Saint James the Greater’s feast day is on July 25th, so I thought I would come back to a little who’s who of the Bible, then spiral in. James was one of the first of the disciples. Called with his brother John from the humble work of fishing to walk the path with Jesus.
I love the stories of humans overcoming their faults. We are all human, after all, with our own faults to overcome. Although “the Greater” title is likely meant to simply differentiate this James as older or taller than the other James and not an arrogant title, he seems to have had some lofty desires. Both he and his brother asked to each sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in the kingdom of heaven. This angered the other disciples and brought down a bit of a humbling moment from Jesus.
It is likely that both James and his brother John had fiery tempers, evidenced by their title of “thunder”. When things didn’t go their way, they asked Jesus if he would like them to call fire down onto the Samaritans. We know how Jesus would have answered that.
As with all humans, we come with faults and gifts.
Despite some perhaps arrogant transgressions, though, James is one of the first of the disciples. He is one of the favored three who was witness to the Transfiguration and the agony in Gethsemane.
His miracles include the raising of a hanged boy after the father returns from a pilgrimage. He is said to be the author of The Letter of James, though there is some historical uncertainty about this as he died quite early.
He is the first of the disciples to be martyred. He was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. His head is said to lie under the altar on the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of Saint John in Jerusalem. It is marked by a stone of red marble and six votives.
It is said that he spread the message of Jesus into Spain and after his death, his relics (through the passage of a ship or a miracle or both) traveled to Spain and were then taken to Santiago de Compostela. His Spanish tomb was lost until the 800s when, tradition has it, a monk on a pilgrimage followed a “field of stars” to the lost tomb.
He is revered in Spain, but his time in Spain is also historically in question. It might have been that he was called upon in spirit to encourage and inspire Christians in the fight against the Moors.
The path his relics took is a current pilgrimage taken by the faithful. Since it is challenging to travel in these days of Covid, let’s take a little pilgrimage in our minds.
The journey of the Way of Saint James has changed little from the original pilgrimage. It is a fairly flat path, but long. It begins at the border of France at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ends around 450 miles later. The pilgrim carries a scalloped shell to identify themselves a pilgrim of Saint James along the “field of stars”. The travelers gather water from wells (it’s said that originally the shells were carried to draw water from the wells and is why our fonts and baptismal cups are are shaped like a scalloped shell). Pilgrims stay at huts/hostels along the journey. After weeks, or months, pilgrims come to the last hut for an overnight stay and then walk into the Cathedral for Mass the next morning. Journeys of course vary, but this is a pretty good idea of what still happens.
After mass, the pilgrim offers up prayers before the statue of Saint James.
It is the last days of July. This time is a traditional time for pilgrimages. These are not vacations but journeys for sacred purpose to sacred places.
I’ve been thinking of those who have planned pilgrimages. Or did. I think of how vital the Muslim Hajj is and that it has been in reality cancelled for most pilgrims. It made me think of all those who take sacred pilgrimages and now can not. I think of the spiritual places that have been closed.
Reading about Saint James and his pilgrimage brought me back to my recent thoughts on sacred journeys.
I had a teacher once who would say that walking is the fastest means of transportation. He went on to explain that cars take us away from that which is closest to us. Cars costs us real time in that we spend our time at jobs to buy the car (often not simply about transportation, but to show off personal wealth and added extra comforts), insurance, repairs, gas, etc.
Often what we think brings us together, actually takes us away from one another. We think we work for more time with family, a good home, and opportunities to do good work. But in reality, more often than not, we work so hard we severely limit our time and forget our priorities. We end up working too many hours at jobs we don’t like to buy more things we don’t need. How many times does it happen that we don’t have time to go to church, practice self care, or to visit a friend? When we do, we spend the next chunk of time “catching up”. What are we working for and what are “catching up” on are questions to answer with brutal honesty.
Walking. Rambling. Sauntering. When was the last time you did any of these things? Some say that sauntering comes from the words a la Saint(e) Terre, which means a holy walking on the earth or a pilgrimage to holy lands.
Walking brings us nearer our neighbors and family. We slow down and look a bit more closely at what’s around us. Things we cannot do from a car. We become a part of, instead of disconnected, from home and place. When we really connect to something, we want to take care of it and be a part of it. Home and place. I find that one of the gifts of covid is coming back to home. If coming back to home is/was challenging, this is also an opportunity to explore that. Practice rebuilding a life full of what is really of value. Saint Brigid reminds us that we will never find ourselves or God if we can not find them at home. What is “home”?
Maybe this current time is a sacred pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage can support us on this journey. A small daily pilgrimage can be setting aside space at home to connect with ourselves and God. Church can be a weekly sacred pilgrimage.
There are no rules that apply to all of us. Pilgrimage is a practice of going out to come back within. Pilgrimages are both an inner and outer journey. They are a crossing of spiraling, but never quite touching, paths. They are the twining of the physical (walking, usually) with the spirit (heart). Being embodied and being spirit.
Our usual world is linear. We look ahead to what’s coming, what we have to gain, and where we’re going. A pilgrimage is a slowing down that forces us to explore the outer journey in a different way. One step at a time. The time commitment forces us to spiral in.
A bigger pilgrimage can take us out of our ordinary and safe world and challenges us. It is like a Quest or a Hero’s Journey. To begin, we have to step out of the ordinary in order to be in an experience that helps us to grow inwardly and outwardly. If we allow, what happens is always unexpected.
I firmly believe that if we do not challenge ourselves with things that force us to step our of the easy and familiar, that God will put forth the same challenges before us anyway. In ways that force us to slow down, step out, and turn inward. Often in ways we would not choose for ourselves. God wants us to grow and explore and learn.
A long pilgrimage strip us of what is normal and comfortable. It forces us back into a place of simplicity. Our feet beneath us. Water. Food. An appreciation of good weather. A scalloped shell. A need for one another. Walking toward a destination, while at the same time diving inside in a really big way. Outward journey. Inner reflection.
Simplicity. Pilgrimage. What path do we walk and how do we walk it? How do we react when things get uncomfortable? How do we support others, strangers, when they are struggling? In order to discover these things about ourselves, we have to experience them.
Maybe we dream of visiting St James’ pilgrimage, the streets of Jerusalem, the great cathedrals. Maybe we dream of a quiet walk in the woods, drinking from a sacred well, gathering in a circle around a fire pit. Maybe we simply dream of our church home. Where do we dream to walk to spiral out and turn in?
Maybe we are already on a long and winding pilgrimage together.
How might we seek to find God and self in the inner and outer world. How do we unite the two ever crossing never touching paths of the physical and spiritual? How can we connect to place and home and God by being at home, walking away from home, and returning Home?
Perhaps this time is our sacred pilgrimage. Maybe our job is simply to begin walking.
James 5 13-16: Is anyone among you in trouble? Let him pray. Is anyone in good heart? Let him sing praises. Is one of you ill? Let him send for the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord; the prayer offered in faith will heal the sick man, the Lord will restore him to health, and if he has committed sins they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. A good man’s prayer is very powerful and effective.
Closing Blessing: Living One, as I set out on this open road, treading the path that is mine to tread, open my eyes to the others who share this road with me, those joined by quest or only by being fellow traveler, for we all carry a scalloped shell inside, journeying and seeking, not one of knows the exact way. I particularly remember those alongside me this day. Bless each of us to our journey, to all that we find, and to all this is only yours to know this day. (T. Ward)