Many, many years ago a man was traveling in the northern west part of Spain when he stumbled on a small mausoleum. Inside he found the bones of St. James. Or so the story goes. Don’t ask me how they knew it was him. This man contacted the Catholic Church and a sanctuary was built upon that very spot. Overtime a monetary was built to guard the relics. From there it grew into a truly enormous cathedral and the town of Santiago de Compestela was born surrounding its walls. Once word got out that the apostle’s bones resided in this obscure spot everyone decided it would be fun to walk 500+ miles to visit. Thousands of pilgrims make the journey to Santiago every year now. There are at least 8 different routes from within Spain and France, and even one that reaches Germany. These pilgrims walk/ride bikes/ and travel for months to reach the city. They travel to the statue of St. James to throw their arms around him and then enter the crypt to see the ornate box holding his remains and pray for their deepest desires along with blessings for the kind souls who housed and fed them on their journey. They then attend a special noon mass where a giant incense holder is swung above their heads.
It is still yet to be seen if the point of it all is with the destination or the journey one takes to arrive at the relic. We met several people finishing their journey: a couple from France and quite a few from inner parts of Spain. One thing I learned was the symbol of the scallop shell worn by the pilgrim. There are a couple theories surrounding why they do so and where it comes from, but the one most likely is that as a pilgrim arrived in Santiago they continued the remaining distance to the ocean in Galicia. Before the New World was discovered, it was the end of the world as the western most tip of Europe. I can only imagine their feelings of awe they must have had staring out to the Atlantic and wondering what was out there. No wonder they would collect a scallop shell as a small piece from the end of the world.
We partook in an 8 course seafood meal in true Galician fashion the first night we were there. The Galicians, much like the Basque and Catalonians, are quite proud of their culinary feats. For good reason! Shrimp, octopus, scallops, pork, squid ink spaghetti, seafood croquetas… Let’s just say I left with a renewed respect for the master chefs of Spain.
The next day we had our own pilgrimage. The bus dropped us all off about 8 kilometers out of town along the route and entered the city and the cathedral the way they do traditionally. In fact, we met many who were doing just that and were anxious to catch a glance of the long awaited Cathedral within the skyline of the city. And when we did finally come upon it, there was a feeling inside my heart that I wasn’t expecting: hope. I couldn’t help but think of the millions who traced this trail looking for hope, relief and the blessings they so desperately wished for. Are the bones in that silver box those of Christ’s apostle? I do not know. More likely than not, they are just some lowly farmer. However, I don’t think that is the point. At least not for me. As I watched the many backpack-ladened travelers file into the cathedral for mass I thought of how amazing it is that humans do these kinds of things. To be human is to believe in something more and to continually progress. I learned that as I listened to the tour guide tell us the story of the cathedral and while walking through the beautiful streets full of all sorts of beautiful humans.