Camino de Santiago – On the Frontier Between Faith and Culture

“When the fresh showers of April have pierced the drought of March to the root…then folk long to go on pilgrimages.”   (Geoffrey Chaucer in his Prologue to “Canterbury Tales” – loosely translated from the Middle English)

Santiago Matamoros
Santiago Matamoros – Burgos Cathedral

Six and a half centuries after Chaucer led a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Navarre, I passed the same way – an April pilgrim celebrating my 70th birthday with forty reflective days walking the legendary Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) along the popular route from southern France, across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. An important Christian pilgrimage for over a thousand years, it’s now popular with people of all faiths or none at all, whether for reflection or just a physical challenge or safe adventure. That makes for some interesting conversation along the way. A couple of weeks into the 800 kilometre journey, a Muslim fellow pilgrim shared her difficulty in reconciling this pilgrimage to the alleged tomb of a disciple of Jesus, whose core teaching was about love, with the recurrent image in churches and cathedrals along the way celebrating “Santiago Matamoros” – Saint James, Killer of Moors – mounted on a white horse and lopping the heads off hapless Muslims. Whatever happened to “love your enemies”?

To be clear, the Camino is a cultural and historic treasure, worth every sore muscle and inevitable moments of fatigue, discomfort or discouragement. The cathedrals, monasteries, churches and chapels range from glorious to quietly moving. Their rituals and practices are beautiful and not to be missed. A spirit of mindfulness and companionship pervades the entire experience. The scenery is gorgeous and the people along the way hospitable and kind. But while it’s nominally a Christian pilgrimage, really it’s not – not if Christianity means the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ. The religious iconography along the way is mostly of saints, with representations of Jesus usually restricted either to being a baby in his mother’s arms, or in his last hours of torture, crucifixion and death. Indeed, this reflects visually the words of the two thousand year old Apostles Creed which also leaps from “…born of the Virgin Mary” right over adulthood to “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” No mention of his adult life, teaching and healing. Nothing about his emphasis on compassion, humility and unconditional love. Nothing about his calling out the hypocrisy of those making outward show of religious piety while being judgmental, intolerant and, above all, unloving.

Without in any way diminishing the beauty of the Camino experience, it doesn’t hurt occasionally to reflect on the messy reverse side of any rich historical tapestry. The Camino culture is suffused with la reconquista, the slow but inexorable Catholic reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from its Muslim rulers. Beginning in the early 8th Century these Arab and Berber “Moors” had conquered all of Spain except for a narrow strip along the north, and even that risked being overwhelmed after a century of warfare. But then a peasant discovered an unmarked grave in the far west: the bishop declared the bones to be those of Saint James, miraculously transported to Spanish Galicia after his beheading in Jerusalem in 44 CE: the king gladly endorsed the bishop and prompted a call to co-religionists from across Europe to make pilgrimages – and, coincidentally, reinforce Christian presence in northern Spain. Understandably, this miraculous development stiffened the resolve of the beleaguered Christians. Legend says that some thirty years later, when Catholic forces were almost losing a battle not far off today’s Camino route, Saint James appeared on a white horse and led them to victory, thus becoming both “Matamoros” and patron saint of Spain. It took another 500 years to conquer Grenada, the Moorish capital in which Muslims, Jews and Christians had lived in relative tolerance. The new “Christian” regime gave Muslims the blunt choice of conversion, expulsion, or death and, soon thereafter demanded the same of Jews. The fall of Granada coincided with Columbus’ first voyage so, in the years that followed, the gold and silver of the Americas, combined with the triumphalist spirit of the age, flowered into the magnificent religious art and architecture of imperial Catholic Spain that we still admire today.

Establishing the boundary between religion and culture can be difficult. Where do the requirements of religion end and secular ethnicity and culture begin? One would like to think that in the 21st Century we would have matured beyond political edicts over wearing hijab, a crucifix, turban, yarmulke or any other symbol of religious affiliation, but we haven’t. And ideological brutality hasn’t gone away either. Even in peaceful modern Spain the Civil War remains a living memory. Along the Camino there’s a church with a memorial to a dozen Nationalists who died “for God and for Spain in the holy crusade against communism” which is not far from a recently exhumed mass grave containing dozens of Republicans, shot for God, Spain and the anti-communist crusade by Nationalists in 1936.

One of many lessons worth pondering while walking the Way of Saint James may be this – appreciating culture for what it is, while distinguishing it from the sacred. Clothing, cathedrals and ceremonies are culture, but the sacred is grounded in common humanity; in shared companionship and conviviality among fellow pilgrims and in quiet contemplation along the way.

Alto de Perdon
Turning 70 on the wet and windy Alto de Perdon (Hill of Forgiveness)