Going on pilgrimage is an ancient Christian practice. There are old texts from Bishops encouraging the practice of pilgrimage among the faithful going back to the 4th century. Pilgrimages are not vacations, but physical journeys that manifest the spiritual journeys of those who desire to encounter God in the places where He has made His presence known in a particular way. The most important pilgrimage destinations in our tradition are the Holy Land and Rome, but there are many others. The ancient pilgrimage to visit the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England was immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In more recent times many people have made pilgrimages to the sites of Marian apparitions, such as Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima. But perhaps the most dramatic Christian pilgrimage still popular today is the ancient Camino de Santiago (the “Way of St. James”), in Spain.
For over 1000 years, pilgrims from all over the world have made the journey to northwestern Spain to visit the tomb of St. James the Apostle, whose feast day we celebrate today (7/25). St. James was a member of Our Lord’s inner circle, along with Peter and James’ brother John. These three were the only ones among the Twelve privileged to witness Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor as well as His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The gospels describe James as a man who could be hot-tempered and impetuous. On one occasion, he and his younger brother earned Jesus’ rebuke when they expressed their desire to call down fire from the sky to destroy a Samaritan village that would not welcome them. James’ ambition is revealed in the gospel reading for today’s feast, in which his mother approaches Jesus and asks that her two sons be granted the greatest positions in his Kingdom, one seated on His right and the other on His left. Our Lord gently denies her request, as those places were destined for others. These passages reveal to us that St. James, like every follower of Christ (with the exception of the Blessed Mother), struggled with sin. Yet, over the course of the years during which James followed Christ – listening to Him, watching Him, getting to know Him – something changed in him. Less than 15 years after his mother made that awkward petition on his behalf, James’ ambition to be first among the disciples of Christ was fulfilled, albeit in a very different way, when he became the first among the Twelve to glorify the Lord by his martyrdom.
Pilgrimages are transformative because they are incarnational – they engage the whole person, body and soul. Walking 500mi (one-way) over the rugged Spanish landscape of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one experiences in the body the spiritual and moral struggle of life in the world. Sore muscles and blisters are part of life for the pilgrim on the Camino. They are visible signs in the flesh of the invisible hurts and wounds in the heart that every person experiences as part of life in a fallen world. When they finally arrive to Compostela, pilgrims greet with an embrace the relics of the saint who walked as a pilgrim before them. Like St. James, they can say that they know the experience of poverty, weariness, and humiliation that come with life on pilgrimage – embracing the challenge in hope of transformation, and the marvelous realization of the great things that Christ does for those who follow Him along the way.