Why pilgrimage, why St. James, why on foot from so far – from France, Switzerland, from even further, to the western extremity of Spain? Why any of it?
There is no reason. Or there are a hundred reasons: faith, tourism, escapism, curiosity, fitness, vanity, tradition, piety, crime, altruism, exploitation, contemplation…some or all of the above, and much more. A thousand years ago or today.
Back when the world was warm enough and safe enough, millions made their way across France and Spain to the supposed tomb of that cranky evangeliser of the West, James. They followed, like Charlemagne, the line of the Milky Way.
With harsher weather and wars and wolves and roadside crooks and Louis XIV and Carmelite massacring revolutionaries…it all slowed. Through the quiet centuries, a few souls still struggled to Santiago – even across France, along the Aubrac plateau and across the Pyrenees, juggling the seasons to make it through.
The world is again warm enough and safe enough to enable hundreds of thousands again to make their way to Santiago, St. James, in Compostela. This year being a holy year – with the saint’s feast falling on a Sunday – the crowds will probably swell to the greatest number since the middle ages.
They will come, religious and irreligious. For no reason, for a hundred reasons.
An often heard French pilgrim song calls the Camino, in rough translation, “the road of earth and faith, the millennial way of Europe, Charlemagne’s Milky Way.”
So we walk.