Sacramento group finds a worthwhile journey in Spanish pilgrimage

05/20/2013 12:00 AM

05/20/2013 11:35 PM

Modern technology may have triggered the desire by a group of Sacramentans to trek across northern Spain, but inspiration has always come in many forms to pilgrims who have walked the Way of St. James.

For 13 centuries, Christians have followed a 500-mile route that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. It is a spirit-infused journey for many who seek out the shrine where the remains of the Apostle James are said to rest.

For Land Park Realtor Sue Olson and her group of fellow travelers, the decision to make the trek a year ago began with the film "The Way," in which actor Martin Sheen portrays a grieving father who undergoes a personal deliverance while retracing his late son's steps on the Camino de Santiago, as the path is known in Spanish.

Today, Olson – this time joined by classmates from St. Francis High School's Class of 1967 – embarks on the path again, uplifted by the potent mix of ritual and foreign travel.

"It is something to experience the history of all those years, all those pilgrims who've walked the same roads you've walked," she said. "But I'm not sure I'm ready to walk those hills again."

The Camino de Santiago has been a popular religious trek since medieval times, attracting millions of individuals over the centuries. Pilgrims can start off at various points (some of the routes begin as far away as Paris), and several trails merge into the final leg that leads into Santiago de Compostela. Last year, Olson and her fellow travelers flew into Madrid, made their way north by bus and joined the Camino de Santiago in the village of Samos – about 90 miles from St. James' shrine.

Six months earlier, most in their party knew little about the medieval pilgrims' route. Several on the trip belonged to a faith-sharing group that met periodically at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Land Park. They watched "The Way" at one of their meetings and the plan to walk a week's worth of it took shape.

There were 10 travelers in all, ranging in age from 13 to 69. They packed lightly for the trek (hats, sunscreen, sturdy shoes, all-weather ponchos and extra socks are advised) and sent most of their luggage with retired Sacramento Spanish professor Paula Rodgers, who doubled as the driver.

Nights were spent at what Rodgers calls "humble" hotels, though not as spartan as the albergues, or pilgrims hostels, more common along the Camino de Santiago.

The route was hilly, and blisters were a problem for some. But each day started off with prayer, and the kilometers were punctuated by frequent stops at cafes along the route for potato omelets, salami sandwiches and other rustic fare.

The first day or two, the younger walkers kept a brisk pace, but then everybody soon hit a more leisurely pace, stopping at various churches and monasteries or simply taking in the spring flowers, cows and other scenery.

"We enjoyed the moment," Olson said.

The longest day: 18 miles – eight of them on the road – and seven cafe stops.

And aside from one iPad among them, the group powered-off for the week.

That took some adjustment.

"Are you kidding me? It actually took me two or three days to not want to touch my phone and find out what was going on at home," said Olson, a stylishly sociable woman. "By the third day, I was fine.

"You got to visit with friends along the way; make new friends. We met a lot of interesting people."

Monsignor James Murphy, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, was in the group. As with the rest of the Sacramento group, this was his first time on the Camino de Santiago. It was a powerful experience, he said, and as much an inner journey as anything.

"(The time) forces you to reflect, to think about the deeper, more fundamental questions," Murphy said. " 'Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of suffering, death?' "

Even for Rodgers, the self-dubbed "hopeful agnostic" of the group, the mix of Romanesque architecture, lushly green countryside and morning mists made for a spiritual experience.

"The commitment, the faith, the history of the Camino is what carries you through," she said.

The Sacramento group trekked under mostly sunny skies all week. In Santiago de Compostela, the heavens let loose by the time they got to the cathedral.

The weather only heightened the experience, Murphy said.

"It was crazy rain. We were drowned rats. We just didn't care," he recalled. "It was a climax, a high."

The 10 made it to the church in time for the daily noon pilgrims Mass and watched at the end as eight men in robes hoisted a massive, pulley-operated incense burner and sent it swinging through the cathedral.

The "Botafumeiro," as the censer is called, figures prominently in the final scenes of "The Way." When he saw the film, Murphy suspected the elaborate spectacle was more Hollywood than authentic ritual. He was pleased to be proved wrong.

Whether the shrine itself houses St. James the Greater's remains – many historians cast doubt – is ultimately of little importance, Murphy believes.

"It's the journey," he said. "It really is."


THE WAY OF ST. JAMES

Here are some tips from the Sacramento group that traveled the Camino de Santiago.

The group prepared for the Camino from the Casa Ana bed-and-breakfast in Sésamo (www.casaana.es). Reasonably priced with three meals included.

After modest lodging along the Way of St. James, the group splurged at the end of the trail. The Parador de Santiago (www.parador.es) was built in 1499 as a royal hospital for pilgrims and is considered a super-luxury hotel.

The Internet is flush with the Way of St. James information. A good starting place is www.caminodesantiago.me.

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