The Crosses of the Camino

The crosses of sore heels, heat, a heavy backpack, full albergues, and not enough water were all forgotten the moment we arrived at the magnificent cathedral. There, in the dawn light, I knelt in thanksgiving on the stones in front of the Cathedral’s square and gave thanks to Christ and St. James for bringing me safely to my destination.

In July just past, Tim Drake, a former journalist with the National Catholic Register, undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela along the Camino Francés. At least enough of the Camino to earn himself a “compostela”, a certificate attesting that he had performed the pilgrimage.

He was of course no slacker, but only had two weeks of leave, whereas completing the whole of the 500 mile Camino Francés would have taken around 33 days. Commendably resisting the obvious temptations of Moratinos (so often and so amply described in these pages) in the adjacent province of Palencia , he commenced his peregrination from the town of Astorga in León province, only about one and a half hours’ drive from the former-named famed trading post.

After checking out the “new” 15th century Cathedral and late 19th century Gaudi-designed bishop’s palace (now a museum of religious art), Mr Drake took his first steps on the way towards Compostela, 175 miles away, in the height of the Spanish summer. He arrived in Compostela on the eve of St James’ feast day, a public holiday in the Galician region of Spain.

He refers often to crosses in this memoir of his walk only a month ago, crosses of both the physical and spiritual kinds. And there’s many an observation he makes following his prayers and meditations along the long route. A very profitable and good read, just the sort of thing for a Sunday, I think, like in the old days, instead of just reading stuff on the Internet!

From Catholic Pulse on 19 August 2014, by Tim Drake.


When a friend invited me to join him for a two-week pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) in Spain this summer, I expected that there would be trials. What I didn’t expect was how grueling the pilgrimage would be. Nor did I expect the many consolations God provided along the way.  These experiences led me to realize that the only thing you can expect along the Camino is the unexpected.

We began on the afternoon of July 13, after a tour of Astorga’s cathedral and the Episcopal Palace begun by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. We said a prayer to St. James and started walking.

Our first discovery was the yellow arrows painted on the cobblestone streets to guide pilgrims. We had walked over these arrows at least three times the previous day and evening without noticing them. As we approached the 3 p.m. hour, I suggested that we pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet together. It was during that prayer that I noticed my first cross of the Camino.

Every so often, along the gravel path we walked in the afternoon sun, we would see an electrical pole. The poles were not designed like those with horizontal supports that I was familiar with in the U.S. Rather, the Spanish poles had upturned supports that angled heavenward. Not only did they provide a focal point for me during our afternoon prayer, but they also were the first of what would become many crosses, both real and figurative, that we would encounter on the Camino.

The evening of our first day of walking ended with the temporal cross of a hot, stuffy room, an upper bunk bed, a roomful of loud pilgrims, and a sleepless night. At approximately 3 a.m. the next morning, I went into a back courtyard at the albergue and prayed the Rosary under the nighttime moon and stars. I was also treated to the consolation of watching a handful of kittens playing and jumping on a pilgrim’s clothes that had been left out to dry. I named them the clothes-shredding cats of Santa Catalina.

As we continued on the camino, we encountered crosses of all types atop old stone churches and graves, as well as atop the elaborate granaries that dot the countryside. We also passed handmade crosses obviously crafted by pilgrims. There were crosses created of stones, and others made of sticks that were inserted into fences. We also passed by several crosses that memorialized those who had died along the Camino, a reminder of the final destination each one of us must face.

Our third day involved our most difficult cross, both physically and interiorly. That morning we climbed to 1,500 meters and spent some prayerful time laying a rock at La Cruz de Ferro (The Iron Cross), where pilgrims symbolically place a stone brought from home upon a pile of similar stones around a cross. The act represents the offering of one’s burdens or sin — or, as a Dutch pilgrim told me, “the things we’re not proud of.” I took time setting down a rock for myself, my wife, and each of my five children. After praying at the Iron Cross, we then spent the next seven hours descending the most difficult terrain of our Camino in 93-degree heat. It was a brutal cross indeed.

We ended that day with the additional cross of extremely sore feet and full albergues, which forced us to walk all the way through town to find the last two beds available — in a hot outdoor shed with no air circulation. While there, a fellow pilgrim told us that there was an English-speaking priest with a group from FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) in the area, and that he would be celebrating Mass that evening back on the other side of town. As I stood in the shower that evening wishing my feet would stop throbbing, I prayed, “I will only walk back through town for you, Jesus. Only for you.”

En route to the Mass, we had time to stop at a little riverside channel where pilgrims could soak their feet in the cold, soothing waters of the stream — a welcome relief. After reaching the Church, however, the priest informed us that there were no hosts, no wine, and no chalice, so he wouldn’t be able to celebrate Mass. Instead we would spend time in Eucharistic adoration. The disappointment was evident on his face; I am sure it was plainly expressed on my face as well. I had so longed to receive Jesus.

While we were at adoration, a young woman in the group journeyed back into town to find a fellow pilgrim. While there, she noticed an open gate at another church and was able to arrange for Mass to be said there later that evening. Tired but encouraged, we returned to town for the liturgy.

During his inspired homily, Father Peter Mussett, a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver, spoke on the concept of deprivation. He explained that when we pray, God sees the big picture, and sometimes his answer to our prayer is “not yet.” When a young FOCUS missionary began singing, “Lord, I need. Lord, I need you. Every hour I need you…,” I broke into tears, recognizing that this had been my prayer all afternoon as we descended the difficult 1,500 meters.

The stress and heat of that day led my traveling companion and me to make a difficult decision. We had not been making the progress necessary to reach Santiago by our ending date. So, on our fourth day, we walked to the next largest city and caught a bus to Sarria, just 68 miles from Santiago. Walking that final 100 kilometers from Sarria to Santiago would satisfy the minimum requirement to receive a compostela, the Latin document certifying that we had completed the Camino.

There are many paths to Santiago de Compostela, home of the spectacular Cathedral of Santiago, which contains the relics of the apostle St. James the Greater. The most popular route is the Camino Francés, which begins in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, a distance of 500 miles that takes approximately 33 days to complete. With only two weeks off from work, my traveling companion and I began our journey instead in the medieval city of Astorga. We set out to walk some 175 miles to our destination, staying in hostel-like albergues and inns along the way as Camino pilgrims traditionally do.

Along with the crosses of each day, it also became evident that God was providing consolations — such as the Mass with Father Peter — to inspire us, to motivate us, and to urge us forward. These were small reminders that Jesus and Our Lady were with us along the way. One day, it was a home statue of Mary and Jesus that we happened across during our daily Rosary. Another day, it was an albergue hospitalier who took my clothes out of the dryer and folded them. Other times it was groups of Spaniards who passed us singing American songs.

On another particular long and difficult day, after walking at least 1.5 miles off the trail to find a bed, our consolation was some roast pork — the best meal we had along the Camino — and a private room, which promised a better night’s sleep than we had received in the albergues. Even in what appears to be a wrong turn, God provides.

The Spanish Church

Sadly, the Catholic Church in Spain is in the same state of crisis as elsewhere in Europe. Many of the country churches we passed on the Camino were locked. At one daily Mass, there were fewer than a half-dozen parishioners attending. During Sunday Masses, the Churches weren’t full, and there seemed to be no one present younger than 50. While the churches are beautiful, they’re more like museums than they are places of living, breathing, active faith.

Along the Camino, the vast majority of pilgrims — I’d estimate more than 90 percent — aren’t walking the Way of St. James for religious reasons. Most see it as an enjoyable European backpacking adventure or are doing it for health reasons. Some are doing it in memory of loved ones.

Gaelle, a young adult woman from France, walked with me one morning. She was typical of the pilgrims I spoke with along the way, including the young Spaniards who had sung to us. She described the reason she was walking the Camino as “a problem of love.” When I asked her if she had faith, she shrugged and said, “Not really.”

She admitted that she had been baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, yet she had next to no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Her parents did not practice the faith, although her grandparents had. I used the opportunity to talk to her about my own love for Christ. I asked her, “Do you know why Jesus came?” She couldn’t answer the question.

So, for the next hour, starting with the basics, I did my best to share with her who Jesus was, why he came, and what he did for her. We used a mixture of English, French, and Franglais to speak with one another. In the end, I gave her a Miraculous Medal. She said that she always liked Mary. I told her that Mary always leads people to her son, Jesus. Before we parted ways, she told me, “When you spoke about Jesus suffering and dying on the Cross, I got goose bumps.”

As I walked away, I was filled with sadness that someone who had been confirmed could know so very little about her faith and so little about Christ. She was like a spiritual infant. I prayed that the pilgrimage might have some influence on her faith life.

Pointing the Way

All along the route, we encountered the same yellow arrows that we had originally overlooked in Astorga. I found it interesting that it was only when we started looking for the arrows that we actually began to see them. Faith, too, is like that. The idea for the arrows came from Father Elias Valina Sampedro, a parish priest from the Spanish town of O Cebreiro. He and his nephews began painting the arrows in 1982 as a way to help pilgrims find their way. Today, they are ubiquitous. You find the arrows on streets, on buildings, on trees, on boulders, on sidewalks and fences, and even on homes.

The yellow arrows, I am convinced, were an inspired idea. Not only do they point the way to Santiago, but they, too, are shaped like a cross, not much different than the first cross I had encountered with the horizontal bars angled and pointing.  Each and every cross in our lives points the way. Each, you might say, points to the Cross of Christ and to our ultimate home. None of us can escape the Cross. That’s why Jesus asks us to embrace our cross and follow him. He, like Simon of Cyrene, grasps it with us and helps to lighten the load.

If, as many suggest, the Camino — with all of its ups and downs, its desolation and consolation — is an analogy for life, then to arrive at Santiago is a small foretaste of heaven, our ultimate destination.

The crosses of sore heels, heat, a heavy backpack, full albergues, and not enough water were all forgotten the moment we arrived at the magnificent cathedral. There, in the dawn light, I knelt in thanksgiving on the stones in front of the Cathedral’s square and gave thanks to Christ and St. James for bringing me safely to my destination.

We were fortunate to reach the Cathedral of Santiago on the vigil of the Feast of St. James. There we were privileged to meet Christ, partake in the Holy Mass, and were reunited with many of the same pilgrims whom we had met along the way — just like in heaven.

About GC

Poor sinner.
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15 Responses to The Crosses of the Camino

  1. kathleen says:

    Thank you for informing us of this lovely post GC!
    It brought back so many nostalgic memories of my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in May 2004, when one of my sisters and I (together with a Danish hiking friend) also left from Astorga to tread the 250+ kms. to Santiago. I concur with so many of Tim Drake’s experiences, except I remember there were many more pilgrims at the daily Masses my sister and I managed to get to. Also we had snow underfoot when at the Cruz de Ferro, and it only got hot during the last two or three days. (Well, it was early in May after all – not mid summer!)

    Thoughts and prayers go out for JabbaPapa, who is making the pilgrimage once again all the way from Lourdes!!


  2. GC says:

    Now why was I thinking you hadn’t done the Camino yet, kathleen? I thought that you had written here somewhere that you were hoping to try some time in the future.

    Mr Drake’s 1500 metres up to the Cruz de Ferro on a baking Spanish summer’s day on aching feet did seem to be very penitential to say the least.

    Well, kathleen, if you’ve still got your journal notes and photos for 2004 you might be able to put up your own memoirs of the Camino.

    I expect Jabba will certainly be bunking in Moratinos eventually? God bless him. I hope he likes dogs.


  3. toadspittle says:

    To paraphrase Carlyle, (he won’t mind, he’s dead!) “By God, he’d better!”

    Pretty accurate piece, I’d say.
    He’s right that hardly any contemporary “pilgrims” have a clue about religion. We do keep our church open for them, anyway, during the season.
    The Camino is becoming an out-of-control monster. What’s to be done about it? I have no idea.
    Maybe Jabba will.


  4. kathleen says:

    GC, I think I might have mentioned once that I hoped to one day walk the whole of the Camino Francés, from the St. Jean Pied de Port / Roncevalles border, having only completed (roughly) the last third of the route, no more. Some day – hopefully. 🙂
    Yes, I wrote in a diary about our experiences, and took photos too (not digital ones then) so I might well write up about it one day. Pilgrimage is, as Tim Drake says, “an analogy of life”.

    Lovely quote here from the Book of Lismore:
    “Going on pilgrimage without change of heart brings no reward from God. For it is by practicing virtue and not mere motion of the feet that we will be brought to Heaven.”

    P.S. Can’t wait to hear about the meeting between Toad and Jabba. Wish I could be a ‘fly on the wall’ for a day when these two characters get together!


  5. GC says:

    kathleen, a quote too from what Pope Benedict said in Compostela in 2010 about pilgrimages:

    To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendour and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe. Above all, Christians go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to the places associated with the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. They go to Rome, the city of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, and also to Compostela, which, associated with the memory of Saint James, has welcomed pilgrims from throughout the world who desire to strengthen their spirit with the Apostle’s witness of faith and love.

    Yes, I can quite see what Mr Drake means. Undergoing days and days of discomfort and pain, in prayer and contemplation, sighing while hoping to arrive after it all at a place of deep spiritual meaning and satisfaction is indeed like an analogy of life for the Christian.

    Make that two flies on the wall, kathleen 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. GC says:

    The Camino is becoming an out-of-control monster. What’s to be done about it? I have no idea.

    Do tell us more, dear Toad.


  7. toadspittle says:

    Well, your piece tells some of it, GC. And this will tell a bit more.

    In brief, The Camino is – like Venice, or Florence or New Orleans – the victim of its own success. It’s getting overwhelmed with the wrong sort of person.
    Sounds snobbish? Well possibly, sort of.
    Though there is still the old-fashioned pleasure of visits by passing gay Anglican vicars in shorts, and perspiring Pius X seminarians sweating in soutanes, as opposed to the fat, young German Mercedes executives looking for hot Brazilian babes, in the lumpen footsteps of Kerlkeling (cs) If you get my drift.
    Yogi Berra summed up the kind of situation succinctly: “Nobody goes there any more – it’s too crowded.”


  8. johnhenrycn says:

    A very interesting article, Toad, and thank you for linking it. The author’s comment about being able to buy Way of St James condoms and other branded products along the route epitomizes what happens when the great unwashed in their birkenstocks latch onto a great idea. But, as he also points out when speaking about finally reaching the cathedral:

    “People who have undergone a similar experience call it the pilgrim’s death. It comes at the end of the trip and the recognition that the journey was far more important than the person initially thought it would be.”

    It reminds me of an old Japanese aphorism: “The journey is the destination.”


  9. toadspittle says:

    I should have been more positive.
    Because I do believe even the trash-scattering, boom-box playing, condom purchasing yahoos and yahooettes, who are rapidly growing in number, might very occasionally get a positive mental result from a long walk of any description, ( Viz: Manny Kant) or even a quick peek into a 14th Cent. Romanesque church.
    Might, I say – if they would just stop to look, listen (often to no more than the silence) and think.
    The Camino still has the power to move people, despite all the attendant triviality.

    (Pompous old twit, Toad.)


  10. GC says:

    My goodness, Toad, sounds like facebook and twitter have taken over, just as they have most everything else.

    I fear getting more Asians or Africans on the Way may not be a solution. We’re even more digitally disposed than you lot. Though we’re still fundamentally “spritchell” all the way down, even despite being severely gadgetphiliac, thoroughly materialistic and utterly status-conscious.

    How many “likes” has the Peaceable Kingdom earned, anyway? Do McDonalds deliver there?

    Good to see Jabba making progress towards St James and Moratinos. Is that Bill Bennett Canadian, do you think?


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    “Bill Bennett” :

    Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in decades; but yes, there is a semi-famous Canuck by that name. A former premier of British Columbia, son of another former premier of BC, one W.A.C. (“Wacky”) Bennett, both being ex-leaders of the Social Credit Party, which was one of the wackiest political parties ever. Nominally conservative, but quite weird. Somehow, in my early teens, I was added to the SoCred mailing list and got a political comic book from them a few times each year, featuring a capitalist free market Muslim.

    Where did you see his name, GC?


  12. GC says:

    JH, he’s the fellow who owns the blog that Toad linked yesterday and to which Jabba is contributing while on the Camino.

    He’s a Sydney “film-maker”, I’ve since discovered.


  13. toadspittle says:

    Africans practically none,* GC – but an extraordinary number of Koreans (South, of course) and the occasional Japanese. All very good pilgrims, polite; tidy, resilient, tough – they often make the walk in mid-Winter – and often without a word of either Spanish or English.
    No Big Mac, pizza or Dial-a-Wok delivery at The Peaceable.
    But we do have a bread man each day. Who honks his horn.

    * except a few white ones, from S.A.


  14. Frere Rabit says:

    Indeed the Camino was a far holier and quieter place when still unmarked with yellow arrows, when it was just the preserve of blue-shirted youth happily singing “Cara al Sol” and carrying their own tents for the glory of the Patria and the Apostol. Forgive rabit’s nostalgia for the swinging sixties.


  15. GC says:

    Frere Rabit, it looks like growth in the number of pilgrims became quite remarkable just around the time the yellow arrows were painted in the 1980s, according to the Compostela archdiocese. A coincidence, no doubt.


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