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Post Camino de Santiago: Reflections from an Armchair Pilgrim
Created by John Eipper on 11/15/22 10:43 AM

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Camino de Santiago: Reflections from an Armchair Pilgrim (Sasha Pack, USA, 11/15/22 10:43 am)

I have to agree with Consoly León Arias that the enduring fascination with the Camino de Santiago lies in the power of the myths that have shrouded it. I think what is most fascinating is the way that the Camino elevates two different myths about St. James the Elder that seem almost antithetical: the peaceful, wandering evangelist who canoed his way to Iberia sometime around 40 CE; and the crusading "moor slayer," who appeared overhead on a winged horse, sword in hand at the (mythical) Battle of Clavijo of 844. The first captures a universalist impulse, the second, a nationalist one. A contradiction? Maybe not. The crusaders of medieval Europe thought of themselves as pilgrims, and saw it as their to duty to protect pilgrims who followed in their footsteps.

In any case, as Consoly says, the pilgrimage to Compostela is an ancient route. But its initial rise to prominence can be dated to the 12th century, when the ambitious bishop of Santiago, Diego Gelmírez, made the pilgrimage into the centerpiece of his effort to elevate his position in temporal and Church politics. Among other accomplishments, Gelmírez obtained donations from Christian kings and ordinary pilgrims to build a grand new Romanesque cathedral; he established the Order of Santiago as a protection force for pilgrims; he created a public water supply for pilgrims and townspeople; and he gained the support of Pope Calixtus II in converting Compostela into a pilgrimage destination on a par with Rome, or nearly so. And I am leaving out all of his political intrigues in the kingdom of Castile-León.

The Camino's modern revival began in the 1880s. At a time when many Catholic tourist sites were becoming politicized, the archdiocese attempted to keep the focus on the spiritual and patrimonial aspects of the Camino, along with some aspects of Galician regional culture. Perhaps inevitably, the pilgrimage was nevertheless politicized during the 1930s, featuring many nationalist military parades and other political spectacles. In the middle of the Spanish Civil War, in support of Franco's supposed crusade, Pope Pius XI declared 1938 to be a Holy Year, in which indulgence was granted to pilgrims, even though the criterion that St. James Day fall on a Sunday was not met. Other prominent Spanish hierarchs, including two archbishops, criticized these uses of the Camino.

The 1960s saw the pendulum swing back to the peaceful wanderer myth. The focus shifted to a discourse of internationalism and common European heritage. Thus in 1988, the Council of Europe granted the Camino a new kind of special status, Europe's "first cultural itinerary," for whatever that is worth.

I hope to walk the Camino one day, but until then I remain an armchair pilgrim, enjoying it vicariously through others' experiences. Besides the aching feet, the one theme I hear most has to do with the "journey within," the escape from the constraints of community and routine to commune with God, or whomever else. It is personally hard for me to square that sentiment with politics, nationalism, militancy, etc., but I guess that may depend on the time and place and circumstances in which one has lived.

My favorite bit of Camino de Santiago doggerel: ¡Ay, el noble peregrino / que se para a meditar / después de largo camino / en el horror de llegar!

JE comments:  Sasha, an excellent historical overview.  Maybe someday we'll walk the Camino together.  Prof. Hilton would be proud of a WAIS-sanctioned pilgrimage!  Anyone else interesting in signing up?  I'm in favor of the abbreviated Lugo to Compostela route.

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