Santiago de Compostela.
I had always wanted to visit Santiago de Compostela; was never sure why, but felt I needed to go there. I was drawn to the place, fascinated by the stories of pilgrims travelling there, journeying overland, even in the Middle Ages, and by the symbolism of the scallop shell.
Santiago de Compostela is a town in the region of Galicia in north western Spain.
A series of legends dating from the Middle Ages tells of the mission of Saint James, James the Greater, son of Zebedee, a fisherman of Galilee, and brother of John the Evangelist, to Spain. He returned from there to Jerusalem, where he was martyred in 44AD. His remains were taken away by boat and came ashore in north west Spain, where they were secretly buried in a wood. Centuries later, around the year 813, a hermit heard heavenly music and saw a bright light shining over the place. The local bishop investigated the incident and the tomb of the apostle was discovered. The place was named Santiago after Saint James, and Compostela meaning Field of the Star. A chapel was built at the place and became one of the great centres of Christian pilgrimage, next in importance to Jerusalem and Rome. By the 11th and 12th century half a million pilgrims a year were making their way to Santiago. The chapel grew to become a large cathedral.
Pilgrimage continued to be popular through the ages and in 2017 301,036 people collected their Compostela, or certificate, for completing the pilgrimage. Many others also made the journey. Caminos are common routes through France and Spain used by many pilgrims, but there are as many ways as there are pilgrims; pilgrimage starts from your own home.
The scallop shell is the badge of the pilgrim to Compostela. They are found in abundance along northern Spanish beaches. The scallop design symbolizes the many European starting points from which medieval pilgrims began their journey, all drawn to a single point at the base of the shell, Santiago de Compostela.
On Saturday 25th October 2014 we made our pilgrimage. It was a beautiful sunny morning when we arrived in the town and began the walk uphill towards the Praza do Obradoira, the square in which the cathedral stands. As we walked I felt excited by the anticipation of knowing that we were, at last, nearly there. But however much excitement and anticipation I was feeling, nothing prepared me for my reaction. As we walked into the square and stood in the sunshine by the west front of the cathedral I was completely overcome; I burst into floods of tears. More emotion was to come. We entered the cathedral, which was packed with worshippers for the midday Mass. We joined the queue of pilgrims moving up a narrow staircase into a small chamber called the camarin, where it was possible to embrace the statue of St. James, which presides over the high altar. Then down a similar staircase, this time into the crypt where the tomb of the apostle lies. I like to think I am a down-to-earth, sensible, Yorkshire lass, not given to touching statues or worshipping icons or any other such mumbo jumbo, so the intense reaction I experienced came as a huge physical and emotional surprise. I followed the pilgrim in front of me and kneeled down in front of the tomb to say a prayer. There in the quiet I was enveloped in the most powerful feeling that this was, indeed, the resting place of someone who had been very close to Jesus. I felt very close to Jesus, physically close to Our Lord, the closest I had ever been, as if I could reach out into that sacred space and share it with someone who had spent time with Him, followed Him, spoken to Him, touched Him. This was not mumbo jumbo, this was real. I was overwhelmed by the sensation and imagined everyone would see that I was different, suffused by the aura of the presence of God. But despite the enormity of my inner response there were no outward signs, so I was able to mingle with the other pilgrims and eventually leave the cathedral. We collected a scallop shell to bring home with us, badge of the pilgrim and souvenir, for me, of a truly sacred space.