I was inspired this morning by the great Apostle -whose feast we celebrate today- Saint James the Greater, to write about the famous trail he walked in order to spread the Gospels. James preached in Judea and Samaria, but the most famous is a trail that millions of pilgrims walk every year know as “The Way of Saint James” (The Camino); a path that I was so honored to tread my own two feet on some years ago. The trail is a total of 500 miles and it starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France and ends in Spain’s Catholic Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where none other than the very tomb and bones of Saint James rests today.
It is indeed the most powerful part of the journey; after walking to the point of exhaustion and soreness (and some of us didn’t even start in France), rising every morning at 6am, sharing a room with thirty bunk beds of pilgrims every night whose snores were both unique and even sounded straight out of a cartoon on some occasions- as a fellow traveler put it- “what is this, Pinocchio?”. Then on top of that, walking ten or more miles a day, putting multiple band-aids on blisters and starting to have a permanent limp to finally seeing the line of pilgrims who all walked this path for their own personal reasons, yet who all shared the same end-goal: resting one’s hands on the tomb of the Apostle of Christ. This is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Sometimes the adventure is the treasure.
In this case I felt I had the best of both worlds, my treasure was the journey, the people I was with, the new faces I met and also the prize of reaching our destination and finding one of the Apostles closest to Our Lord waiting for us! Something that hit me on the trip were those in the world who say they don’t believe in the Son of God, He just doesn’t exist, and yet whether they know it or not- and whether they like it or not- history clearly and simply states that factually, Christ walked this earth and we know His teachings of the Church because of His Twelve Apostles. This all hit me when I laid my hand on the tomb of James; I couldn’t get over it. The three Apostles closest to Our Lord all had distinct roles:
1.) Peter being the foundation of the Catholic Church, with his bones literally being buried beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome as the first ever pope.
2.) John taking Mary, Our Most Blessed Mother into his home and “beholding” Her.
3.) James– walking; spreading Christ’s teachings to the end of the earth.
Ah, what a mission! Can you imagine- if the very day Our Lord brought those three Apostles up to Mount Tabor for His Transfiguration, if He indeed unfolded this plan to them? How they were destined to accomplish and manage a specific “office”, a task after the Resurrection that was specifically entrusted to them alone? As scripture tells us, they did not descend the Mount until the very next day, what could they have been discussing for such a length of time? Remember when I said Our Lord reveals great secrets- a mission- on mountain tops? It is a mystery; we have seen this with Moses, Saint Paul and John the Baptist. They all led an intense life of solitude for some (short or long) amounts of time, scaling the mountain because none other than Christ was forming them, revealing His Divinity but then expecting them to “go back” and complete the task assigned to them. Most if not all of these Prophets and Apostles descended the Mount and then were martyred for the faith. James, Paul and John the Baptist were all beheaded (apparently not uncommon in those days, John even had his head served on a plate) and of course Peter was crucified…upside down.
I want to end with a very fitting story, do you see that blue backpack in that picture above and the yellow Nike bag dangling at the back of it? Well, I did not come prepared. I bought the poor Nike bag back in America and it was just NOT meant to be used for a hiking trip- every other member in my group had high quality backpacks for a very specific reason, with the most important accessory of all: back and waist straps, so one doesn’t have back problems and end up crippled at the end of the long journey. I was only a few days in and I was sure I would have osteoporosis by the time I met Saint James. Most of my friends noticed this and some of them started trading their bags with me so I could see how practical their own gear was while they carried mine to let me have a “break”. Each morning our priest read us a meditation and we were expected to walk the first three hours in total silence pondering the meditation, I had one dilemma one particular morning… one day one of my fellow travelers said he couldn’t take it anymore, as soon as a good backpack store comes along we are getting me the right bag.
I could not argue with that, the part of the trail we were on had some pretty high end sport shops, I would wait until the morning to start searching; I too was determined. Of course I forgot that we were NOT supposed to break the morning silence, as we all started our way back on the trail again. Of course -of all times- I immediately saw a window full of backpacks, but how could I tell the group to stop? I didn’t want to intrude on their solitary time, but what if this is the last backpack store for miles? The window started to fade from view, ah! But if I do not tell anyone that I stopped I will lose “the herd” (the group). Not being able to make a quick decision I decided to keep on walking; it just wasn’t God’s will I managed to conclude. But then I heard a loud voice scream my name from the back of our group followed by:
HEEEEEEEEY, HEY LOOK. BACK PACKS, WAIT STOP- EVERYBODY!
Was echoed throughout the town’s square and multiple pilgrims we didn’t even know were forced to turn around and see who the loud man was who seemed obsessed with backpacks. It was that same friend from the group who said “as soon as a good backpack store comes along…” (well, you know the rest). I definitely had a chuckle at my friend’s enthusiasm and persistence; I was never more grateful for him and how he had no problem breaking the silence and coming to my rescue! I also remember in that moment feeling so taken care of by God the Father, the “power of silence” and not breaking it showed me how He heard my silent prayer and knew my back wouldn’t be able to take anymore miles with what I had- He provided! Our Lady had the perfect bag saved for me (and it was Her color- blue). I went from having the worst bag to the best, Our Lord spoiled me. My priest immediately stopped and told me he had no idea of my pain and he himself, along with that friend walked me into the store and was even able to talk down the price to the seller (advantages of knowing a priest) and I ended up having just enough to purchase the bag- a bag that I carried with me for years to come and followed me in my entrance to Carmel. This bag was on my back yet again when I departed that religious order to pursue Carmel in a new way, I hope to bring it with me to the “mountain of prayer”. I like to associate this bag with Saint James and how all these years later, the Apostles still seem to be some of my greatest of friends.
The trip not only ended with Saint James, but it began with Our Lady of Fatima! One of my closest friends and I made our way over to Portugal soon-after and stayed in Fatima: the very place where my own heart lays with the Woman I love more than life: the One John was asked to “behold”:
Sancti Jacobi, ora pro nobis!