Why Santiago de Compostela?


As a marketer, it’s often my responsibility to help clients refine their core message into a short, simple statement that can be easily tucked into a casual conversation. We call it the “elevator pitch”. The basic idea is that the client should be able to approach a target consumer and give them a compelling reason to buy/participate/etc. in about 30 seconds – about the time it would take to ride an elevator for a couple of floors. I haven’t figured out my elevator pitch yet, and it’s making me nervous.

Why have I felt this pull to go to Santiago de Compostela for so long? What’s at the core of this compulsion? And why, after so many years, does it finally feel like NOW is the imperative?

The first time I ran across mention of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was sometime in grade school, when I read “The Ramsay Scallop” by Frances Temple. I loved the book, a fictional tale of a teenage girl who travels to Santiago de Compostela from England with her husband-to-be. It was a great read, so much so that I ended up checking it out of my small town’s public library multiple times over the next few years. Still, neither Santiago nor pilgrimage caught my long term interest, and eventually the book was forgotten.

Years later, during my undergraduate studies at Tulane University, I was researching sacred geometry in medieval architecture for a paper, when I ran across mention of absolution from sin in connection with the built environment, particularly the passage through a specially-built door called the porta santa, or “holy door”. As a non-Catholic, I’d never heard of plenary indulgence before, and was intrigued at the concept. Eventually I ran across an article about the holy door at The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which, like others of its kind, is opened only during Jubilee Years. All who walk through it are wiped clean of sin, if you believe in that kind of thing. Further research informed me that a similar grace is bestowed upon pilgrims who complete at least the last 100 kilometers of the road (or “Camino”) to Santiago de Compostela.

So there you have it. I can trace the beginning of my obsession with this journey to a table in the Howard Tilton Memorial Library, in the Spring of 2001. The sun streamed over a 20 year old girl as she pored over late 19th century manuscripts and dreamed of taking to the road in search of forgotten architectural treasures. But even as that particular dream died, the need to walk The Way of St. James has never diminished. Now I find that it’s stronger than ever. But that’s probably Ikuko’s fault.

I met Ikuko in the Summer of 2012, in Assisi, Italy. My day trip from Perugia to Assisi was scheduled almost on a whim. I had five days in Italy before sailing over to Croatia for a week-long holiday with friends, and when booking travel I’d decided it would be fun to fit in a holy site or two. I’ve always loved to visit places with miraculous pasts, and particularly love holy relics and saints’ tombs. It sounds frivolous as a person of modern times to admit something like this, almost like I’m equating religious sites with roadside attractions from Route 66. But if you consider medieval tourism, that’s kind of how it’s always been. The pomp and circumstance, fancy hats and incense, gawking tourists oohing and ahhing over bejeweled skeletons of little-known martyrs, peddlers hawking religious medals and mystic trinkets, it’s all the same, really.

My day in Assisi was full of wonder, and deserving of its own blog post. Suffice it to say that I walked into town with an interest in St. Francis, and walked out with a deep affinity for the 13th century mendicant that many believe saved the Catholic church with his radical insistence on living a simple life in the footsteps of Jesus. Towards the end of my day in the town, I discovered that my credit cards had been cut off. Of course I had conveniently given away all of my cash to various donation boxes throughout the Basilica of San Francesco. After a futile hour of trying to reach the credit card company via phone, I was full of worry and not just a little annoyance.

While pouting at the bus stop, waiting for my (thankfully prepaid) journey back to Perugia, a kind voice beside me remarked politely on the weather. I looked over to find a sweet-faced, older Japanese lady. Brushing aside the bad mood, I found myself drawn into a delightful conversation with Ikuko, a tourist from San Francisco. We talked until the bus arrived, then shared a seat and chatted all the way back to Perugia. During the conversation, I learned of Ikuko’s conversion to Catholicism (after a life of agnosticism) following an epiphany. We spoke of her work in a soup kitchen, ideas of universal truth, and favorite spots in Italy. She advised me on how to order an American coffee (“Ask for a Cafe Longo.” she said) and why I should never order a cappuccino at night (“Milk is for morning drinks here.”) Somewhere in there, I decided that she must be an angel. Towards the end of the bus trip, I brought up pilgrimage, a thought never that far from my mind. We talked of Santiago de Compostela, and she quoted a poem from memory (To the Pilgrim). By the time we parted at the bus station in Perugia, I’d decided to start planning once again for my trip to Santiago de Compostela.

But that’s obviously not the end of things, because here we are, almost two years out from that trip, and I’m not carrying a scallop shell yet. So why now, of all times?

Well, for starters, life isn’t all peaches and cream. My 7-year relationship with my boyfriend has been a major struggle for the past year (it’s getting better, though). After years of hard work and way too many college degrees, I’m making less money than I made while working my way through my undergraduate studies. All I wanted was to be a medievalist, and I gave up that dream because I’d never make enough money. Now I’m 100k in debt, and regretting not just following my dreams into academia to begin with. All of my friends are married, have children, have stable jobs, live in decently-sized houses, and generally enjoy a level of comfort I’m beginning to believe I’ll never possess. It wouldn’t be great form to feel jealous, but I suppose it would be allowed. However, upon examination, I’m surprised to find that I’m not jealous – just sad. Sad because these things aren’t really on my inner to-do list, not now, at least. I’m looking for something different; I just don’t know what that thing might be. Maybe I feel like it’s time to go to Santiago because I’m finally hitting the bottom. I’m really lost, and I need to find myself on The Way.

Edit 11/21/14: The boyfriend and I broke up about 9 months ago, and life seemed to get a lot better pretty quickly. It turns out that I was definitely looking for something different. I learned that The Way is inside of me. I’m still planning my trip to Santiago de Compostela – indeed, the pilgrimage seems more important than ever before – but I’m not at the bottom anymore. Instead, I’m excited to note that I’m feeling more at peace with myself than I’ve felt in years.

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