not a participant. But one Sunday I worshipped with pilgrims at the abbey in Moissac, a major stop on the route. I often biked along a nearby stretch through farmland and along the Canal du Midi, and I did walk along the chemin for 3 miles one day. I’d like to say I undertook that journey for deeply spiritual reasons, but the truth was I was going to have lunch at a well known restaurant in the neighboring village, and without a car or public transportation, the only way to get there was on foot. How medieval.
I wasn’t much different from a lot of people who do the pilgrimage for sport or culture or purely historical interest. Almost a quarter of a million people do this pilgrimage every year, but that’s half of what it was in the 11th century. Considering the population of Europe at the time, a half million is an impressive number, even more so when you realize that the Santiago pilgrimage was not the first, but the third most popular destination at the time, behind Rome and Jerusalem.
All those medieval pilgrims not only walked to Santiago de Compostelo, but without trains or cars or planes, they had to walk all the way home as well. It was an expensive and sometimes dangerous journey, taken as a penance or for spiritual guidance or growth. Over time it became well-organized, and a travel guide was written to help pilgrims know what routes to take, where to stay and what to avoid.
I finally saw a ‘real’ pilgrim, while I was out biking one day, complete with his hat, staff, scallop shell painted with cross, and a three-inch crucifix hanging from his backpack. Like most pilgrims I met, it was easy to strike up a conversation with him. He had started in Geneva, and was staying in homes along the way, rather than hotels.
For those who follow Jesus, there’s no requirement to go on a pilgrimage [unlike Muslims for whom making the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five obligations, as 3 million did this week]. But there is something about the idea of pilgrimage that remains appealing . You have a clearly defined goal, a clearly defined path, you get rid of the burdens and boredoms of daily life, and travel simply, following in the foot steps of others who have gone before, often in the company of others who on the same journey. I think in some ways, Le Chemin de St. Jacques has become a horizontal Mount Everest–people do it because it’s there.
But the truth is whether I walk the chemin or whether I never leave home, I’ve become a pilgrim too. The word ‘pilgrim’ comes from the Latin peregrinus which means foreigner or stranger. I’m only passing through this world as I follow Jesus home.
My spiritual ancestors who walked on the road of faith knew that:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16
Our pilgrimage to heaven is a long road. At the start it can be exciting, but after awhile, the pack begins to chafe, boots begin to rub. The initial thrill disappears. We have to endure hard times and lonely moments. There are unwelcoming villages, sour hosts, and bad weather. We start to acquire things that weigh us down and make the journey harder: possessions, worries, concerns. As the life of faith become difficult, it’s easy to think about stopping or turning around. We can forget what is waiting at the end of the journey.
Thankfully God didn’t intend for us to make the pilgrimage alone. In the company of our fellow travelers, our troubles are divided and our joys are doubled. We bear each others’ burdens and share our supplies. We remind each other of our destination as we put one weary foot after another, giving us the courage to keep on going, all the way to the end.
Happy are the people whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims way…they go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion.