I first became aware of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella through Cursillo, a Christian renewal programme. Cursillo borrows many of its words from Spanish, including Ultreya – a word of encouragement to fellow pilgrims on the way. It became a place that took hold in my heart and I have always longed to go. Not least to see the botafumeiro – the largest swinging thurible in the world. (Some kind friend brought me back a pair of silver earrings which are the botafumeiro and are much admired in churchy circles.)
But I have never been. There are many reasons for this. One is that I don’t do walking. And really the best way to pilgrimage to Santiago is by foot along the Camino. I have many friends who have done part or all of the way and their stories have inspired me and made me more than a little envious. I also have friends who have visited Santiago without walking – on tours and by bus. For them it has also been an inspirational place. (Cost has been what has prevented me doing it this way.) And I also know some people who are almost addicted to walking the way – friends who do parts of the journey every year, if not more. What is it that makes them want to go back time and time again? Some tell me it is the people you meet on the way, the fellow pilgrims all with a story to tell about why they are making this pilgrimage. Friendships are made and some of those last.
Last year I read about a film called The Way starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez. Unfortunately it didn’t come to the metropolis that is Falkirk and I have eagerly awaited its release on DVD. Yesterday afternoon I settled down to watch it and what a delight it was. (Not least for watching the changing shades of colour in Martin Sheen’s hair.) Martin Sheen plays the part of an Opthamologist in California whose only son (Emilio Estevez) has given up his studies to go travelling round the world. His father can’t understand this and is angry that he is throwing away his career. Then a phone call comes to tell him that his son has died in an accident in the Pyrannees so he cancels all his appointments for 2 weeks to go and bring his body home.
The gendarme tells him that his son had started to walk the Camino, the route to Santiago. He had only just begun when a freak accident took his life. For some reason he decides that he now will stay and walk the way with his son’s ashes, using his son’s equipment and maps to guide him. His reasons for doing this aren’t clear. Is it anger? Is it to try and understand his son and the way of life he chose? Whatever the reason, he sets out with anger in his heart and little time for ‘pilgrimages of the heart.’ At points along the way he sees his son encouraging him and waving him on, and he stops to leave some of his ashes at different pilgrim places.
Of course, along the way he meets other pilgrims: a jovial Dutchman; an angry Canadian woman; and a crazy Irish writer with writer’s block. He doesn’t want to walk with them. He doesn’t want to share his story or talk about why he is walking the way. He wants to wallow in his own misery. But the Camino has ways of turning things upside down and a transformation takes place.
That’s enough of the story spoiler, but I highly recommend this movie. It would be a good Lent one to do with a group, but suitable for any time really. It is still with me today and has made me all the more desperate to visit Santiago. Another thing for the bucket list.