Walking the Camino de Santiago was a long-time goal of Stacy Eull. But when the Minneapolis woman completed the pilgrimage on Oct. 26, 2019, she had no idea that COVID-19 was just around the corner and world-wide travel would be curtailed.
“The pilgrimage was hard,” Eull admitted. “But I’m so glad I did it. I had heard about the pilgrimage for years but I never had time off from work to do it. Too many responsibilities. I just switched jobs at that time and decided that I would do it before I started my new job. The journey was even more than I thought it would be.”
What was most remarkable, Eull said, “was that I lost all sense of time and it just seemed natural to be walking with people from all over the world. I couldn’t speak their languages but we were all on the same level – walking as pilgrims.”
Now, Eull said, she would like to return when the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Santiago is open. The door is open only on years when the July 25 feast day for St. James falls on a Sunday, as it does in 2021 and as it last did in 2010. This is the 120th Holy Year when the door is open.
However, because of the global pandemic, the Vatican has announced a major exemption. The Vatican will allow the Holy Door to remain open for two years instead of the traditional one. The Holy Door will now invite people to pass through until Dec. 31, 2022.
Santiago named for apostle St. James
A marvelous blend of intriguing history, natural beauty, and old-world charm, Santiago is named for St. James, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, and is the end of a walking pilgrimage – the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James – for many pilgrims from around the world. It is also a popular shore excursion for cruise ships.
When Eull was there, the plaza in front of the towering cathedral was filled with pilgrims who had walked the sacred way. A man who couldn’t speak English had tears in his eyes as he pointed to his stocking feet and the well-worn shoes he had removed after his long trek. In his lap, he cradled his dog who had walked every step with him.
For Eull, it took her 32 days to complete her 485-mile pilgrimage in 2019. Eull said she had walked about 20 miles each day and said her feet showed the wear and tear.
Although it is primarily a religious pilgrimage, people have varying motives for stepping onto the rigorous journey. For some, it is spiritual. Some do it to pay homage, to ask forgiveness, or to seek a blessing. Some do it in memory of someone who died. Some do it after they retire. Some walk it for health reasons.
The patron saint of Spain, St. James is the reason the city of Santiago came to be and is also its namesake. Santiago is Spanish for St. James. The tale of the city’s founding stretches back to the time of Christ. For centuries, pilgrims have trod olden roads to pay their respects at the tomb of St. James the Greater in Santiago.
It’s a question of faith. Some people believe it is the body of St. James and some people believe it is not. One reason they think it was St. James is because there was no head with the body. But finding his body was the beginning of this city.
One of the first apostles of Christ, James came to the area that is now Santiago to preach the gospel. It was supposed to be the end of the earth, the last place where he was preaching.
When James was later beheaded by King Herod, the disciples of James reportedly took his body to Spain and buried him in a tomb near a prehistoric fortified settlement. Two of James’ disciples – Teodoro and Anastasio – were said to have been buried on either side of him.
Finding the tomb of St. James
As time went by and Christian persecution increased, the tomb was forgotten. Then, in the early 9th century, a hermit named Pelagio saw and heard wondrous lights and sounds coming from a nearby woods. The strange light was pointing to the place where the remains of St. James the Greater were buried.
Pelagio shared his apparitions with a local bishop, Theodomir of Iria, who had the area cleared of shrubs and discovered a tiny chapel with an altar and crypt containing three tombs.
The King of Asturias ordered that a basilica be erected over the tomb and that a monastery be constructed nearby. Twelve Benedictine monks arrived and that was the beginning of the town of Santiago de Compostela.
The city of Santiago was built on religion. It is not an industrial city. The four materials of the city are religion, tourists, the university and politics. The town’s name comes from the Latin ‘campus stellae’ meaning ‘field of stars’ in reference to the strange lights near the tomb.
Opening the Holy Door
The Holy Door at the Cathedral of Santiago is sealed from the inside so it cannot be opened from the outside, except during Jubilee years when pilgrims pass through its doors and get rid of all their sins. After passing through the door, it is also necessary to confess, receive Holy Communion, recite the Creed and pray for the Pope and for personal intentions.
For her journey to Santiago, Eull started walking in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, on the northern side of the Pyrenees mountains. “The first two days were spent crossing the Pyrenees and on day four, I arrived in Pamplona, Spain,” she said.
After walking all day, Eull spent each night in an albergue – a Spanish hostel created especially for pilgrims. Scattered along the route within walking distance of each other, the albergues cost about $10 to $20 per night in American currency and pilgrims are allowed to stay only one night.
To give her energy for the long day ahead, Eull would try to find a café for a morning cup of tea and a fruit pastry. She would stop at a market to buy fresh fruit, cheese, crackers or a can of tuna to carry on her walk for lunch. Every village has a fountain where water canteens can be filled and other fountains are often located along the paths as well. Dinner was usually pasta picked up at a local market or restaurant or prepared by Eull in the albergue kitchen.
Pilgrimage routes are usually marked with signs or scallop shells, the symbol for the St. James pilgrimage. Many pilgrims wear the scallop shells on their backpacks or walking sticks to signify that they are on the pilgrimage.
Lessons of the pilgrimage
Each stumble or detour seemed to teach a lesson, Eull said. “We think that we determine our pace. But sometimes the path determines it for us.”
When her trip ended in Santiago, Eull headed for the official office to get her Pilgrim’s Passport stamped. When pilgrims start their journey, they obtain the document and have it stamped at stops along the way.
The credential shows that the bearer is a pilgrim entitled to stay at the albergues. It also notes that the pilgrim has met the requirements for a certificate of completion.
“On this pilgrimage, I learned so much about myself and what I can do,” Eull said. “What you learn on this pilgrimage can help you for the rest of your life. I’m going home a different person.”
Photos courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch