Bernardo M. Villegas
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Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Part 1)

          I did it!  I travelled 100 kilometers along the famous St. James Way (Camino de Santiago de Compostella), with a little help from a van that carried our baggage from one lodging place to another.  I cannot boast too much because the full-blown Camino is 758 kilometers that take a full month to cover for the ordinary walker, from St-Jean-Pied-de- Port in France to Santiago de Compostella in Northwestern Spain (near cities like Oviedo, Leon and Burgos) and not very far from Fatima, Portugal.  I also know that famous persons older than I, such as Fr. Nebres of the Ateneo, have actually done the full Camino.  Being inflicted with arthritis (which I inherited from both my parents), I could only meet the challenge of the minimum number of kilometers that would entitle me to a certificate.  I was fully aware that my four nephews, mostly in their thirties or forties, could have easily done the 758 kilometers.  But they were kind enough to accompany me, following my slow pace, and carrying my backpacks and rendering me all sorts of services along the way.  They were really like guardian angels leading the way and it was sheer coincidence that the three of them were named Michael, Gabriel and Raphael (after the three Archangels).  And to top it, the fourth one and eldest among them had the name of a prophet, “Joel.”  It was not hard, therefore, to keep foremost in mind the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage, although there were other more human motives for doing the Camino.

         Besides the spiritual motive (many Roman Catholics have in their bucket list three important pilgrimages, i.e. one to Rome, another to Jerusalem and the third one to Santiago de Compostela), I decided to do the Camino for health reasons.  After getting to know about it through the famous movie “The Way”, produced by Emilio Esteves—with his dad Martin Sheen in the starring role—and being encouraged by a friend who did it with his ageing parents and seven siblings, I decided to devote one week of my life to the project so that I would finally heed the advice of my bone doctor to do a great deal of walking in order to strengthen my leg muscles.  According to him, arthritis is incurable and I will always have to endure the pain, unless I have a knee operation (which I absolutely refuse to have).  The next best thing is to walk frequently so that the muscles around the knee would be strengthened.  That would be the way to minimize the pain, without having to take pain killers (which I also refuse to do).  With a very tight schedule, I never got to develop the habit of frequent walking, until I decided to do the Camino.  To prepare for it, I had to walk tens of kilometers weekly and even spent three whole weeks in the mountains of Bukidnon, simulating the terrain of the province of Galicia through which the pilgrims spend most of their time walking.  Now, after having done the Camino, I have become “addicted” to walking and it is easier for me, despite a continuing busy schedule, to prioritize this mild form of physical exercise.

         Since there are more and more Filipinos who are doing this pilgrimage (among the close to 300,000 pilgrims yearly from all over the world according to Wikipedia), let me share with the readers some vital information about the Camino.  First, what is the historical background of this pilgrimage?  There are several versions of how it came about, starting the ninth century and fully developed as a high organized affair by the twelfth century.   Here, let me just borrow from the famous Brazilian novelist, Paolo Coelho, who wrote the best-selling novel “The Alchemist.”  In his first major book entitled “The Pilgrimage,” Mr. Coelho documents the experiences of his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on a contemporary quest for ancient wisdom.  In the Afterword of the book, there is a short explanation of the Road to Santiago.  The version he chose is as follows:  “One of the legends tells how the apostle James goes to the Roman province of Hispania to spread the Gospel.  Later, when he returns to Jerusalem, he is decapitated…Two of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, place his mortal remains in a boat without a rudder and set off into the stormy sea, guided only by the current.  They end up in the same place where James had been preaching the word of Jesus.  There the disciples bury his body…Time passes until one day a shepherd called Pelayo sees stars raining down over a field for several days in a row.  Guided by these stars, he comes upon the ruins of three tombs—those of James and his two disciples.  King Alfonso II orders a chapel to be built on the spot—Campus Stellae (Field of the Star)—and pilgrimages begin.  The Latin name gradually transmutes into Compostela.”

         Then there is the explanation of why the symbol carried by the pilgrims on their backpacks or hung around their necks is a scallop shell.  Coelho gives the following explanation: “On the day that the boat with James’s mortal remains reaches Galicia, a fierce storm threatens to smash it against the rocks…A passer-by (described in some version as a recently wedded bridegroom) sees the scene and rides into the sea on his horse to help the sailors; but he, too, falls victim to the fury of the elements and begins to drown.  Believing that all is lost, he prays to the heavens to have mercy on his soul…As that very moment, the storm abates, and both boat and horseman are washed gently ashore.  There, the disciples Athanasius and Theodore notice that the horse is covered in a kind of shell known as ‘vieira’ or ‘scallop.’ …In homage to this heroic gesture, the shell becomes the symbol of the Road, and can be found on buildings along the way, on bridges, monuments, and especially on the backpacks of pilgrims.”

            Although we encountered along the way pilgrims of different  creeds and cultures (including agnostics), the majority who do the pilgrimage are Christians and give a great deal of importance to the spiritual values of doing the pilgrimage, such as praying for special intentions (including cures from sicknesses) and most importantly, the gaining of the plenary indulgence attached to completing the pilgrimage (a plenary indulgence wipes out all the temporal punishments due to sin under the usual conditions of praying for the Pope and receiving Communion plus going to confession a week before or after the day of gaining the indulgence).  St. James is also intimately related to the devotion to Our Lady of the Pillar whose main shrine is in Zaragoza, Spain, a former Roman colony.  The story is that St. James, having been sent by the Apostles to evangelize what was then a land of barbarians, was getting discouraged because of the lack of fruits of his efforts.  To encourage him to persevere, the Blessed Virgin—who at that time was still alive—appeared to him on top of a pillar.  That pillar is kept in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, which is also visited by millions of pilgrims from all over the world.  (To be continued).