Following Jesus’ Ascension, James and his fellow apostles spread out across the known world to share the gospel. James’ travels took him all the way to Spain, where unfortunately he wasn’t a very effective evangelist. While James is credited with bringing the gospel to Spain, tradition holds that he brought a mere nine people to the Jesus Movement. While preaching to this small group of disciples on the banks of the Ebro River, Mary the mother of Christ appeared to him a top a pillar, urging him not to give up his mission. She assured James that this group would continue his work of spreading the gospel, and that he should build a church at that very spot. Once the church was complete, Mary encouraged James to return to Jerusalem where she would be waiting to greet him.
Unfortunately, as soon as James arrived in back in Jerusalem, he was arrested by King Herod Agrippa and sentenced to death. His body was retrieved by fellow disciples, taken back to Spain via a rudderless boat that was led by angels, and buried in what is now known as Santiago de Compostela.
I find it fitting that the church calendar celebrates the Feast of Saint James in July, as every person in my Facebook feed seems to be spending this month on pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James. Among these people is my husband, who concluded his walk on the Camino Ingles just yesterday.
James is the patron saint of pilgrims, fitting since pilgrims have flocked to Santiago de Compostela to venerate his remains since the ninth century. The number of pilgrims dramatically increased in the twelfth century when a travel guide known as Codex Calixtinus was published that included music, prayers, various traditions associated with Saint James, and also recommendations for places to stay along the Way.
Icons, sculptures, and stained glass images of saints typically include items related to their life or martyrdom. John the Baptist is usually clothed in animal skins or fur. Peter is typically depicted with a set of keys or an upside down cross. Andrew and Bartholomew are often portrayed with instruments of their deaths, a wooden X for Andrew and a knife for Bartholomew. And Paul nearly always has a book of letters in his hand. But James the Apostle is different. James is most often depicted as a pilgrim with a staff, sometimes even a traveling bag and hat, as if he’s on the way to visit his own shrine in Santiago.
It’s true, there are a lot of priests walking the Camino this summer on deferred sabbaticals, but one does not have to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to go on pilgrimage. In overly simplistic language, a pilgrimage is a physical journey accompanying a spiritual pursuit. It carries an intentional goal of encountering the divine – perhaps in the unfamiliar territory of a foreign country or perhaps in the labyrinth garden of a neighboring church.
The entry for the Feast of Saint James in our book Growing Christians: Celebrating Saints and Holy Days at Home suggests that households try out a local pilgrimage.
Check in with members of your household as you begin your journey by asking how they are feeling. When you arrive, invite God to walk with you on this pilgrimage and give you the patience to notice the little things. Where are your eyes drawn first? Where does your mind travel? Sit or walk in silence, considering what you see, hear, smell, and feel. Before you leave, come together with your family and offer a final prayer.
Perhaps it’s FOMO on walking the Camino with my husband this month, but I love this idea of a local pilgrimage. The app/website GPS My City has already done the work of finding a nearby destination. There is a “Top Religious Sites” walking tour of downtown Dallas that includes five churches built in the 19th century, none of which I have listed before. The Cathedral Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the largest churches in Dallas with over 17,000 households. Emancipated enslaved people formed St. Paul United Methodist Church 1873 and created a school the following year for Black children in city. These two destinations alone would provide ample opportunities to ponder, reflect, and encounter God.
Where might you go on a local pilgrimage?
[Image Credit: Public Domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters Collection, 1969]