What is a Pilgrim?
Jul 30, 2009
|We started early but not near early enough. It was high summer and although we began in very cool, misty weather it was not long before the sun threw down its scorching rays. We plodded on over rocky track, down dusty trails and now and then, along a wood protected path by a cooling stream affording temporary relief from the heat.
By ‘elevenses’ (morning tea time) I was wandering into a village that looked all but deserted of homo sapiens although the houses were, typically for the region, decked in flower box after flower box. Spying one particularly attractive window, I snuck up on it before it could see me and just when I was about to press the shutter a small woman’s head popped up behind the flowers. I don’t know who got the biggest shock; I held up my camera and gesticulated that I would like to take a photo. To my surprise, the little senior citizen pointed at herself, I nodded and the shot of the day was secured.
The group caught up in a small square for coffee, entertained by the sound of young children happily being taught all that must be learnt whilst sitting in the shade of their school building. I showed off my cute photo.
We have found over the years of trekking here and hiking there, that it is best to go at one’s own natural pace. This inevitably means that a group of six such as ours will spread itself out over time and regroup at stops along the way. Thus, although a lot of talking is done - repartee being de rigueur - there remains a lot of time wherein one can let the mind flow free.
And so it was with me as I espied wild flower after wild flower, a bumble bee, a field of freshly cut hay, bunches of wild berries, plums ready for the picking, rows of flowering potato plants, a large beetle attempting to get off the path, an old man walking. So, I wondered, ‘What is a pilgrim?’
The walk we were undertaking is part of one of the many mediaeval pilgrimage routes known as The Way of St James, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela or Chemin de St-Jacque. For over a 1000 years the Christian faithful have been trekking to Santiago de Compostela to view the silver casket on display in the cathedral which is said to contain the remains of St James the Apostle. Apparently the Vatican gave an indulgence for only three pilgrimages and this was one of the lucky three. If you want to know more or want to become a pilgrim yourself then check it all out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James.
So, wandering along wondering, particularly after my rather cynical observations of yesterday eve, I noticed that most of the ‘pilgrims’ on this ‘pilgrimage’ were young people who looked like they had no idea about doing a day walk let alone a long distance trek. On the other hand, the perambulating ‘pilgrims’ were often overwhelmed by the pedalling ‘pilgrims’ as they whirled by on their mountain bikes dressed in slick multi-coloured cycling gear. In the towns the throng would be noticeable, often peppered with walkers of our vintage, but once in the countryside, much of the day could be spent in relative serenity.
Why would anyone pick this walk (or ride it) instead of one the many more picturesque in Europe and around the world? In our case, we were invited to share the walk with friends and thought, ‘Why not, it will give us another walk in the Pyrenees’ (we had undertaken one in the beautiful Val d’Azun many moons ago) and we would get to see a part of Spain that we would otherwise probably not visit. We were under no illusions that we were doing some sort of pilgrimage: indeed we did not have the desire to do this sort of walk for a distance of 780 kilometres.
There is no doubt in my mind that, as I have alluded to before, walking in a wild or naturally pristine environment over several days disconnects me from the busyness of the modern world and can be akin to a kind of spiritual experience. But, walking through farm country, towns, never really leaving the built environment with many other folk doing the same thing, did not create that ‘letting go’ in me. So what is a pilgrim?
Perhaps this whole thing is a clever marketing exercise set up by the Spanish with the complicity of the Roman church? After all, in St Jean Pied de Port the budding ‘pilgrim’ can purchase a passport of sorts and get it stamped all the way along the Camino. Sure, this allows a ‘pilgrim’ to take a cheap bed in a lodge and catch bed bugs for their trouble, but other than that it has no particular purpose except as a souvenir.
Apparently about 100,000 people do the whole or part of this trail every year so it well and truly is in the interests of the region to encourage a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. There is no doubt a number of people who undertake this trial as a genuine pilgrimage however my observation was that they were very few. A good number of these ‘pilgrims’ cared nothing for the environment through which they walked. Toilet paper was left everywhere, plastic bottles discarded indiscriminately along the way and garbage often dumped by trail. Bushwalkers they are not.