One step at a time

Father Mike Stubbs set to begin a 451-mile pilgrimage


by Father Mike Stubbs

A journey of 451 miles begins with a single step. For me, that step meant preparing for my pilgrimage.

First, I selected the gear that I would carry on my back. The total weight should not exceed more than 10 percent of one’s own body weight, I was told. That meant limiting the clothing and personal items that I would need for 40 days to 15 pounds. That includes the sleeping bag. I plan to stay overnight in pilgrim hostels, which provide a bunk, but not always bedding. It will be very basic.

Fifteen pounds is not much. To arrive at that figure, I trotted down to the chancery offices several times to weigh items on the scales in the workroom. What things would I really need on my walk? What things could I eliminate? This process of paring down really made the words of the Gospel hit home: “[Jesus] instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick — no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic” (Mk 6:8-9).

We Americans have so much — often, too much. If we are ever going to get ahead in life, we need to learn how to travel light. That is part of the purpose behind a pilgrimage: to learn how to move ahead spiritually.

I also needed to learn how to move ahead physically. I plan to walk an average of 12 miles a day. To get in shape, I have trained for the past six weeks. The first week, I hiked two miles a day. The second week, I increased that to four miles; the third week, to six. I reached 12 miles a day by the sixth week. Now I should be ready.

From Barcelona, Spain, I will take the train to Pamplona, famous for the annual running of the bulls and celebrated by Ernest Hemmingway in his novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” (No bull running for me. It already took place this summer.)
I will then go by bus up to the village of Roncevalles, in the Pyrenees Mountains, at the French border. That is the beginning point for my 451-mile walk to Santiago de Compostela.

But why go to Santiago de Compostela? What will I find in this picturesque city of northwestern Spain?

According to tradition, St. James the Apostle is buried there. In the year 814, a hermit by the name of Pelago had a vision one night as he slept in an open field. He dreamt that he heard angels singing and saw a bright star shining high above the field. (“Compostela” means “field of the star.”)

When Pelago and his excavation crew dug up the spot in the field lying under the star, they discovered the tomb of St. James. (“Santiago” means “St. James.”) Soon, a beautiful church was built over the tomb. A town sprang up around the church, and Santiago de Compostela was born.

Ever since, pilgrims have been traveling there to venerate the tomb of St. James. During the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela stood out as one of the principal sites for pilgrimage, surpassed in importance only by Rome and Jerusalem.

At its height during the 12th century, as many as a half-million pilgrims would visit Santiago de Compostela in the course of the year. Even now, thousands go there. It is estimated that more than 200,000 pilgrims will travel to Santiago this year.

The practice of pilgrimage predates Christianity. In Old Testament times, there were three feasts during the course of the year when Jews were encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem — Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Devout Muslims attempt to travel to Mecca at least once in their life. Hindus go to Benares to bathe in the sacred Ganges River.

The desire to go on pilgrimage appears to reflect something basic in human nature. It should not surprise us that we Christians have also developed a tradition of pilgrimage.

I greatly appreciate a saying which makes a distinction between the tourist and the pilgrim. The tourist travels to escape from his everyday life, to leave home. The pilgrim travels in order to penetrate more deeply the core of his life, to reach his true home, which is at the center of his being.

Perhaps that is the answer to why I am walking to Santiago de Compostela.

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