Perhaps no where on earth is the power of pilgrimage more evident than in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. After more than a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—continues to inspire Christians from around the world.
In the middle of a large public square in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela lies a paving stone engraved with the image of a shell and these simple words: Camino de Santiago. For hundreds of years pilgrims have stood on this spot, gazing at the imposing, twelfth-century cathedral that rises before them. Those who gather here are often footsore and weary after weeks of journeying across plains and mountains. Many have made this journey to deepen their faith or fulfill a vow, others to perform a penance, and some out of a sense of adventure. All end their wanderings here, before the church where the remains of the apostle St. James (Santiago in Spanish) are said to lie. After more than a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—continues to inspire Christians from around the world.
In an era in which it’s easy to step onto a plane and be deposited nearly anywhere in the world, the Way of St. James is a reminder of the power of pilgrimages taken slowly and deliberately. The path to Santiago de Compostela is meant to be walked, for the journey is as important as actually standing at the crypt of the apostle. Once all pilgrimages were like this, journeys that took weeks or months of hard travel. But of the three most famous Christian pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela—only the Way of St. James has remained a route that many pilgrims take on foot.
Even if one can’t make the long journey to Santiago de Compostela, I believe all pilgrims can learn from the Way of St. James. Its most important lesson is that a pilgrimage is as much about the journey as it is about arriving at the destination. Though it is deeply meaningful to stand in the cathedral in Santiago, time spent en route to the shrine is the more important part of the pilgrimage.
The Way of St. James, then, includes far more than the relics that lie at the end of the route. It is a thousand memorable sites along the way, in tiny villages with centuries-old stone cottages, by the side of sacred springs gushing from deep within the earth, down well-worn footpaths that wind through dark forests, and in magnificent monasteries built to house the endless stream of pilgrims who traveled along the routes that converge on Santiago.
Information from the Tourist Office of Spain.