The Pilgrim and the Way

by Ethan Seavey

Praza do Obradoira. Photo by Ethan Seavey

On the Praza do Obradoira a young man falls to his knees and cries into his palms. I feel the sharp corners of the rocks dig into his aching knees. He can’t be older than 30 and at the sight of him I feel infantilized, because I am immature in passion and devotion. I could be filled with the feelings that bring him to tears right now but I am immature.

He is a modern-day pilgrim. He wears a large green backpack and his face is unshaven. His blonde hair is messy and his clothes are dirty. His father, standing behind him to the right, and his mother, to his left, are pilgrims too and match this description. But they are not on their knees and he is on his knees.

He has been walking for over thirty days, over ten miles each day, to complete the Camino de Santiago, or the way of Saint-James. And now he is prostrate before this, the revered Santiago de Compostela. Now his vision is spotted with tears which blend and blur the sharp stone lines;
he sees a watercolor of the Cathedral.

He looks up at it, his destination. I’m already inside, looking out on the square. I imagine the Cathedral from his eyes. The Baroque facade raises powerfully into the sky. It is intricate to the point of complication and confusion. You can really only focus on a small section at any given moment. The town is small but many villagers walk through the square around you. Some hug you and some cheer for you and some pray over you.

I don’t know what faith is but I find it beautiful from the exterior.

When I am too cynical I view religion as a Camusian blind faith, as a sacrifice of your individual ability to perceive the world as you wish. And yes, he has chosen to listen to the words of other humans. And yes, he agrees with them that the Christian God exists. But no, he is not a blind follower; this is clear in his tears and in his sore legs.

I’m here because the idea of a pilgrimage is so compelling to me. I’m studying abroad in Paris, and I’m enrolled in a class on French Medieval architecture and art. It’s an oddly engaging course. We spent a few weeks looking at the great pilgrimage Churches built in the 11th and 12th Centuries. Santiago de Compostela is in Spain, of course, but we looked at it anyways because of its importance. The pilgrimage road originally built for Medieval pilgrims reaches its end at this, the magnificent Cathedral. It is not the largest, but it is the most lavishly decorated. The legendary tomb of St. James the Greater is on display under the choir. Many people still take pilgrimages today for cultural or religious reasons, but for Catholics, completing the pilgrimage results in a total absolution of sins and what translates to a lot of brownie points for God.

My close friend and I bought plane tickets following an impulsive urge and now we’re spending twenty-three hours here. She says to me that she /feels it/, here. I tell her that it’s good and I’m jealous because I feel nothing.

I wonder what it is like. If I was on my knees in place of the young pilgrim, I would be let down, I think. One day I could walk the same path and see every Church along the way and accomplish all this young man has. But when I reach the end, I know that I’d be concerned that the journey is over and now it is the past. I’d be a pilgrim and exactly the same man as I was before. I’d never feel that paralyzing and breath-stealing faith this man does right now. I would be doing it for myself; but he does this for an unimaginably good God. He lives in a different, more glittery world than mine.

I miss faith. I miss God. I miss living in His room. I don’t mean this in any sort of cynicism or condescension but very early in my life I lost my faith, because I’d decided I was too old for it. I never found it again. And now I’ve grown into a man void of religion and locked out of that room of religion. I have born myself a man of natural sciences which explain everything and I suffer in the dullness of this complicated universe. To me, pilgrimages are fascinating cultural and religious phenomenons. They are strict devotion to something entirely unknowable and unprovable. They are anthropological curiosities not unique to Christianity.

But for this faithful man inside the room, the pilgrimage is overwhelming and holy, cleansing and fulfilling, sacrifice and reward. At the end he is cleansed of all sin and his soul is brimming with joy, strength, courage, and life. I stand here watching and knowing that I will never be as full as he is right now.

He rises to his feet and hugs his parents. I turn away.

After the trip is over we meet with my art teacher on the last day of the semester. We show her pictures. After we say our goodbyes our kind Irish professor stops me and says, “You’re Irish, right?” I nod. “Well, then you’re officially a pilgrim!” She smiles at my confused face. I didn’t walk the whole way, I took a plane, so– “Errr, a few hundred years ago, the pope declared that for the Irish, because obviously you can’t walk to Santiago de Compostela, the Irish pilgrimage can be completed without taking a step. You just have to start at St. James Gate in Dublin and travel to Santiago. And you’d said you visited Dublin a few months ago, so…”

And I had. I saw St. James’ gate, driving right past it on the bus. When I visited Santiago, too, I had seen the tomb of St. James and heard the consecration of communion—the most crucial moment of Mass. So, I had checked every box, without ever knowing.

I am considered a pilgrim, void of sin, having completed a spiritual journey. I wear the pilgrimage medallion as a reminder of this and I laugh as I tell the story. I cheated, of course, but there is something very Catholic in finding the loophole of the dogma.

When I think of my pilgrimage, though, I think of that young man. He has succeeded in life. He has decided what’s important on this Earth and he has completed it. And I’m the aimless pilgrim, wandering around, looking for something, anything, that will prove me wrong.