The Way of Saint James

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage!
–Sir Walter Raleigh

While enjoying our first rest stop on the morning of the first day of our pilgrimage along Spain’s Camino de Santiago, our trail guide, Alex, shared with our small group of hikers a story. It concerned an eighty-five-year-old woman he’d once met a few years back at the very spot where we were all now resting. We were then just five miles west of our starting point in the northern Spanish border town of Roncesvalles, and still very high up in the Pyrenees Mountains. As we sat there on the ground on that gloriously sunny September morning beside a freezing-cold, crystal-clear, mountain stream—the very stream where local legend says the writer Ernest Hemingway some sixty years before had chilled his favorite Rioja wine while he and his companion fished for trout—Alex began his story by telling us that this lady had actually started her long Camino journey in Switzerland, over one thousand miles away.

Amazed at this huge achievement by a person of such advanced years, and knowing that she still had over six hundred more miles to go before reaching the great cathedral in Santiago, he asked her why in the world she would take on such a daunting task. It took all of about a second for her to consider his question and reply … and as she proceeded to tell him her story, Alex said that a loving and all-knowing smile came upon the woman’s beautifully tanned and gently lined face. He said that her radiant blue eyes beamed with a pureness of joy and contentedness that’s only possible from someone who has accomplished something truly monumental and whose soul now seemed at peace with the world.

She said, “Son, on a late winter morning about a year ago, I was sitting alone at my home in Switzerland, squandering away yet another precious day in front of my television set, when suddenly, I began to feel very old and utterly worthless. I’m not sure how or why, but I had the absolute certainty that at that moment I was going to die. Then, no sooner had the dark cloud of death begun to descend upon me than I heard a voice, a resplendent and glorious voice, the voice of an angel—or maybe even of Saint James himself—thunder at me and say, “Wilma, get up now and walk!” And so, rather than giving in to that horrifying fate, I did just what the angel said, and I got up and I started walking. “And young man,” she said, with all the seriousness of a heart attack, “I don’t plan to stop. Ever!”

As we all stood back up from our break, I took a few minutes before beginning the walk to kneel down on a flat rock sticking up out from the side of the stream. I cupped my hands, scooped up some of the cold—very cold—and pristine water, brought it to my lips, and drank it down. As I did so a second time and a third, I thought to myself, “Wow! I was now one with the Pyrenees Mountains, with old Ernest Hemingway, with the millions of pilgrims who went forth upon this journey before me, as well as with the amazing Ms. Wilma from Switzerland!” And just like Hemingway, I, too, would soon drink my fill of the region’s delicious Rioja wine!

If you think about it, the 1,000-year-old pilgrim trail known as El Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James) has no real beginning; you can start the journey from anywhere in the world. It does, however, have a clear and definitive end point: the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.

For over a millennium, millions of anonymous pilgrims, pious penitents, would-be adventurers, and just plain tourists have made their way to Santiago by foot, donkeys, bicycles, and automobiles for the sole purpose of visiting the city’s famous cathedral and its precious holy relics. In medieval times, the Camino was considered one of the three mandatory pilgrimages that every Christian, if able, had to participate in. (The other two were a journey to Rome and to Jerusalem.) King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were long ago themselves pilgrims on the Way of Saint James, as were El Cid, Saint Francis of Assisi, King Louis VII of France, Dante, and most recently, the beloved Pope John Paul II.

How the apostle James (son of Zebedee and brother of John) came to have his final resting place in this Spanish city is really quite amazing. Legend says that after the death of Jesus, James was entrusted with the task of preaching the Gospel throughout the whole of the ancient Iberian Peninsula. It was said that the good saint had a special fondness for this region of his earthly appointment. In the later years of his ministry, however, he was called back to Jerusalem, and there he became the first of the twelve apostles to suffer martyrdom by decapitation at the hands of the wicked King Herod.
After his death, Saint James was miraculously transported in a stone boat under the guidance of the heavenly angels to northern Spain. There he was buried in a field in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. The good people of Spain, in thanks for the great blessing they were granted by the angels, then built over his bones the magnificent Cathedral of Saint James.

It was into this great mass of flowing humanity that our small group of pilgrims and I found ourselves. As Catholics, Theresa and I wrote on our pilgrim’s passport that we intended to perform the walk as bona fide pilgrims. This meant that I first needed to have an intention for the walk. (I dedicated the walk to a cousin who was suffering from liver disease, two women I knew who had breast cancer, and a lady friend who had lupus.) It also signified that during the walk, I would try my best to be as reverent as possible, pray, and attend Mass as often as I was able at one of the hundreds of small churches and cathedrals along the route, walk the last one hundred kilometers (sixty miles) of the trip continuously, and to attend the pilgrim’s Mass at Saint James Cathedral when finished.

For doing so, I would then receive a Compostela, which is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims upon completion of the Way of Saint James. An additional benefit of this parchment is that it will allow the bearer—providing he/she doesn’t commit any mortal sins—to skip purgatory after death and proceed directly to heaven.
We would be walking the most popular of the Camino trails across the north of Spain called the French Route. Beginning high in the Pyrenees Mountains in the village of Roncesvalles, the route would snake its way for more than six hundred miles over mountain passes through the land of the Basque peoples, across the high plains of the Navarra region, and then cross over the mountains of Cantabria and into the Province of Galicia. Our plan for the pilgrimage consisted of walking fourteen to twenty-four miles each day, depending on the terrain, and our itinerary included passing through the most scenic, historical, or just plain interesting sights along the way.

Ultimately, due to time constraints with my veterinary business, we would travel The Walk of Saint James for about 290 miles. The Way took us trekking mostly along country roads and through forests and vineyards and almond groves, and on some mornings, when you saw the golden sunlight showering down from a stark blue sky upon the boundless miles of wheat fields, it looked like God himself begat the whole world new again. The trail went past paddocks of fat, grazing sheep, and more than a dozen times our group found ourselves sharing the trail with small herds of hulking blonde and white dairy cows, who, not concerned in the least with our presence, were returning to their pastures after their morning’s milking. The smell of plowed earth, damp and musky oak woodlands, freshly mowed alfalfa, not to mention the aroma of farm animal manure, all helped to consummate within me the total sensual richness of our encounter.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that the whole of the pilgrim’s route was an Edenic paradise from start to finish. At the time, it seemed to me that there was an awful lot of walking up hills and then down the hills and then up a hill again and then down the hill. Also, even though the path managed to meander its way through medieval back alleys, well-groomed town squares, and bustling city streets that were, as a whole, quite pleasant, it also passed through some nasty suburban industrial zones. And more than I care to mention, large sections of the trail shared the way with heavily traveled highways jammed solely with smoke-belching, speeding diesel trucks. (Pedestrian accidents and, oddly, drowning are the major cause of death for the modern-day pilgrim.)

But that’s all that I’m going to say about that. I’m not going to expound upon the day-to-day details of the walk. They were filled with long stretches of time for contemplation and personal reflection, as would befit any sacred passage, but dwelling upon them in a travelogue fashion (as many writers are wont to do) would get pretty boring. We visited churches and cathedrals and attended Mass when available, got our pilgrim’s passports stamped at museums, bars, and restaurants all along the way, and stopped often to take in the breathtaking scenery.
But as would be expected from a grand tradition that’s been around for over a thousand years, every church, village, bridge, and mountain pass along the pilgrim trail seemed to have its own story to tell. And it is a few of these amazing tales that I would like to share.

Among the first of the interesting legends we encountered along the Camino involved a rather plain and unimposing Gothic stone bridge that we crossed over at the end of our second day of walking. The bridge, with its center pier and twin arches, crossed the Arga River in the little valley town of Zubiri. (Zubiri in the Basque language means “village of the bridge.”) As a veterinarian, what caught my attention the most about the bridge was its name: El Puente de la Rabia, “the bridge of rabies.”

It turns out that there was a much-venerated fifth-century Christian martyr in this border region between France and Spain and Portugal named Saint Quiteria. Not too much is officially known about this pious woman except that she was the virgin daughter of a Galician prince and that her father had her beheaded because she refused to renounce her Christianity. During her short life it was said that she once held at bay two rabid dogs who were about to attack a group of children with only her saintly voice as a weapon. Because of this incident, Saint Quiteria’s intercession is prayed to for help in the protection and prevention of rabies. And this is where “the bridge of rabies” and the blessed saint cross paths.

It turns out that some—or all—of Saint Quiteria’s relics are embedded in the central pier of the bridge. And for over fifteen hundred years, and still to this very day, local farmers believe that if they march their animals three times over the central pier, the beasts will be immune to rabies. Also, they believe that if they walk a rabies-infected animal three times around the central pier (the river in the summer is not all that deep) that it will be cured of the disease.

O’Cebreiro smells like wood fires, manure and pilgrim B.O.
–Rick Steves

After battling a cold and grueling fourteen-mile uphill walk—the last hour of which included a torrential downpour—we arrived soaked to the bone at the tiny Galician mountaintop village of O’Cebreiro. “A nice thing about reaching where we are now is that the trail is mostly all downhill from here,” said Alex as we all stood puffing to catch our breaths on the edge of the village square. Upbeat in that way that all good guides usually are, he added, “Too bad it’s so cloudy and rainy this morning; there’s one heck of a view from up here!” As for me, all I could think of was, “Thank God we don’t have to do that hill again.” We then walked over to a small café across the square where I ordered a big mug of hot chocolate. I’m not sure if it was because I was so frozen and hungry or because the drink was of the local fresh unpasteurized cow’s milk or because the cool mountain air had so invigorated my sense of taste, but that cup of chocolate was the best I’ve ever tasted.

The village of O’Cebreiro’s seventh-century parish church, Santa María la Real, is thought by historians to be the oldest church along the French Route branch of the Way of Saint James. Besides serving the spiritual need of her parishioners for over a millennium, this humble (very humble) little pre-Romanesque fieldstone building is famous in Camino lore for its astonishing story of the miracle of the Eucharist.

Local legend says that during a severe winter blizzard on a Sunday morning around the year 1300, a Benedictine priest, certain in his heart of hearts that no one would be foolish enough to brave the elements, was preparing to celebrate the morning’s Mass alone. Just as he was about to begin, a farmer named Juan Satín faithfully walked through the front door, shook the snow and ice from his simple garments, genuflected in front of the holy altar, and then sat down. Perhaps it was just a genuine concern for the safety of his parishioner, or perhaps it involved some even greater weakness of faith on the part of the good father. Whatever the reason, as soon as Mr. Satin sat down, the priest began to admonish the old farmer severely for foolishly risking his life just so that he could receive a wafer of bread and a sip of wine. The humble parishioner just sat there and never said a word; he knew better.

When the Holy Mass finally began, farmer Juan prayed more fervently than he’d ever prayed in his life. He prayed not only for his family and community but for a miracle from God that would prove to this worthy, but cynical, priest that the Eucharist was more than simply bread and wine. The farmer’s prayers were soon answered, for as he approached the altar to receive Holy Communion, the Host in the hand of the incredulous priest literally changed into the flesh of the Lord, and the chalice of wine began to overflow with his blood.

Pilgrims, either visiting or attending Mass at the Church of Santa María today, can still see the host, chalice, and paten used by the doubting priest during O’Cebreiro’s miraculous Eucharist. Visitors can also venerate—and even touch—the relics of the priest and the devoted farmer. And as I stood there, still soaking wet, receiving Holy Communion in front of that simple altar, inside of that beautiful mountaintop church, I once again truly felt at one with the millions of believers who came before me.

There’s a little-known story, a story from my youth that I haven’t told too many people; a true story that someday, if I ever get around to writing my U.S. Navy memoirs, I’d like to tell. The gist of story is this: it is a fact that I walk this earth today because, on a dark and sultry old Hong Kong evening many years ago, five Australian sailors came to my rescue and literally saved my life.

When I think about it, I can’t recall any serious objections that I might have with any of the particular peoples I’ve encountered on my many journeys across the face of this astonishing planet. The few unpleasant or annoying times that I have had mostly involved dealing with bureaucrats, drunken soldiers, police roadblocks, and border guards. Put simply, I just do my best to not pass too much judgment upon others and try to love and respect everybody at everyplace I’ve ever been to. Having said all that, I do have some favorites.

When pressed hard for actual examples from each of the following broad categories, I usually give these answers: In my humble opinion, the good people of the island of Newfoundland have got to be the friendliest and most personable on the planet, my fellow Americans the most generous, the Cambodians and Ethiopians the most beautiful, the Angolans the saddest, the Swiss and the New Zealanders the most rugged, the people of the subcontinent of India the most mysterious and alluring, and the South Africans, the most adventurous. But if pushed absolutely to name my overall favorite of the earth’s peoples, it would have to be the Australians, a race of men and women descended from Christian missionaries, buccaneers, farmers, whalers, and convicts, whose most favorite of past times seems to be just smoking, drinking, and gambling. They really seem to enjoy life.

On our journey along the Camino, every night we would settle in to a country inn, bed-and-breakfast, or a small hotel. With every evening meal, we would be fed to the point of almost bursting with the bounty of the local farms, all accompanied by endless liters of local Spanish wines, especially Rioja wines. As our pilgrimage progressed westward toward Santiago, it was noted by some in our group that any excess un-emptied bottles of wine tended to end up in front of either me or an Australian lady in our group who I’ll call Ms.V. This lovely lady, one of eight children all named after Christian saints, had just recently sold her accounting business and was walking the Way of Saint James as part of an extended world tour.

Although the events of that night have since taken on the status of legend, my own recollection of the event is that it all started out quite innocently. After what seemed like yet another harmless comment made by Alex about how the majority of the meal’s wine bottles were seemingly ending up in front of Ms.V. or me, I, without much thought to any potential consequences (as is often the case), made one of those downright stupid and braggadocios comments about my fellow Americans and our infinite capacity to consume adult drink. As I did so, by chance I happened to look over toward Ms.V. and noticed that she had a slightly mischievous smile on her face. Then, as quick as you could say “Vegemite sandwich,” she (rather innocently) asked Alex if it was possible to get a couple more bottles of wine. “No problem,” said Alex, “you can have as many as you like.”

That was all it took. When the waiter brought them to our table, nobody seemed to want anymore, having already consumed as a group a dozen or more bottles. “Richard,” said Ms.V. quite innocuously, “you’ll have another bottle with me, won’t you?”
Completely unaware that I was falling into a trap, I said, “Sure, why not? It’s pretty good wine; no sense in it going to waste!” What I didn’t realize, however, was that when Ms.V. said “another bottle,” what she really meant was another bottle each! And so, not wanting to seem wimpy, I let the undeclared war began. The wine was indeed delicious, the conversation cordial, and before I ever knew what hit me, the one bottle each had led to two, and then to three. A couple of the older pilgrims soon called it a day, and went to bed. The remainder watched as the bottle count in front of each of us went from three to four. It was at this point that my face began to feel a bit flushed and I was physically beginning to tire, but the wine still tasted good, each glass still going down as smooth as mother’s milk. But even if it hadn’t, I’d have battled through it; as great as the Aussies are, I still had the honor of America to defend.

However, halfway through bottle number four, I came to the realization that I was in trouble. Even though I still had my wits about me, the words coming out of my mouth were starting to slur, and I felt my head starting to bob. Ms. V., all the while, still looked as cool as the evening breeze. As a matter of fact, she seemed to be accelerating her consumption. By the time I’d finally downed the dregs of bottle four, she was nearly done with number five!

Most of our group, including Theresa, had by then gone to bed. Alex (who, we’ve been told, still speaks of that evening’s wine consuming contest with the sort of reverent awe with which he spoke of Wilma from Switzerland) was still there as were the pair of Canadians in our group, John and Lois. It was at this time that Ms. V., probably wanting to get the whole thing over with so all of us could go to bed as well (or, maybe she just sensed my impending defeat), looked me square in eye, and with the calmness and confidence of a she-lion fixing to pounce upon an innocent gazelle, said to me, “Richard, let’s see if they have any brandy or maybe something even stronger!”
Stunned as to how this tiny wafer of a woman could so thoroughly—and so seemingly effortlessly—thrash me, I conceded defeat. And as bad as I might have felt in letting my country down, I take great satisfaction in knowing I lost to a worthy adversary. For her part, Ms. V. was as gracious in victory as she was before and as she still is to this very day. As we all went our separate ways, she said, “Richard, we have to do this again sometime!”

Smiling, I gave her the universal but somewhat unsteady thumbs-up indicating my agreement. But if the truth were to be told, I remember at the time thinking to myself, “Richard, NEVER AGAIN!”

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