A pilgrim’s progress toward Compostela

by Father Mike Stubbs

ON THE ROAD TO COMPOSTELA — Let me describe for you my typical day: I wake up about 6 a.m., dress, make sure that I have all my belongings, and then I start to walk.

It is pitch dark and difficult to see the signs marking the way, so I just follow the herd.

There are already many other pilgrims up and about. I recite the rosary as I walk through the dark.

After an hour or so, I stop for breakfast: coffee and hot milk, with a sweet roll or bread and butter.

About an hour later, I stop for another break, this time to say morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.

Finally, at 1 or 2 p.m., I arrive at my destination. It is a hostel, where only pilgrims can stay — very basic accom- modations (bunk beds if you are lucky). I check in, shower, wash some clothes, and eat my lunch. (In Spain, lunch is late, between 2-4 p.m.)

Afterwards, I write in my journal, then look around the town, as long as I don’t have to walk too far.

After all, I have already walked 12 miles or more that day. I attend Mass, which is usually at 8 p.m.

Then it’s time for bed.

Hospitality forms an important part of the pilgrim’s experience. Hostels de- signed specifically for the pilgrim line the route to Santiago. Often, they are run by the local parish, a religious or- der, or the local city government. The one where I am staying the evening that I write this has been receiving pilgrims for 900 years, at Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

At times, though, people have taken advantage of the pilgrims. The legend goes that many years ago, a young and handsome German pilgrim was passing through with his parents. The innkeeper’s daughter tried to seduce him, but was spurned. Out of spite, she placed a silver goblet in his backpack and accused him the next morning of robbery. He was convicted and hanged the same day.

Upon returning from Santiago, his parents decided to visit his body one last time. It spoke to them, telling them that Santo Domingo (St. Dominic) had kept him alive because of his innocence. When the parents informed the governor, he laughed at them and replied that the boy was no more alive than the rooster and hen cooked for his dinner. At which point, the rooster and hen jumped off the platter and began to crow.

Ever since, a live rooster and hen have been kept in a cage in the cathedral as a memorial of this miracle. It is a neat story and reminds us that the pil- grim can encounter various difficulties and dangers along the way.

Currently, blisters and fatigue stand out as the principal discomforts. But it can be more serious. As I walked along the trail, I saw at least two memorials of pilgrims who died on that spot in recent years: one Belgian who was hit by a car, another who dropped dead (of a heart attack?).

During the Middle Ages, the death rate was considerably higher because of the hardships of travel and the lack of modern medicine. Entire cemeteries were provided to accommodate the pilgrims who died along the way. Even now, the pilgrims to Santiago garner considerable respect in Spain.

Passers-by will often greet them with the words “buen camino,” which means “good journey.” It is a difficult journey, but one which can bear much fruit.

It is a journey that parallels the way of the cross — that leads to new life: “The road which leads to life is small and narrow” (Mt 7:14).

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