Monday, July 29, 2013

Where Pilgrimage Begins: With a Place -- or a Person?

The question always comes: Where did you begin the pilgrimage? There are lots of answers, none of them easy.

Mostly, people want a place, something they can locate on a map. This most recent pilgrimage began in Oviedo, the seat of Alfonso the Chaste's (d. 842) ninth century kingdom of Asturias on the northern coast of Spain. Word came to him that the bones of St. James had been discovered in Galicia, and he resolved to pay homage. His entourage headed west, traversing the ruggedly beautiful Cantabrian Mountains. He carved out the first of the pilgrimage trails to Santiago, the Camino Primitivo. We followed roughly that route, leaving Oviedo on July 6th and arriving in Santiago on July 20th. Where did you begin? One answer: the pilgrimage started in Oviedo. But that's not quite true.

I could also give my street address in Minneapolis, where I locked the door, shouldered my backpack, and hiked to the light rail for a trip to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Stepping across the threshold ended the long period of preparation: breaking in boots and shoes, getting used to carrying weight, packing, re-packing, endless winnowing gear down to the absolute essentials. Turning the key in the lock meant preparation was over; pilgrimage commenced. Where did you begin? Another answer: the pilgrimage started in Minneapolis.

I could also give the name of our pension in Oviedo, Hostal Alvarez, because we spent a few days touring the old city, sampling the local hard ciders at quaint siderias, dining with friends, and seeing the sights. I wasn't geared up then, but decked out in the red dress that said: "I'm a tourist" and the shoes that moved with ease from nice restaurants to hostel showers. When I snapped that dress into its zipper-locked plastic bag and put on my boots, I transformed from tourist to pilgrim. Where did you begin? Another answer: The pilgrimage started at the Hostal Alvarez in Oviedo.

Medieval pilgrims on the Camino Primitivo began here, prostrated in front of this status of Jesus in Oviedo's Church of San Salvador in Oviedo. As other routes to Santiago de Compostela developed across the Iberian Peninsula, continental Europe, even the British Isles and Scandinavia, this statue came to have unique significance. An aphorism captured it all:

The pilgrim who visits Santiago and not El Salvador,
pays homage to the servant -- but not the master.

Pilgrims would often make the difficult detour to Oviedo to prostrate themselves in front of this status in Oviedo. Where did you begin? For these hearty pilgrims, it started with a person.

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