Ultreya! Pilgrimage upon the Camino to Santiago

Some years ago, The Sacramento Bee published an account of Robert’s pilgrimage along the Camino to Santiago in their Easter edition. Then, along with Nevada City’s premier Medieval music ensemble, Rossignol, he created a musical out his travel notes. He has never published his full work, however, which explores the origins of the Santiago pilgrimage and the nature of pilgrimage for medieval and modern people. He would like to offer it to those who wish to take up the Way of St. James, or are interested in the practice of pilgrimage.

There’s a Pilgrim Sleeping Inside Every Tourist

The cathedral of Le Puy, located in the rocky terrain of France’s Massif Central, has been a launching site since the Dark Ages for pilgrims to the tomb of the apostle St. James, better known as Santiago, in the distant Spanish terrain of Galicia. The saint’s figure can be seen sculpted throughout the town: staff in hand, wide brimmed hat with a scallop-shell, flowing beard and hand raised in gesture of benediction to those passing to and fro.

Wandering through the maze of cobblestone streets, I had another goal, however: a little church, set high upon a pinnacle of volcanic rock in the center of the town, named Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe.

This shrine to St. Michael, built in 967 by the Bishop Godescalc upon his return from Santiago, has stood sentinel for over a thousand years for the dragon to come at the end of time.

I had chosen the craggy site to mark the beginning of my own 400-mile trek, not merely to arrive in Santiago, but to see if it were still possible to enter into the experience of a medieval pilgrim.

Even on that summer day, the shrine looked dour. Although gazing from the road below, I could see the Islamic influence on its architecture – its door shaped like a mihrab, its tile work similar to the great mosque in Cordoba.

After a sharp ascent of 267 steps, I was greeted by the sheer playfulness of medieval Romanesque art. Upon entering I walked beneath two mermaids, combing their hair and chatting.

Within the playfulness ceased. Dark and cramped, the interior was dominated by low arches and many pillars. On the altar, thickly illumined by candles, was Saint Michael driving his spear into the neck of the dragon.

It was a reminder of how the holy was mixed with the martial during the Middle Ages, a time when the mass of St. Michael was a war liturgy, often celebrated before major battles.*

Sobered, I stowed away my camera, and descended the mount to take my pilgrim’s staff in hand and tie a scallop shell on my backpack, symbolizing my transformation from a tourist into a follower of Santiago. I had come to walk in peace, but was now reminded I was also beginning a journey back into the earliest origins of the disaster of 9/11.

The following morning, a small group of us, dressed in shorts and hiking boots, gathered around the statue of St. James in the cathedral and were blessed in a relaxed, ecumenical ceremony. Smiling nuns shook our hands and wished us a “good journey.” Carefully stowing our pilgrim’s credentials, including our passport to stay in the refuges along the Camino, we set off, the hooly blisful martir for to seke, as Chaucer had once put it.

It was getting past the full heat of the afternoon around a week later, after a day of steady uphill walking, when the trail crossed a ridge and began winding down into a valley where a massive donjon rose above a quiet little village.

Footsore and thirsty, I halted at its foot, across from the entrance to all that remains of a monastery destroyed during the Revolution. The town was Aubrac. According to legend, Adalard, the viscount of Flanders, while on pilgrimage to Santiago in 1120 was attacked by bandits, and then on his return was caught in a violent snowstorm, both at the site where I was standing. He took it as a sign from God that some shelter was keenly required there, and founded a monastery and garrison.

The Tour des Anglais (English Tower), turned out to be a pilgrim’s refuge. I spent the evening by a window high in the tower, sipping a local wine and listening to birdsong fill the silent village as the colors of the countryside mellowed into night, convinced the life of a pilgrim is sweet.

The next morning I met Aline Ayrignac de Poulpiquet, a woman whose family offers feasts to pilgrims in their barn, which they began converting into a refuge at the suggestion of a priest 4 years ago.

“Besides,” she added with good humor, “the Tour des Anglais is closed during the winter and the pilgrims were kicking in the door.”

Many afternoons she or her father rides out to greet the pilgrims and invite them to a communal feast, continuing, she says, the old tradition of the Knights of Santiago, who guarded the route and gave hospice to weary pilgrims.

The barn was filled with old saddles, farming implements, antique drawings. A pre-Revolution survey of the village was displayed, showing the barn already standing. Centuries-old planks creaked beneath our feet. Detaching a chain strung across a broken down flight of stairs – “Sécurité,” she joked – she led me down to a small field, and called out a name. A white horse came trotting out of its stable.

“Ten years ago there were just cows here,” she said. “It’s wonderful that this village that was created by the Camino is now being reborn because of it.”

I asked her if she saw a difference between the pilgrims and tourists who visit their town.

“Oh yes. Pilgrims are not tourists. Tourists arrive in cars, snap a few pictures, and leave in a half an hour. Pilgrims come and eat together, take time to talk, get to know each other and the village.

There’s also a big difference in perspective,” she went on, saying something I was to hear again and again as I walked. “The tourist demands, the pilgrim is grateful.”

Recalling my own recent grumbling over poorly maintained trails, snoring pilgrims, and avaricious villagers, I suddenly felt like an impostor behind my scallop shell.

“But,” she added with a beautiful smile, “there’s a pilgrim sleeping inside every tourist.”

The Camino, I quickly learned, is no walking Club-Med. A day’s walk can be between twelve and twenty miles, and each day the pilgrim arises to face another stretch of unknown country. The pilgrim’s refuges often sleep eight or more people per room, normally on bunk beds, but do provide a place to cook, wash, and sleep.

The situation is spartan, but far from grim. Toward evening the bottles of wine materialize and feasts and conversations carry on long into the night, so bring your earplugs along with your spirit of conviviality. Haute cuisine is available along the route, but pilgrims tend to avail themselves of simpler village fare, which is delicious and inexpensive. Cheeses, wines, produce and meats are regional and, at the end of a day’s hard walking, more satisfying taken in a simple communal meal.

Although the pilgrim is no longer required to sleep four to twelve in a bed as in the Middle Ages, the lack of privacy and privilege does wear away at the habits of the individual self.

The Middle Ages was a collective time, and modern notions of individuality and private space were alien to our ancestors. One finds oneself surrendering to being just another figment in a long religious procession across the land, and as one’s solitude deepens, the discovery of one’s fellow pilgrims sweetens.

“I like it when there is nothing,” Claude, a bespectacled clerk from Paris who hiked in faded business shirts, told me. “It’s the same as being in the Sahara desert. Everything is too much for me.” Claude had spent his last three vacations wandering with the Twareg nomads in Algeria.

“It’s good to think you can live without technology,” he added.

Sitting at breakfast with some fellow pilgrims, I asked them what they thought the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist was.

“Walking is spiritual,” Sophie, who worked in a travel office, told me. “It’s a meditation. You can walk with everybody and you’re still alone, with yourself and God. What’s important is not what you do but how you do it. It’s the heart you put into it.”

We all agreed the practice of walking involved recalling the mind when it wanders off into fantasies, memories, planning, etc., and that an awareness of breath, of each step upon the earth, or the sound of the river and breeze, was an anchor in the moment.

Medieval Christianity, like many Eastern contemplative traditions, made use of a phrase, or even a single word, to focus the mind in prayer. The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the 1380’s, recommended a single word of a single syllable, such as “God” or “love.” Such a word can be carried as one walks, allowing one to more deeply savor Claude’s mysterious nothing.

Yet there was an awful lot of something along the way. We walked through a landscape filled with the colors of a Van Gogh painting, where granite glittered in the sun, clouds of butterflies flitted about as multi-colored as the wildflowers, and ruined towers rose above villages on rocky mounts.

The villages themselves, many still with their communal ovens and washing troughs, were arranged with that unique sense of medieval geometry – not a straight road to be found – and most towns are still entered and exited via arching medieval bridges of stone.

The pilgrim stumbles upon many exquisite little Romanesque churches along the way. These architectural jewels stud the route, sitting quietly, doors open with no entry fee (in France, that is — the Spanish tend to lock their churches to keep out the foreign riff-raff).

At the Eglise de Perse outside of Espalion, foot soldiers and knights battle across the tops of columns, and in the Pentecost scene above the entryway personifications of the Sun and Moon bless the Earth as the Holy Spirit descends upon the Apostles from a thick, lightening-spitting cloud above.

In a church in Bessuejouls, I wandered through an 11th century chapel. Sunshine spilled in through the narrow apertures where mermaids and centaurs and angels with opened wings brooded over a dusty, abandoned space. Birds, stealing in through holes in the roof, had spotted the floor with guano. There I found Saint Michael upon a 9th century altar, dreamily thrusting his spear down the dragon’s throat.

One day I found, in a very old church clinging to a granite tor alongside the ruins of a high tower, the words of Thoreau, translated into French, set down in a pilgrim’s ledger,

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again – if you have settled your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man – then you are ready for a walk.

The New Englander’s embrace of exile made me think of Dubhkillede, Macbeathadh and Maelinmhain, three Irish monks who were cast ashore on the coast of Cornwall during the same period that the pilgrimage to St. James was getting into full swing. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records of them:

Three Scots came to King Alfred in a boat without oars (their boat had been brought not by tackle nor by ample shoulders, but rather by the nod of him who sees all things), from Ireland, where they had stolen away because they wanted for the love of God to be abroad – they did not care where. The boat in which they set out was made of two-and-a-half skins, and they took with them food for seven days.

The early Celtic Christian pilgrimage practice of seeking God by casting oneself adrift upon an open sea was rooted in a much older tradition: the immrama, the wonder voyages of the pagan Celts into the deathless, bliss-filled lands lying across the sea.

The surviving records of these voyages into the Otherworld suggest an underlying purpose: they teach the ‘craft’ of dying, the piloting of the departing spirit upon a sea of perils and wonders.

This shamanic practice of voyaging, deeply rooted in the Celtic love of the natural world and a sense of the dreamtime at the heart of it, lies enshrined in the early medieval legend of the origin of the Santiago pilgrimage.

Christ, so the tale goes, just prior to his crucifixion, divvied up the world among his disciples, the Iberian Peninsula falling to James the Greater. James took his ministry as far as the Celtic region of Galicia, but with limited success. Returning to Jerusalem, he fell afoul with the authorities, and was beheaded by Herod Agrippa.

James may have set out for Jerusalem as a Jew, but he returned to Galicia as a Celt.

His body was smuggled down to a boat, and following the same method as our Irish monks, was set adrift without sails or oars (to be guided by the nod him who sees all things). His spirit-boat miraculously found its way across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and up the Iberian coast to arrive in Galicia, where his disciples were awaiting him to place him in his tomb.

Pilgrimage, this legend seems to be saying, is a foretaste of our death. Surely there is something like a lodestone buried in our memory, something that requires drastic renunciation of the known world to uncover and return to – and whether by setting oneself adrift in a coracle, drinking a psychoactive brew, or walking a four hundred mile pilgrimage, the movement is fundamentally the same. We release our hold and let the voyage carry us where we need to go. As we will do on the day we draw our final breath.

I was told I had to stop in Estaing to stay with the Christian community there, and arriving late in the afternoon I crossed the Lot into the town still dominated by a 15th century chateau.

At the refuge I rang a hand bell, and a young man in shorts and sandals appeared. His name was Lionel and had just begun his novitiate, having left the biological sciences for the religious life. He asked me about my plans and I told him I was going to take a detour from the Camino to visit some of the old territory of the Cathar, the Manichean Christians who were so mercilessly hunted down and slaughtered in the Albigensian Crusade.

“You know I am a Dominican and we were involved in that,” he said, looking uneasy.

“Yes,” I answered, as I remembered the Cathar Perfect Pierre Authié, who condemned to death by a Dominican inquisitor in the cathedral in Toulouse, donned the sacrificial robe, and walked forth to be tied to the stake in the square and burnt alive.

I thought of the strange mixture of sexuality and death that accompanied such events — the fire stripped condemned men and women of their clothing and hair before assaulting the flesh of their bodies.

According to the French Song of the Albigensian Crusade, “many beautiful heretical women” chose to be “thrown into the fire” rather than convert. Once their scorched corpses collapsed around the stake and cooled down they were dumped into mass graves, as the song says, “so that the stench of that scum should not offend” the crusaders. The sight of their nakedness obviously did not.

“St. Dominic founded the Inquisition,” I concluded.

Lionel looked deeply pained, and I hastened to add I was a Zen Buddhist, and that some of the teachers in our order had been anti-Semitic and militaristic during WWII, oblivious to the precept against killing.

“It can be difficult to understand how someone can have a deep experience of awakening and be utterly blind at the same time to the humanity of others.”

Lionel looked thoughtful. “We have to start again in each moment. We are never complete, no matter how much we realize about God.”

We both nodded, and I felt we saw eye to eye. But I later learned that he immediately went upstairs and announced, “There’s an American downstairs! He says he’s not Catholic and the Dominicans were responsible for the Inquisition!”

Conque first appears as a descending stone walkway through the trees. Turning into a narrow lane, the way passes medieval stone houses with arched portals and heavy, iron-worked doors. Before you quite realize where you are, you are standing in a cobblestone square, gazing at a miniature town of stone clinging to the steep hillside, in front of one of the most beautiful churches of France: the Eglise Sainte-Foy.

An enigmatic and dwarfish figure of gold, coated with jewels, sits enthroned in the center of Conque. This reliquary, the oldest surviving in Europe, contains the remains of a little girl named Saint Faith, beheaded for her faith in the year 303.

A century ago, her church was falling into ruin when the Praemonstrian order began its restoration. Now, behind the church, across from a line of empty stone coffins, the order welcomes pilgrims at a large refuge.

And so my pilgrimage through France, which began upon a high mount in the austere, martial sanctuary of the warrior Saint Michael, was to conclude on a quite different note. Descriptions such as “sacral uterine structure” and “the virginal Mother’s numinous womb” have been coined to describe the architecture of Romanesque churches like Sainte-Foy, and the monks have made the church into a living place of worship, with none of the hollow, museum-like feeling of other churches from the Middle Ages.

Hearing a rumor of something marvelous to occur that evening in the church, I ducked out of the open sky into its glowing interior. A monk, seated in the heights above, was filling the space with organ music. I took a seat in the pews, letting my eyes wander as the music flowed upward, and then a light show began, illuminating and darkening the angels in the vaults, creating unexpected contours, turning the church into a dreamscape.

A little gate was opened to allow the visitors to ascend to the upper level, where we wandered around the heights in a garden of sculpted stone, welcomed by our ancestors who created this miracle for us. Upon one column, carvings of carpenters and stone masons, tools in hand, peered down from the heights of their freshly-laid wall, as if asking, in return for their labor, only that we should remember them.

I wondered if I, the pilgrim, had a face gazing up at them as timeless and enduring as the ones with which they gazed down at me.

This passing over into liminality, a term coined by the anthropologist Victor Turner, where hierarchies of social distinction; of the past, present and future; and even of the divine and earthly, collapse, is evidenced all along the Camino.

The early Irish archetypical identification between St. James and his pilgrims continued far into the Middle Ages, where St. James is the only saint who regularly appears on pilgrimage to himself, indicating a joining of the goal with the way, an expression of the sacredness of pilgrimage itself.

So compelling was this spirit of communitas that Christ himself appears, in Santo Domingo de Silos, as a pilgrim to Santiago, taking up his staff to set out to the shrine of his own disciple!

I experienced this communion most poignantly the morning I set out from the mountain village of Rabanal. After listening to Gregorian chant in the church at vespers, I set out for the summit earlier than the other pilgrims in order to see the sunrise, but walked into a snowstorm instead.

Finding a leaky shed to put my sleeping bag down in, I lay down in the straw and later woke to a steady rain. Looking out into the mist, I stoically donned my torn poncho and labored on. Cresting the summit, the road wound down through abandoned stone villages with collapsed thatched roofs in the midst of explosive greenery. Then I saw a banner, white with a red cross on it. Drawing closer, I beheld an old bearded man in the tunic of a Templar, who rang his bell and called out to me, “Pilgrim, come up and warm yourself by the fire!”

Ascending to his refuge, I entered a dark, firelit chamber, its walls covered with murals depicting religious and chivalrous episodes. There I found myself surrounded by other pilgrims. Sharing tales with people from Hungary, Spain and South Africa as I sipped coffee and watched the steam rising from my soaked pants in the firelight, I realized the hardships of the road and the uniqueness of our endeavor had forged us into a tribe – unrecognizable to any but ourselves.

The experience of the Camino suggests we become most essentially ourselves in pilgrimage, we re-member our self in spiritual community, which includes Christ himself, who can be discovered walking alongside us at any moment.

The Italian priest Domenico Laffi, when he arrived in Sahagún in 1673, reported in his pilgrim’s diary that,

The town has, among others, two particularly well-endowed and beautiful monasteries…We went to the Monastery of San Benito to see the refectory, which is so beautiful that I doubt it has its equal anywhere in the world. The ceiling is all of carved wood and is so splendid that no one should miss it. The monks gave us dinner and treated us with great hospitality.

Following in Laffi’s footsteps, arrived smack in the middle of the great Meseta, I breathed in that silence I associate so deeply with Spain. It was only three hundred years later, but already the dust is charged with the memories and passions of vanished ages. Gone is that splendid ceiling of carved wood, gone the scholars and scriptoriums, hospitable monks and their chapels, refectories, dormitories, and libraries. All swallowed up like a dream, leaving behind only bones, broken walls, and pudgy shopkeepers.

But outside the town, in the remains of a medieval refuge for pilgrims, La Peregrina, a private chapel of a noble family has been left to crumble, undisturbed, through the centuries. Upon entering, I saw panels of spiraling geometric designs, entwining tendrils, stars and other work identical with the Moorish art of the Alhambra.

I was in a place of worship built in the latter days of the Reconquista and Crusades, and it could have been a mosque.

In this post-9\11 era of renewed warfare between Christian and Islamic culture, here was evidence of the mysterious, deep connection that has run between our cultures as well. What gifts of love and knowledge do these panels memorialize? I wondered, standing inside that crumbling time capsule in Sahagún.

Very few of us modern pilgrims, when asked, offered very good explanations for why we were walking.

Traditionally, the pilgrimage served a variety of needs. Some were moved by faith, others to enrich themselves with the pilgrim trade. Some had their expenses underwritten to pray for rain or relief from plague. Others, such as the Cathar, were sentenced by the Inquisition to walk with a yellow cross upon their garments. Murderers sentenced to the pilgrimage were chained with iron rings around their chest or neck forged from the arms they had used to commit their crime.

Pilgrimages were also imposed in the process of effecting civil reconciliation. Quarreling parties would be sent off to different sanctuaries – one often being Santiago – to cool off during their peripatetic meditation, a move which would be a marvelous antidote for the excesses of our present-day litigious-happy society.

As a Catholic pilgrimage, the Camino was on the verge of becoming a historical footnote by the 1960’s, when only a handful of people followed it each year, some motivated by vows they had taken in the trenches during WWII.

With its rebirth came a profound change in the character of the pilgrim, most of whom are now young and seeking some meaning beyond the traditional sacraments of the church.

The Camino now hosts seekers from all religious backgrounds and nationalities. Buddhists walk along with Catholics, Latin Americans with Anglo Americans. Many pilgrims seem to be taking the Camino as an antidote to the vacuity of secular affluence. Only the Muslim population is conspicuously absent.

I believe it is time to rechristen the Matamoros, that wicked, saturnine old man that he now is, as the Abrazamoros, the embracer of Moors, and depict him walking arm in arm with his Muslim brother in a field of peace.

Weeping and laughing in disbelief, we stumbled after weeks of walking into journey’s end: the Cathedral of St. James.

There the dazed pilgrim wanders into the cool interior and beholds the Pórtico de la Gloria, where mounted on the archivolts and tympanums are over 200 sculpted figures in a profusion of joyous form reminiscent of the temples of India. Upon the central column, above a carving of the Tree of Jesse as a climbing vine, sits St. James, pilgrim’s staff in hand, gazing down at each new arrival.

Midway up this column there is a deep indentation worn into the stone by centuries of pilgrims placing their hand upon it in thanks for their safe arrival.

The tourists were there as well, lining up for the photo-op placing their hand on the pillar at the Pórtico. In a lull I stole forward, but was caught by a day-tripper. She was in a hurry to get to St. James, and for the first time in weeks I felt pressured for time.

Having walked four hundred miles across France and Spain, did I any longer have to move with the constraints of a tourist? Relaxing, I went forward and placed my right hand upon the pillar. As it sank into the stone, it felt as if I were pouring myself into a mold. In that act I joined the line of countless pilgrims that had preceded me for more than a thousand years, and I no longer needed to seek to enter their experience. I was one of them.

* On the militaristic nature of Santiago and medieval Christinity, Le Puy had been a gathering place for the First Crusade, and its bishop had been their war leader. No doubt the good bishop prayed to St. Michael while overlooking the armies of God from Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe.

In an age when Bernard of Clairvaux could claim that to kill a follower of Islam was not homicide, the killing of a man, but malacide, the killing of evil itself, even the saint whose shrine I was setting out for carried a wrathful aspect. Santiago, the saint of pilgrims, displayed his warrior’s heart as Santiago Matamoros, the killer of Moors, and is sculpted in his cathedral in Santiago de Campostela riding a great warhorse into battle, trampling hapless enemies underfoot.

As the archetype of the fearsome conquistador, Santiago subsequently resurfaced in the New World as the Mataindios to lend a hand in the death and enslavement of the native people there. Pizarro was heard to cry out, “Santiago!,” when he first laid hands on the Royal Inca and took him into captivity.