The Spring 2017 issue of Liturgy, the quarterly journal of The Liturgical Conference, deals with pilgrimage. Jennifer Lord’s essay describes the pilgrim’s experience on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela which she and her husband walked in 2014 for eight weeks, starting 250 miles north of the famous last 500 miles of the Camino Frances to Santiago, Spain. Prior to that they had walked five other Camino “installments” in both France and Switzerland.
Lord explains the history of the pilgrim’s routes, the modes of transport possible, and the physical and spiritual experience of walking.
Legend states that the Apostle James, the elder, one of the sons of Zebedee, after evangelizing in Jerusalem and Iberia, was martyred in Jerusalem. His body was brought to Iberia but the place of interment forgotten. . . [until] a hermit (Pelayo) discovered the tomb through a vision in the ninth century. . . Locals began to make pilgrimage. Concurrently, St. James was invoked as patron and protector in that land, increasing the appeal of the pilgrimage. . .
While travel to the Holy Land became difficult in the eleventh century, this pilgrimage flourished. . . The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation took its toll on the practice of pilgrimage, as did the loss of the relics. . . for 300 years, from 1589 to 1879! . . But in the 1950s, renewal efforts in France. . . rehabilitated interest in the pilgrimage and associations for the preservation and publicity of the Camino developed in France and Spain.
The story of this Camino’s contemporary popularity truly begins with the Roman Catholic priest who repopularized the route in 1967. [He] wrote his doctoral thesis on the importance of the pilgrimage and subsequently published guidebooks for pilgrims walking the Camino Francès. Notably, he personally way-marked the route from the Pyrenees to Santiago, using yellow paint he begged from the Galician highway authority to mark rocks, houses, and trees with the yellow arrows familiar to all pilgrims on this route. It was a revival within the Roman Catholic Church that spoke to the twentieth-century faithful and to those outside of the church.
Today the Camino de Santiago is a worldwide hit. The Cathedral’s Pilgrim’s Reception Office tracks the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving each year and the broad swath of nationalities represented. The pilgrimage path itself has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Martin Sheen’s movie The Way, books by Paulo Coelho and Shirley Maclaine, and arrivals by Oprah-status celebrities have popularized, especially, the best-known section of this ancient pilgrimage. It has worldwide importance for Christians and persons of other faiths. And for persons who declare no faith.
You can do the Camino on a bicycle. Or by car, or by combination of bike and car, by car and walking, with a rolling walker, in a wheelchair or hand bike, or by horse, or llama, or donkey. . .
In medieval times, if one had the choice, one walked to Santiago and back home again. The walk was supposed to be costly. The physicality of the walk was central to the meaning of the pilgrimage. One only enlisted cart and animal because of need. Otherwise, medieval pilgrims walked amid dangers of brigands, accidents, sickness, bears, and wolves. . . .
How one does the Camino. . . is a live question today. . . .
While I am not interested in arguing that walking is the best or only or authentic way to do this pilgrimage. . . I will suggest several properties of walking that contribute to its distinctive quality for pilgrimage.
Jennifer L. Lord, is the Dorothy B. Vickery Professor of Homiletics and Liturgical Studies at Austin Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, and president of the North American Academy of Liturgy.
Jennifer L. Lord, “Walking the Camino,” Liturgy 32, no. 3 (2017): 3-13.