Travels & Traditions: On Pilgrimage to Santiago - #605

BURT WOLF: A pilgrimage is a trip to a sacred place -- a place that's been made holy by a special event or because it holds a magical object or both. People have been making pilgrimages for tens of thousands of years -- in fact men and women were going off on pilgrimage long before the idea became popular in Christian, Judaic and Islamic cultures.

People believed that if they saw or touched a sacred relic some of the divine energy of that relic would be transferred to them.

Sacred relics were spread out all over Europe. A relic was usually some part or all of the body of a holy person or something that was in contact with the holy person. Every community wanted an important relic. Relics brought pilgrims and pilgrims brought money and money brought power and power brought more relics.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Most people believed that when the world came to an end the holy person would return to earth and collect all of his or her body parts and at the same time decide who was going back to heaven with them.

BURT WOLF: If you were a believer and well connected you tried to get buried near an important relic. You wanted to be in a convenient spot when the saint came back to earth.

Rome was the epicenter of the relic trade and dishonest dealers tried to convince people that they were being offered an actual loaf of bread or a fish from the miracle of loaves and fishes, or a table setting from the last supper.

It’s easy to laugh at these things, but their effect on people was real. And these days respected scientists are discovering that if you believe a medication will work for you that belief will make the medication more effective. If your trust in an object's power results in your cure, then by definition, it's a miraculous object.


BURT WOLF: Throughout most of history there were only two reasons for traveling -- you were going to war or making a pilgrimage. In either case you gave up the life you were living and went off on a new and usually dangerous journey -- a journey that often went on for years.

Every church was required to have a relic even if it was only a local saint. But certain relics were understood to be much more powerful than others and those were the ones you wanted to get to.

Power was based on hierarchy – Christ of course was at the top so visiting Jerusalem would be most effective. But Jerusalem was unreachable for most people. Next came the Apostles Peter and Paul who were buried in Rome, which made Rome first runner up. Rome was easier to get to but often in political turmoil. You could never be quite sure of what would be going on in Rome when you finally got there. 

Peter and Paul were followed by the other Apostles with James the Greater being of particular importance because he had actually been with Christ. In Spanish St. James is Santiago, and the great cathedral in the city of Santiago in the north west of Spain was said to contain his complete remains. Santiago became your best shot. It was near enough to the great cities of Europe to be reachable, yet far enough away to be exotic and exciting.

Santiago was at the very edge of the known world, yet in the middle of the Middle Ages over half a million people made the trip every year. It offered Christians living in Europe the opportunity to make contact with someone who had actually known Jesus.

Another reason to go on a long pilgrimage was all the powerful relics that you would encounter along the way. Since every church needed to have a relic, it would be to a pilgrim’s benefit to stop at every church on the road and offer a prayer. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: We could simply describe prayer as raising one's mind and one's thoughts to the Lord. And every religion, every people, every individual can do this and the major religions of the world have a way of having organized this in ritual. For Christianity, Jesus did something that was somewhat unique, he said, when you pray, say, Our Father, have the openness, the simplicity, the directness, the candor of a child when you speak. And of course on a pilgrimage this is the perfect place. You have solitude, you have long times of quiet, you are by yourself, you have put the cares of your ordinary everyday life behind you and you can have this candor, this directness, this simplicity of prayer.


BURT WOLF: Nancy Frey is an authority on the Road to Santiago and a leading professional guide.

NANCY FREY ON CAMERA: The story of James actually starts with what we know about him from the Bible. He was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee with his brother John, John the Evangelist. They were, one day they were mending their nets, and Jesus comes up to them and says, would you like to join me in my work and become disciples? And they do. James the Greater becomes the fourth Apostle of Christ.

NANCY FREY: The Apostles are sent off into the world to preach the Word of Jesus. James is sent off to Spain, to preach the good news. He has quite a difficult time. Well, he has the dubious honor of becoming the first Apostle to be martyred in 44 A.D., at the hands of Herod Agrippa his head is chopped off.

His two loyal Disciples gather his remains. And they put them into a stone boat, and that boat is set to sail. It sails through the Mediterranean and lands on the Galician Coast.

So once his body is brought to shore the Disciples take his body and they bury it in a safe place. It turns out that it's a Roman mausoleum. But it's forgotten for the next seven centuries.

BURT WOLF: Then in the year 812, a star appeared above the field accompanied by the sounds of heavenly music. A hermit saw the star, heard the music and followed them to the body of St. James. He reported his discovery to the local bishop who built a chapel over the grave. The site became known as Santiago de Compostela which means “St. James of the Field of Stars”.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What’s important about this story is not what the historians have been able to prove or not prove, what’s important is the affect that the story has on the hearts of the pilgrims who made the journey.


BURT WOLF: During the middle Ages, most pilgrims made the trip to Santiago hoping to improve their standing with God, which might then result in the miraculous cure of an illness or salvation in the afterlife. But a pilgrimage had to include some suffering. Suffering echoed the passion of Christ and improved your chances for a successful trip.

Even today there is a fair amount of suffering on the road, nothing like the Middle Ages but still significant. And some people believe that the kind of physical pain you suffer during your pilgrimage is related to your state of mind. Pain in your back or shoulder is related to emotional stress. Leg pains are the result of relationship problems. Lower back pain is thought to come from too much responsibility or too many commitments.

While I was walking the road I developed a sore foot.

But thanks to my loyal soundman, I was able to continue.

During the 12th century, a criminal might be required to make the pilgrimage as part of his punishment. Murderers wore the murder weapon so everybody could identify both the criminal and the crime. Today the head of a corporation that defrauded its shareholders might make the trip dragging his annual reports or his accountant.


BURT WOLF: The Road to Santiago is actually a series of connecting roads that have been in use since Roman times. The Irish and the English came by boat and arrived just north of Santiago. The Portuguese walked straight up along the coast. The Silver Road brought pilgrims from central and southern Spain.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But the busiest road was the French Road. Probably because the French had more sinners. Actually, that’s not fair; the French Road brought people from the Netherlands and Scandinavia and Germany, even from Italy. The Road was open to all sinners without reference to religion, race, creed, or prior position of servitude. 

Let me show you this. Here is the map. The four French roads. They all started in a big city like Paris. And they wandered across the country, joining up together more or less on the border between Spain and France – which is the Pyrenees Mountains. Then on the other side in Spain they formed one road and came across all of Northern Spain, ending up in Santiago de Compostella. 

Pretty cool huh?

BURT WOLF: The routes in France and across Spain were highly developed. They offered pilgrims places to rest, and recover. And all along the roads monasteries and churches promoted the journey.

In addition, many people who lived along the road helped the pilgrims in exchange for the pilgrims offering prayers on their behalf when they reached Santiago.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Praying for each other within the Christian tradition is a very important part of the unity that we have, the concern, the love that we have for others and the idea that God wants us to have this unity and this concern and he encourages us to pray for each other and it is a hopeful sign that providence, there is a direction that is beneficial and loving over each person's life.


BURT WOLF: In the year 711, Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and occupied parts of it until the end of the 1400s, a period that lasted over 700 years. Christians in other parts of Europe were determined to take Spain back and their first successful battle in the Reconquest took place in 844.

Just prior to the battle, King Ramiro I, had a dream in which Saint James appeared and announced that he would join the battle carrying a white flag, riding a white horse and brandishing a great shining sword and that he would help Ramiro win the battle.

Ramiro won and Saint James took on the roll as the slayer of Moors. The idea that Saint James was spiritually present during the battle was a key element in the Reconquest of Spain.

Saint James ended up with three images -- St. James the Apostle. St. James as the pilgrim heading to his own shrine. And St. James on horseback as the slayer of Moors.


BURT WOLF: The pilgrim’s museum holds a thousand years of history related to the idea of pilgrimage, the Road to Santiago and the city of Santiago.

Pilgrims to Santiago stimulated the development of a sophisticated trade in print making. Prints served as a means of communication and religious prints were the most common. Prints of the Apostle, certificates of pilgrimage, itineraries, summaries of the indulgences and lists of relics were produced. 

During the Middle Ages one of the most common Christian images was that of Saint James and how he was dressed varied with the fashions of the time and place. During the 14th century the height of fashion in Paris was a long tunic that reached down to your feet, covered by a shorter over garment with a lower neck. Suddenly, Saint James began to appear in a long tunic. And as fashion changed so did his outfits. Particularly his hats.


BURT WOLF: Towards the end of the middle Ages the number of pilgrims traveling to Santiago began to decline but it never stopped, and these days it's definitely “back live”. During 2004, over 190,000 pilgrims walked or cycled some part of the road.

NANCY FREY ON CAMERA: Well the Comino goes back to the middle Ages when in the Catholic Doctrine the idea of sin was very important, and its remission, and one’s salvation for the afterlife.

Today people come for many reasons. Not only for religious reasons, but also more widely what the people call Spiritual reasons. That it’s an inner journey. You have people here fulfilling a life long dream of a personal adventure, also as a physical challenge. So there are many reasons that combine together to make it not necessarily one idea at all of what the pilgrimage is. A constant in people's memories of the Comino are the friendships that they forge along the way. The bonds go beyond nationality, age, class, religion. You can start alone on the pilgrimage but you never end up alone.

PILGRIM 1 ON CAMERA: Comino is a way that inspires me. I want to kind of find myself. It’s because of my faith as well, a bit. I want to kind of escape from real life.

NANCY FREY: When you’re walking you have this powerful sense of being led. Everything is going your way. All the pilgrims are going west. You have yellow arrows that are indicting that you should go this way. You also have the scallop shells showing you. It’s very clear the sense of direction that you have.

PILGRIM 2 ON CAMERA: I came to Santiago seven years ago and I asked a favor of Santiago. He made it true so now I’m here to say thank you.

NANCY FREY: Unlike many other Catholic Pilgrimage centers, this Pilgrimage attracts people from all different walks of life. There are usually people from urban well educated backgrounds who lead stressful busy lives. And they want to go to the Comino to get away from all of that. There are curiously more men than women who do it. And the average age is 40’s, 50’s. And it’s also typical to be at some kind of breaking point in one’s life.

Walking the Pilgrimage can be one of the most important undertakings of one’s life. And when you become a pilgrim to Santiago you're becoming a part of a fellowship of people who have walked for more than a thousand years.

NANCY FREY ON CAMERA: There are many people who have walked these steps to Santiago including St. Francis of Assisi and even modern day personalities such as Shirley McClain.

PILGRIM 3 ON CAMERA: I’m walking the Comino because I’ve kind of always known about it. I majored in Spanish in college and four years ago a friend of mine walked it. And she sent back wonderful emails. And I just knew when I read those that I had to do it too. 

NANCY FREY: People are also attracted to it because of its incredible value of the culture and the art. It’s like walking through a continuous museum. Everyday there’s something new to see. Whether it be some fantastic little Romanesque simple church in the countryside, or a magnificent Gothic Cathedral with 2000 square meters of stained glass windows.

PILGRIM 4 ON CAMERA: My name is Paulo, I’m a clown. God is great and we must enjoy him everyday. And we must bring the happiness of him to everyone. So I was trying to bring my Lord the fruit red nose to the people. 

NANCY FREY ON CAMERA: And in the Comino everything is reduced to the basics. It’s very simple. All you have to do is get up in the morning, find the trail, find those yellow arrows, think about having something to eat, and your place to sleep for the night. And when you have that kind of simplicity, where everything is reduced to those basics, all of a sudden people have space inside of themselves to have time for reflection. People start walking what they call the human speed. 


BURT WOLF: Pilgrims on the road to Santiago are easily recognized. Many pilgrims can be identified by the scallop shell around their neck or attached to their backpack. The backpack itself is also a sign and so is their walking stick.

For some pilgrims the backpack is a symbol of the baggage one carries through life -- the lighter your pack the more unnecessary mental and physical baggage you have been able to discard. 



BURT WOLF: Pilgrims also carry a credential -- a passport that is stamped each day as you move along the road. The stamp indicates a pilgrim’s progress or in some cases the lack thereof.

As part of man’s desire to make life as annoying as possible, travelers on the road have developed their own totally unofficial criteria for authenticity. To make the trip on foot is the most ‘authentic” -- it’s the real stuff.

To make it on a bike is “semi-authentic”. Spanish walkers call people who are using bicycles “decaffeinated pilgrims”. To walk but have a support vehicle is not “authentic" but might be accepted -- depending on the circumstances. Make the trip on a bus or a car and you’re off the team.

Many pilgrims also believe that “authenticity’ requires at least a month on the road. Of course, none of these standards existed in the Middle Ages -- you made the trip and that was it. 


BURT WOLF: At 3,500 feet above sea level, reaching the hill town of Cebreiro is the last great physical challenge for most pilgrims on their way to Santiago. And until the 16th century this was one of the only passages into the Northwest of Spain. 

At the entrance of Cebreiro there is an oval stone house with a thatched roof.

It's the type of building that was used by the Iron Age tribes who occupied the area before the Romans arrived.

In the 12th century the church of Santa Maria was built nearby. It contains a sacred chalice that commemorates a 15th century Eucharistic miracle.

The legend states that the Holy Grail from which Christ drank wine during the Last Supper was hidden in Cerbreiro. A priest who had his doubts about the validity of the story was using the cup for the Eucharist.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There was a huge snowstorm going on outside and only a single peasant had come up the mountain for the mass. And at the most sacred moment in the mass the priest began to think ‘why has this guy come all the way up the mountain in a snowstorm just for a little bit of bread and wine.’ And at that most sacred moment the wine and bread changed into flesh and blood. And the priest saw the error of his ways.

BURT WOLF: The remains of the miracle were placed in a silver container that was donated by Queen Isabella -- the same Isabella who put up the money for the voyages of Columbus.

Santiago is less than a hundred miles from Cebreiro -- a distance that will be covered in less than a week. The end of the physical trip is near, but for many, the spiritual journey is just about to begin.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf