viernes, 27 de junio de 2008

Funny video

A very busy week has kept me from posting, but that will be sorted out by tomorrow evening. In the meantime, here's a link to a very funny .gif file that someone brought to my attention recently:

If I could run the .gif animation file directly here on the page I would, but as far as I can tell that's still not possible. But click on the link above and check it out anyway.

And what, you ask, does this have to do with the Camino de Santiago? Well ... ehrm ... there's a lot of walking in the film!

That's all for tonight. I'll be back soon with something more substantial.

lunes, 23 de junio de 2008

Blogging The Camino

Back in 1995 when I set off on the Camino de Santiago for the first time, the internet had not yet become a feature of everyday life, and there weren't any computers to be found along the route in the pilgrim's albergues or cybercafes. So, one of the things nearly every pilgrim did on the Camino was to keep a journal.

There is a long and venerable tradition of Camino journalling. It could be said that the first pilgrim to do this was Aymeric Picaud, the 12th century monk from Parthenay-le-Vieux in Poitou, who wrote what has been called the first “guidebook” to the Camino in five books relating to St James and the pilgrimage. The compilation is known as the Liber Sancti Jacobi, or the Codex Calixtinus since it is prefaced by a letter attributed to Pope Calixtus II, who was pope from 1119 to 1124. The fifth book of the compilation the "Pilgrims’ Guide", and it describes the four routes across Gascony, Burgundy and Provence that entered the Iberian peninsula as the Camino Francés via the passes of Roncesvalles and Somport, and the unified way westwards from Puente la Reina in Navarra. The author not only describes the terrain and rivers that pilgrims encountered, but also a vivid, and frequently none-too-flattering, foreigner’s view of the inhabitants along the route. Not very politically correct, but an entertaining read.

The internet and blogging have now made it possible for pilgrim's journals to be written, published and read while still on the road. I've never attempted to do so, and I'm not certain how I feel about the idea. I certainly understand the appeal of the virtually-real-time Camino blog, particularly for family and friends back home who want to share the experience with the pilgrim in some way although they're unable to physically make the journey themselves. Logging onto the computer and sharing your loved ones' experiences as the journey unfolds must be very exciting, and very enjoyable.

On the other hand, the experience of making an 800 kilometer (500 mile) pilgrimage on foot, with all of the suffering that this implies for we sedentary moderns, affects a person in ways that are difficult to describe in all but the most superficial terms while the journey is unfolding. Fully appreciating the lessons of the Camino requires returning home and reflecting on the experience. Like all the truly beneficial experiences in our lives, both joyful and sorrowful, genuine understanding requires some time and distance from the event. This is what a friend of mine meant when she described making a pilgrimage on the Camino as being akin to eating a meal: the real benefit of the meal isn't in the eating, it's in the nourishment you draw from the food after it's been digested. I wonder how many of the bloggers who write about the Camino from the road return to their cyber-journals later to reflect upon and re-evaluate their experiences from the distance of time.

Two things have provoked these reflections. The first is a blog published by one of the participants on a pilgrimage I organized and led for a fantastic group of students in a Study Abroad class from Texas A&M University. That journey ended just a couple of weeks ago when we arrived at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on 6June. Spencer 's blog about the experience can be found in the Blog List column to the right of these entries. I think that he did a very fine job summarizing his experience for his family and friends back home. Have a look at it if you want to
get a little taste of the real thing through the eyes of a young man making the Camino for the first time.

Oh, and the photos in the Presentation in the sidebar are also photos that Spencer took of the Camino and the other kids in the group. He has kindly put them up on Picasa and given me permission to use them.

The other thing that got me thinking about all this was coming across my old journals from previous pilgrimages along the Camino. The oldest is from 1994, the year I attempted to make the pilgrimage starting from the great cathedral in Chartres, France. If you're wondering, that's roughly some 1609 kilometers, or 1,000 miles from Santiago de Compostela, and it was neither the easiest nor the most successful of my Camino experiences, though I would say that I learned quite a bit from it ... mostly how not to walk the Camino, and just how friggin' far 1609 kilometers really is, and just why it is that man invented the wheel and later motorized transport, and how many things there are that really do belong in the "superfluous" category when packing a backpack that you will be carrying on your back every day and every step of the way for two whole months, and all sorts of other practical, little gems of human wisdom that more intelligent types do not need to walk 1000 miles to figure out.

But, jokes aside, reading through that first journal again after all these years has been great. I can now look back very fondly on what was a rather disastrous first experience and smile about it all. It certainly didn't make me give up nor has it kept me from coming back for more. So maybe I'll post a few entries from that and my other Camino journals sometime to give anyone thinking of doing the Camino with us or on their own a little glimpse at life on the road.

jueves, 19 de junio de 2008

Music for the pilgrim spirit

I once heard George Harrison say, presumably quoting from some Hindu text or philosopher, "God likes me when I work, but he loves me when I sing." I've always liked that quote. Music has always been a big part of my life, and there's no denying the power of music to raise the mind, the heart and the soul to God.

Well, I've just been turned on to the following video on YouTube and I thought it would provide a nice little musical interlude. It's a clip of Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt (remember their Grammy-winning hit "Don't know Much" from 1989?) singing "The Song of Bernadette."

I love Aaron Neville's voice, and I've always been a fan of Linda Ronstadt too. And of course, this year is the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, another great center of Christian pilgrimage.

The original version of the song is by Jennifer Warnes, who co-wrote it with Leonard Cohen and recorded it for the "Famous Blue Raincoat" album in the 80s. Her version is also worth hearing.

miércoles, 18 de junio de 2008

A movement of the human heart ...

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My gown of glory (hope's true gauge),
And then I'll take my pilgrimage.
- Sir Walter Raleigh, "The Pilgrimage"

The word pilgrim comes from the Latin peregrinum, which means "wandering over a distance.” No particularly spiritual or religious motivation is suggested by the word's Latin origin, and anyone who has travelled the Road to Santiago in the late 20th and early 21st century can attest to the fact that there are enormous numbers of "pilgrims" professing no spiritual or religious motivation at all who undertake the long and difficult journey to Santiago de Compostela. This fact stands in stark contrast to the motivations of the vast majority of medieval pilgrims, who undertook the journey for decidedly religious reasons, whether as an act of religious devotion, or penance for sin, or to as a petition to receive a favor from God. Nevertheless, whatever the reasons one may have, or be willing to admit to, when setting off from his chosen point of departure, walking the Camino de Santiago has a profound effect on a person. I've seen it happen time and time again. The sheer physical effort of making a journey on foot over 850 kilometers (500 miles), the long hours of walking in silence, the heat and the rain, the blisters, the thirst, the stiff muscles; the pilgrim is suddenly plunged into an alternate reality. It's a world in which time no longer moves at the frantic pace to which we have become accustomed in our daily lives, and one in which suffering and sacrifice no longer seem enemies of the human spirit, but become cherished companions and teachers along the way.

Genuine pilgrimage is a more profoundly spiritual act than mere wandering. At its core, pilgrimage is a search for contact with the Divine, with God, and for this reason, all religions have developed a rich tradition of sacred travel. Human beings are creatures of body and soul. We seek God, we desire to pay Him homage and to worship Him. We are irresistibly drawn to the places where He has shown Himself, or where holy men and women have lived in His presence, and pilgrimages satisfy these needs in us in a very concrete way.

Pilgrimage also satisifies our need to offer reparation for sin. In the Middle Ages, a pilgrimage to Santiago could be imposed by ecclesiastical authorities as a penance for grave sins such as heresy or apostasy, or by civil authorities as a punishment for serious crimes such as murder.

Unlike in Islam, pilgrimage has never been an obligation for Christians. While early Christians in Rome cherished and revered the tombs of the martyrs, pilgrimages did not begin to flourish until the fourth century, after the legalization of Chrisitianity. By the Middle Ages, when the custom of pilgrimage was at its peak, thousands were on the the roads to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago, as well as to any number of lesser shrines throughout Europe. And though it ranked third in importance to the other two in official terms, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela rapidly gained a position of special preeminence among European pilgrims. With Jerusalem in the hands of the Muslims and Rome so far away across the Alps, the Camino de Santiago soon became the favorite destination for pilgrims from central and northern Europe.

So highly regarded was the figure of the pilgrim in medieval society that many privileges soon came to be granted them. Medieval pilgrims along the road to Compostela, unlike merchants and ordinary travellers, were entitled to be received in churches, monasteries and hospices along the route. There they were given beds, fed and cared for if they were ill. Likewise, they were often exempted from tolls that other travellers had to pay. In order to distinguish genuine pilgrims from both ordinary travellers and false pilgrims seeking to take advantage of the hospitality offered to genuine ones, civil and ecclesiastical authorities soon began to require that pilgrims carry certain documents certifying their status, as well as requiring special clothing and symbols as identification. Pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem wore a small palm frond on their clothing in commemoration of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, while those travelling to Rome wore a key as a symbol of the Pope's authority as successor to St. Peter. Pilgrims travelling to and from Compostela wore a scallop shell as a symbol of their destination (Compostela is near the sea). In addition, a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun, a long cape, which served as protection from the rain and as a blanket during the night, and a walking staff with a gourd for carrying drinking water all became visible symbols of a person's status as a pilgrim to Santiago.

Naturally, all of this had its downside. Human nature being what it is, a brisk trade soon developed in false pilgrim's documents. Thieves and criminals adopted the guise of a pilgrim in order to move freely from one place to another and prey on the innocent. When they weren't being devoured by wolves or perishing in snowstorms atop treacherous mountain passes, pilgrims often became targets for robbers and bandits hiding out in desolate stretches of the route, corrupt ferrymen at rivers and unscrupulous innkeepers in towns along the route. Numerous laws protecting pilgrims and stipulating severe punishments for those who abused them were passed by the authorities, but even so, undertaking the pilgrimage was risky business. Pilgrims often made out their wills before departing as the journey was bound to last years in most cases and one's return was by no means guaranteed.

These dangers have disappeared from the contemporary pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; today's pilgrim has more to worry about from sunburn, sunstroke or being run over by a car in the stretches that cross modern highways than from wolves and bandits. The advent of the cell phone and the numerous voluntary organizations dedicated to assisting pilgrims that have flourished in cities and villages along the route also guarantee that help is never very far away. Nevertheless, the journey remains a physically and spiritually demanding, but immesely rewarding, one that cannot fail to dramatically transform the lives of those who undertake it in a spirit of faith, humility, prayer and penance.

domingo, 15 de junio de 2008

Da basics

Talking with a friend about having created this blog, he pointed out that I might be taking a little too much for granted. While I'd normally assume anyone reading this would already know the basic information about who St. James the Greater was, my friend informs me that that's not necessarily a valid assumption, so I figured I'd prepare a little cheat sheet for beginners that may help to explain this millenial obsession with trekking 800+ kilometers across the north of the Iberian Peninsula to reach what is believed to be his tomb.

St. James the Greater (Santiago in Spanish) was a Jewish man, an Israelite, who lived in the first century A.D. He was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and a close relative of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee before Christ called him to be one of His disciples, and later one of the Twelve Apostles. He may have been a disciple of St. John the Baptist's prior to following the Lord. He had a brother named John, also a fisherman and later the author of the Gospel According to St. John. He received his call from Jesus while he was busy at his nets, fishing with his brother and their father:
And going on from thence a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were mending their nets in the ship. And forthwith he called them. And leaving their father Zebedee in the ship with his hired men, they followed him. (Mark 1:19-20)

The two brothers appear to have had a reputation for having fiery tempers and an impetuous spirit, for which Jesus nicknamed them "Boanerges", or "sons of thunder."
And to Simon he gave the name Peter: And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he named them Boanerges, which is, the sons of thunder ... (Mark 3:16-17).

The nickname may also have had something to do with a particularly notorious incident in which James and John (rather missing the point of Christ's mission, it must be said) offered to call down fire from heaven to punish a town whose faithless inhabitants had refused to believe in Christ:
And when his disciples James and John had seen this, they said: Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them? And turning, he rebuked them, saying: You know not of what spirit you are. (Luke 9: 54-55)

On one occasion, the hapless pair also managed to infuriate the other Apostles by using their mother and their position as relatives of Jesus in an attempt to secure for themselves the choicest seats in Christ's kingdom:
Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, adoring and asking something of him. Who said to her: What wilt thou? She saith to him: Say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom. And Jesus answering, said: You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink? They say to him: We can. He saith to them: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand, is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father. And the ten hearing it, were moved with indignation against the two brethren. (Matthew 20:20-21)

Despite these blunders, St. James and his brother were among Christ's favorite Apostles, together with St. Peter. It was these three who were privy to some of the most significant moments of Our Lord's life: the resurrection of Jairus's daughter, the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor and Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His arrest and crucifixion (cf. Mark 9:2, Mark 5:27 and Matthew 26:37).

His last appearance in Scripture is found in the twelfth chapter of the Acts of The Apostles, where he becomes the first of the Twelve to suffer martyrdom at the hands of King Herod Agrippa I:
And at the same time, Herod the king stretched forth his hands, to afflict some of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)

There ends the scriptural record of St. James' life. Outside Sacred Scripture, an ancient tradition holds that in the years following Christ's Ascension into heaven St. James undertook the evangelisation of the Roman province of Hispania (modern-day Spain). Travelling in the company of a small group of disciples, he preached the Gospel here for several years without much success, making only a handful of converts and appointing bishops in the cities of León and Astorga before returning to suffer martyrdom in Jerusalem.

Following his martyrdom, a small group of his disciples is said to have recovered the Apostle's remains, placed them in a boat and set sail for Spain. Eventually they landed at the Roman settlement of Iria Flavia on the Atlantic coast, not far from the modern town of Padrón. They faced numerous difficulties, not the least of which was the opposition of a local pagan queen who set a series of tests for them before agreeing to allow the burial of the body in her territory.

Overcoming these obstacles, they were finally given a plot of land in which to bury the remains, and two of the disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, stayed behind and spent the rest of their lives in prayer, watching over the tomb until they themselves died and were buried alongside their master.

And then, nearly eight centuries of silence. The location of the tomb was forgotten and it lay lost for nearly seven centuries until in AD 813. It was then that an extraordinary miracle occurred: the location of the tomb was revealed to a hermit named Pelayo, who was guided to it by a star and the sound of heavenly choirs of angels singing (hence the name Compostela for the city, from the Latin campus stellae, "the field of the star"); Pelayo immediately informed his bishop Teodomiro, who, after verifying the authenticity of the relics himself, ordered a church to be built on the site. He also sent word to King Alfonso II the Chaste, who travelled to the tomb to venerate the relics of the Apostle himself and ordered that the simple church constructed by the bishop be enlarged.Word of the relics' rediscovery spread throughout Christendom like wildfire, and it set in motion a wave of pilgrimages from every corner of Europe. From the Christian kingdoms north of the Pyrenees came kings, queens, nobles, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, merchants, craftsmen, architects and millions of ordinary men and women. With them too came much-needed economic and military aid for the wars of re-conquest against the Muslim armies further to the south.

There's lots more stories to tell about the history of the Camino, but I'll end it here for now. 1200 years of history and millions of pilgrims' stories would make for an excessively long third post, so I guess I'll have to save some of them for another day.

sábado, 14 de junio de 2008

I guess I digress, but God Bless Ireland!

If I'm not mistaken, there was a book written some years ago entitled "How The Irish Saved Civilization." I have no idea whether or not the book is any good as history or whether there's any factual truth contained in it, the title would have made an apt newspaper headline in this morning's papers. In my opinion, that great little nation pulled a David to Brussels' Goliath yesterday, and Europe owes them for it big time.

I really had to think a bit before deciding whether or not to post on this subject ... the purpose of this blog really isn't to discuss politics, it's meant to focus on pilgrim spirituality as expressed in the Catholic tradition in general, and as it relates to the Camino de Santiago in particular. But Ireland did a marvellous service to the rest of Europe yesterday, even if not everyone is prepared to recognize, acknowledge or thank them for it.

All I can say is, thank God Ireland's Consititution requires a referendum for decisions as important as whether or not to adopt the Lisbon Treaty. It's a shining example of how a modern democracy ought to work in contemporary Europe. Here in Spain, on the other hand, the "illustrati" who run the Socialist government are simply prepared to roll over and surrender every last vestige of national sovereignty to the planned European superstate, as are most of the other governments of the 27 member states. (That last statement, by the way, should not be regarded as any kind of endorsement of Spain's principal opposition party, the Partido Popular, who have not shown themselves to be any more democratic in this regard, or even the least bit critical of the Lisbon Treaty.)

For an excellent analysis of the Lisbon Treaty and why it had to be rejected, follow this link to an excellent analysis by Professor Anthony Coughlan, a Senior Lecturer Emeritus at Trinity College in Dublin.

viernes, 13 de junio de 2008

New beginnings ...

Welcome to my blog! Okay, so I figure I must be the last one through the door at this point ... it's taken me a long time to make the jump and join the rest of you out here in the "blogosphere," but here I am at last. I'm not sure that I have much to offer that others can't set forth in a clearer, more concise and convincing way, but there are a lot of interesting folks out here (some of whom you can find in the Blog List to the right) and now finally seemed like the right time to get in on the conversation. Plus, this gives family and friends another way to keep up with what on earth I'm doing.

But the biggest reason of all for starting this blog is that I'm (once again) setting out on a brand new adventure, and I'd like to invite everyone to have a look at it. A new apostolate, Pilgrim Pathways S.L., made it's official debut at the end of April!

What's Pilgrim Pathways, you ask? The answer is so easy and, at the same time, so complicated to give you. At the most basic level it's the company I've put together with some friends, so it's my new job. But job doesn't even begin to cover my dreams for Pilgrim Pathways. It's not just a job; it's a full-time apostolate centered around pilgrim spirituality in the Catholic tradition that I hope to develop in order to share with others the extraordinary experiences I have had, as well as the numerous graces that God has granted me, in my many pilgrimages along the Camino de Santiago.

When I set off down the Camino de Santiago for the first time some 13 years ago, I knew that my life was going to change in ways I couldn't even begin to fathom, and, boy, has that played out! Not only did I move to Spain ten years ago as a result of that first experience, but I set out on an entire process deepening and bringing to fullness the conversion that began when I was 16 years old and first became Catholic. The last ten years have witnessed a long, and sometimes difficult, process of growth. Faith, now matter how fervent in its initial stages, must deepen and mature if it is to survive, and that process always implies suffering. "As silver is tried by fire, and gold in the furnace: so the Lord trieth the heart" (Proverbs 17). I'll be sharing some of my experiences with you along the way as this blog develops.

But the most important change is the step that I've taken with Pilgrim Pathways. If you've never heard of the Camino de Santiago, I'll be telling you more about it here. For now, I invite you to check out the web page of Pilgrim Pathways for yourself. There I explain the origins, traditions, and the history of the pilgrimage. Hey, if you want to brush up that high school Spanish, I've even prepared the page in that language. And if you think you'd like to make the journey, contact me! It's the most amazing pilgrimage in the world, and I guarantee you an experience like you've never had before. I'll be adding new itineraries and modifying the existing ones too, so if you like what you see but it doesn't quite fit you or your group's needs, just get in touch! I'll be happy to arrange something that adapts to your schedule and budget.

You can find the page at And please let me know what you think. God bless!