Acey Teasdale, New South Wales Regional Meeting

In the 1950s my budding-atheist brother, incongruously, adored a particular song. It went:

Oh the place where I worship is the wide open spaces
Built by the hand of the Lord.

Both of us grew up on the expansive Wimmera plains of Western Victoria. An unencumbered horizon can nourish an expectation that anything is possible, any experience can be out there. Nothing is obliterated by stuff standing in the way.

Including the experience of the Holy.

And the unknown beyond that horizon beckons with excitement, and there is always a dirt road out there to entice.

So, in 1995, when I took myself off to a day-long seminar on the Camino de Santiago, when the first speaker opened his mouth I knew I had found my element for pursuing the Holy.

Camino means “path” or “way” in Spanish. It can be a walking track, but it is also the term used in Jesus’ statement: “I am the way and the truth and the life”.

The Camino de Santiago is one of the three great Christian pilgrimages of the middle Ages: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Santiago de Compostela which is in the middle of Galicia, Spain’s far north-west province.

The long road ahead

Jerusalem and Rome make sense, but why the far corner of Spain?

Well, according to one source it might simply be because of a patch of bad handwriting in an ancient manuscript about the lives of the apostles! Pilgrims on the Camino are journeying to what was believed to be the site of the tomb of the Apostle, St James. But other ancient texts report that James was buried in North Africa.

Some have suggested that, in sloppy Latin handwriting, the line “St James preached in Rome” can look like “St James preached in Spain”, and one can picture a careful, copying monk muttering to himself: “Fancy! I never knew he went to Spain!” and carefully inscribing the divergent destination, thus creating a legend.

Soon the idea grew accretions. It had always been agreed that St James was executed in Rome by beheading. It now emerged that his friends decided that he would probably like to be interred where his missionary work had been. So they loaded his head and trunk on a miraculous stone boat and transported his body around the Mediterranean and up the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the estuary of the River Ulla to be moored at the town now known as Padron. All in 24 hours!

A bridegroom riding to his wedding observed the progress of the stone boat and was so astonished he lost control of his horse which reared and threw him into the surf. When he emerged he was covered in scallop shells. This account is the most common of several explanations of why the scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino.

Eventually they buried St James with his two devoted followers where it was thought he had preached and where the city bearing his name now stands. The exact location slipped out of consciousness.

In the year 815 a hermit called Pelayo, as a result of a vision, and guided by a star, led his bishop a spot in a place called Libredon, where he believed the saint was buried. On digging they discovered three skeletons and the bishop pronounced them to be those of St James and his two followers.

Well, they did happen to be digging in a cemetery.

The bones of St James now repose in Santiago de Compostela ( the former “Libredon”) in a silver ossuary in the crypt of the Cathedral. The word “compostela” may refer to the concept of decomposition, it is from the same root as “compost”, but it could also mean “field of the star”.

And consequently hundreds of thousands, some report millions, of pilgrims began to make the journey to venerate the bones of St James. Why?

I like to think that most of them walked to commune with the best of themselves and with the best in the people they encountered, and consequently to experience their connection to the Holy. But there were a plethora of reasons for “doing” the Camino.

You could be sentenced to do the Camino. In early times justice was often a prerogative of the church, and miscreants could be sentenced to walk the Camino. You might be reformed by the experience.  At least it got rid of you for about a year.  Recently this concept has been revisited with selected young offenders. There are moving accounts written by some of them. But the project was abandoned. Some of the youths could be too much of a handful.

Many people walked to expiate a sin, and I was once asked on the Camino what sin I was walking off (mind your own business!). Absolution was achieved at Santiago. Approaching the finish, at Villafranca del Bierzo, the frail who weren’t going to make it to Santiago could achieve this absolution.

Henry II of England, it is said, considered making the pilgrimage to expiate his unintended contribution to the murder of Thomas a Becket. Instead he built a pilgrim hospital. Its site is still called Hospital Inglis, though no traces of the buildings remain.

And such is the way of the world that there came a time when one could employ someone to carry your sins to Santiago for you.

Meeting a returning pilgrim

Great honour and kudos accrued from completing the Camino. Your “Compostela” certificate in some countries entitled you to a stipend for life. You could adorn your escutcheon and your tombstone with a scallop shell.

The Camino could also be a political statement, especially as it consolidates all of Christian Europe (as it does now). It was the era of the crusades and of Moorish expansion. St James’ iconography is not limited to his image as a humble pilgrim, he is also presented as Matamorus (the Moor slayer) on horseback slashing off the heads of Moors. In the wake of the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the mighty Matamorus statue in the Santiago cathedral suddenly sprouted adornments of flowers, quite obscuring the rolling Moor’s heads at the feet of St James’ horse.

Powerful Christian rulers travelled the Camino in state. For instance the Holy Roman Emperor, father-in-law of England’s Empress Maude, progressed to Santiago and was presented with the saint’s left hand. Thus that little piece of skeleton was initiated into an astonishing career of its own.

Knights Templar patrolled the Camino, living to the letter their raison d’être: to keep the pilgrim routes open and safe. They left their enigmatic temples on the Way for us to wonder at.

But there were rogues and thieves and malevolent opportunists too, and such a surfeit of ladies of the night in the woods near Palas de Rei that the church hierarchy corresponded angrily with one another about whether it was sufficient just to cut off their noses.  Perhaps they should excommunicate them as well.

I am informed that a dubious pilgrim has long been a stock character in Spanish literature, soaking up kudos and freebies in a community, but somehow never seeming to move on…..

In the 21st Century people are still on the Camino for a plethora of reasons.  When I first walked in 1997, 25,000 pilgrims received a Compostela certificate for completing the pilgrimage. The restored Camino was only a few decades old.

The Renaissance and The Age of Discovery changed religious expression and pilgrimage lost its relevance and relics lost their allure. The Camino disappeared. By the 20th Century the very routes were no longer known. In the second half of the 20th Century, a Spanish Catholic priest devoted his life to reconstructing the routes. Immediately a few tough stalwarts emerged. The 20th Century, it seemed, was beginning to resonate to the spirit of pigrimage with a gusto to rival the middle ages.

For the first of these new, latter day, pilgrims there was minimal accommodation and few services.  By my time the original stalwarts, if you ever met them, were scathing about we softies in cosy “parochial” and “municipal” refugios, they had slept in barns and haystacks!

Even I have slept on the stage of one picture theatre and the foyer of another, on the turf under the stars in the ruins of a convent, and and in a wedding marquee pitched in the paddock of an outback petrol station next to the petrol station’s bull ring and enclosure of fighting bulls.

Softy or not, the “Municipals” and “Parochials” had firm criteria defining a genuine pilgrim.You didn’t get a bed unless you had walked all the Way there. Bicycle or horse pilgrims were legit, but they only got a bed if all the foot pilgrims had been accommodated. You didn’t get a bed unless you carried your own pack. All the way.  And if you broke these rules, or took liberties with the route or had a support vehicle, you not only didn’t get a bed, you didn’t get a Compostela certificate at the end either. There was a row of grim priests at the Camino office in Santiago to inspect your pilgrim passport to make sure its stamps revealed a complete journey and that you had walked for religious or spiritual reasons.

And you most certainly couldn’t book ahead, first come first served.

The recent explosion of interest in the Camino has changed all that. The tiny, pay-by-donation “Parochial” and “Municipal” refugios, couldn’t cope with the numbers. Private “albergues” sprang up in their hundreds. Some are absolutely amazing, some a little less. But they have in common that they don’t care how you got there. There is a thriving business in taxi bookings, transportation of packs and fun experiences like horse riding up to the top of the steep bits. And the jolly volunteers in Santiago who check out your pilgrim passport are not fussy either. But you no longer get a replica of the 14th Century “Compostela” with your name in Latin. You get a colourful modern certificate.

At first I was outraged.

In 2010, the most recent “Holy Year”, (a year when the feast of St James falls on a Sunday), it was rumoured that the Church and the government of Galicia were aiming to get 500,000 pilgrims to Santiago all having walked a minimum of 100 Kilometres. They got 272,135.

That last 100 K of the Camino was a misery.

Some people saw it as the world’s longest pub crawl, many knew nothing at all about the Camino (“who’s this St James bloke?”) Some likened it to a Guinness book of records event (“Look at me! I can do 45 K every day!”).The traditional yellow arrows pointing out the route were unnecessary, One just followed the litter. Stalwart Camino recidivists declared they’d never walk again. In 2016, not a Holy Year, just under 278,000 pilgrims received a Compostela.

Holy Year 2010 totally poked fun of my “Holier than thou” pretensions. It reminded me that the the Camino is complex and it’s certainly not about being judgmental about what we imagine is going on in other people’s heads.

Aboriginal, spiritual elders have ruminated on the great, ancient, spiritual pathways of other world parts of the world., e.g. the lay lines of Britain, and have pondered whether they resonate or connect with the song lines of aboriginal tradition. There are many differences, but also similarities. I’m inclined to support the idea that the Camino is so connected.

Like the aboriginal sacred places in which I have experienced a positive sense of wellbeing, the whole Camino feels “blessed” to me, with one or two occasional places that I don’t want to hang about in at all.

Chapel of Santa Maria de Eunate

And I believe there are particular sacred sites with a higher intensity than even the Way. Speaking personally, the tiny, octagonal, chapel of Santa Maria de Eunate, resting in its wheat field, a couple of kilometres off the beaten track, is the holiest place on the Camino for me. I have been known to sit in there for an hour, thinking five minutes had gone by.  It was built by the Knights Templar and no one understands its arcane architecture and ornamentation. I feel similarly about the even tinier, garage-sized, 12th Century Ermita del Soccoro at Poblacion de Campos; with it’s ancient tombs and enigmatic pictures of the Green Man, it similarly strikes me with wellbeing. And then there is Samos, and Hospital de la Condesa and more and more.

Enigmatically, the Camino is noted for its spooky coincidences.

Some are quite simple.

My daughter arrived in the huge city of Burgos clearly at the wrong venue for her planned rendezvous with her sister. Phoning the convent for information and not having Spanish, she was handed over to speak to a by-standing “English lady”. The “English lady” turned out to be her sister.

Others can be mind-boggling.

I was on the Camino when my brother was being treated for liver cancer. His treatment involved a catheter. Should the catheter detach there was a dangerous risk of lethal infection, and he must be rushed to hospital.  Consequently an alarm was attached to the catheter. One day in Spain, my mobile jiggled in my my bum-bag, turned itself on, and phoned the last number I had rung, which was my sister-in-law’s phone in Australia. Grumpily she answered this call from me in the middle of the night only to hear footsteps and me chatting to my friend. Then she suddenly noticed that John’s alarm had gone off but hadn’t been loud enough to wake her! I didn’t even know my phone was saving his life!

Or they can be just nutty.

My friends and I were tramping along on the Camino talking about wild life, I remarked that I’d never seen a snake in Spain. Immediately a little one wriggled across the path right in front of me.

The Camino sets up situations. Special people fall into step beside you on the Camino and thinking about them changes you. Some who impacted me:

  • The elderly German gentleman lovingly leading his blind wife across the Camino by the hand. They would picnic with a starched table cloth on the grass, greeting their fellow pilgrims as they passed by.
  • Pierre, a 21 year old French youth on his fourth Camino. He’d started his first as a thief, shop-lifting his way across Spain. Blundering into a Cacabelos church, he’d felt a positive force reaching for him and he scurried out. At the next supermarket he got arrested and humiliated while shoplifting his dinner. Jolted, he has now turned himself into a reflective Camino devotee with complex opinions about the Way.
  • The young, Buddhist South Korean, just out of the army, who enlisted as it was the only place you could learn how to defuse land mines. At the age of 14 he had seen a documentary on the toll of land mines in the the demilitarised zone, and he felt he had to do something. Having served three years defusing mines he was now on the Camino to decide what to do next. He blushed when I asked about his options. My hunch? he was going to become a monk.
  • Maurice, the Englishman, who, like the mediaeval saint San Roc, got adopted by a dog (“Hi Maurice! how’s your dog?” “He’s not my dog! He’s just following me!”). Maurice’s grandfather had been Muslim, and Maurice, in a crochet white skull cap and whiskers was walking the Camino to decide whether to rethink his life and follow his grandfather’s faith. One learned a lot about human nature by reactions to him. I don’t know what decision he made. But he’s still got the dog.

I invite you to check out whether the Camino impacts you in the way it did me, or totally differently. But be assured it will lead you to exactly the right learning for you.


Buen Camino!

End of the journey – Acey hugs the saint in the cathedral at Santiago


[1]Camino Salutation: Old Latin for ‘Beyond’.






Share This