St. James and the Camino de Santiago

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of St. James. What always comes first to my mind when I think of James is his ambition. He’s the one that wanted to be head of the class, first in line, seated at the right hand of Jesus in heaven.

But more interesting to me is the traditional assertion that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain. It is also believed that after his execution by Herod, his body was somehow miraculously translated to the northwest of Spain, and later to Compostela, a famous pilgrimage spot – the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James).

The authenticity of the relic of St. James in Compostela has been questioned and there seems to be reason to doubt that St. James ever made it to Spain. Still, thousands of people each year make their way along the Camino. My friend Maria has done it; my friend Michael plans to do it this fall and it is one of my great desires is to do the same once my daughter is finished high school and off in college.

What explains that? I don’t think it is at all about St. James and his relics. I don’t think it matters a whole lot to me whether he was in Spain or not or whether his relics are there now.

I think it is more that pilgrims have been making their way along that route for more than 1000 years. I say pilgrims, although many of the people who have walked the route did not set out on a spiritual journey. (Not surprisingly, they say it ended up being a spiritual jouney.) Maybe it goes back to the Exodus metaphor I talked about two days ago – we know we are on a journey and there is something about pilgrimage – about walking a holy trail that others have walked before us that draws us. And so on this feast of St. James, I remind myself that I will walk the Camino



For the past 10 days or so, the first Mass reading has been from the Book of Exodus and so I’ve been reflecting on and off on the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt. What has most struck me is the extent to which the exodus experience of the Israelites is such a fitting metaphor for our own lives.

While most of us are not physically enslaved to another, all of us are unfree or bound in one way or another. We all have our chains that keep us from being totally free, totally open to God’s gifts for us. Our human journey with God is precisely a path of freedom from that bondage, a path to freedom to be fully human as God intended for us.

God invites us to take that journey and does everything possible to encourage us to make that journey, including sending a Moses to us when we need one to help guide our way.

The path to wholeness and freedom can be difficult. (“Why is this so hard,” I sometimes lament to God.) And, like the Israelites, there are times when we are tempted to turn back, to look back and think maybe the bondage wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe freedom isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Maybe we should just chuck the whole thing and go back to the way things were. But God is there for us in those moments too, helping grow our faith, our trust.

At some point, difficult as the journey is, we realize there is no other path for us than the one we are on, the path toward freedom and fullness of our humanity. That path toward oneness with God.

In the words of one of the intercessions during this period of reading from Exodus, “We are your people, destined for the heavenly Jerusalem, give us strength to go on when we grow weary of the journey.