To undertake a pilgrimage requires mobility, and mine is very limited. My friends have done all or part of the Camino de Santiago over the years; instead, I have taken the plane to Santiago. I am not ashamed, however. The renowned shell that guaranteed pilgrims from the past could collect water from the rivers in order to quench their thirst, and which is sold to the delight of tourists in all the little stores of the city, hangs on one of the walls in my studio. This is a recollection of what I too experienced when I arrived in that square and entered that majestic cathedral that dominates the heart of the city. If it is true that a pilgrimage requires legs and sweat, it is also true, however, that jogging is unnecessary, and pilgrims are not runners.
All religions have made pilgrimage a cornerstone of faith practice. The singular history of Christian pilgrimages, however, shows us that the motivations that drive entire masses of men and women to set out on their journeys are always different, let alone uniquely religious. A pilgrimage is a complex phenomenon as are all phenomena that belong to the religious sociology; nonetheless, it remains a religious phenomenon. In addition, a pilgrimage requires a religious goal, whether it be destined to a city like Jerusalem or Mecca, or a shrine. A pilgrimage is not solely moving to move, but a going to a specific place that is recognized as having an attraction and at the same time propulsive force, around which there is a mystical halo, a moral credit that has increased over time.
That is why going to Santiago was a pilgrimage for me too. The emotion one feels when standing in front of the imposing basilica that the centuries have made a place of reference for generations of men and women in search of their God. The emotion one experiences standing in line to make the gesture that seals the arrival and entry into that holy place, that is, to place our hand on the column that holds the statue of St. James. Then, the emotion one feels from the hollow created in the marble to understand that millions and millions of other pilgrims have made that same gesture before you. The emotion experienced when enjoying the darkness and silence, which only the sound of the organ is able to cleave, and understand that you are not there as a tourist, but as a pilgrim in search of God who always precedes us. The emotion to be enchanted by the reality of the botafumeiro, the giant censer and its sophisticated mechanism and its scented smoke not only to give glory to the Most High, but also ensure that the stench of thousands of pilgrims does not make it impossible to breathe. In addition, to have the clear perception that any pilgrimage is nothing more than an image and a metaphor of the fact that “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Letter to the Hebrews 13:14).
by Marinella Perroni
A Biblical scholar, Pontifical Athenaeum Saint Anselm