As you read this column I will hopefully be on the fourth day of the pilgrimage –known as the Camino. I am neither brave or fit enough to trek the entire eight hundred kilometres just stubborn enough to walk the last one hundred and twenty. I am not doing it for any specific purpose other than its been on my bucket list for quite a while. If I had any sense I would have embarked on it twenty-five years ago when I was young enough and foolish enough not to worry about sunburn, mosquitoes and what kind of bed I slept in. However back then I would not have known of the balming effect a bottle of roija, a slab of manchego, a cut of crusty bread and the bitter sweet taste of Spanish olive oil could have on a weary traveller.
The destination of the Camino pilgrim is Santiago de Compostela – the capital of Spain’s northern province of Galicia. Santiago allegedly houses the bones of St James, the Apostle and Christians have been making this pilgrimage since the early ninth century. Whilst millions of Christians have made their way over the centuries to Santiago, Hollywood has done for the Camino what it did for Titanic and now Santiago and Belfast have both witnessed a dramatic increase in visitors wishing to visit both shrines. Both cities may like to thank the Apostle and Harland & Wolff for their respective claims to greatness but their more recent growth in popularity may owe more to Leonardo De Caprio and Martin Sheen than the shenanigans of medieval knights and the flat-capped men of the yard.
I have not made any kind of pilgrimage since an ill-advised trip to Loug Derg about fifteen years ago. Unlike the recent Papal Envoy to the Eucharist Congress, I did not opt for the wimp’s away day but Dante’s full three-day experience. It is thought to be the most challenging pilgrimage in Christendom. I could not disagree.
My priest friend giving me Seamus Heaney’s less than uplifting Station Island to read did not enhance my experience. A trendy new Loug Derg website urges would be thrill seekers to ‘get away from it all’ with a season pass to ensure you ‘enjoy the full experience of Lough Derg’. Despite a sleep deprivation probably only matched by the one time guests of the RUC Special Branch, there was something quite special about Loug Derg. Certainly if this is anything like purgatory, press skip and go straight on to hell or heaven. But there is something very levelling about doing Lough Derg as kings, queens, presidents, paupers, politicians, bankers and sinners all go through the same pain and comradeship baring their soles for the sake of their souls.
They say the three most holy cities certainly in Catholicism are Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. The Irish Catholic Church sold us slightly short with the decidedly less climatic, exotic and cultural offerings of Lough Derg, Croagh Patrick and Knock. However, a drive through Knock on a family holiday astounded this writer as the place was buzzing with visitors. The rumours of the demise of Catholicism are premature as Catholics –perhaps a la Carte are voting with their feet. Lough Derg is literally suffering a revival as some thirty thousand pilgrims make their way there each year and that excludes the new fad retreats. Certainly, Croagh Patrick has done no harm to our energetic Taoiseach as fifteen thousand souls follow him up the Reek each year. Knock even has had a festival of Christian rave, techno, acid and trance music. I kid you not, but don’t ask me to explain.
If there is a Catholic Mecca for pilgrims outside of the Vatican’s staggering 4.5million pilgrims a year, then it has to be Lourdes, which has more hotels per square foot than Paris. Lourdes is unique in the absolute faith it inspires in pilgrims and the volunteers who work with the sick.
So pilgrimage much to my surprise is far from dead and while not all Christians may appreciate the Catholic tradition when it comes to pilgrimage, many do recognise the public commitment and demonstration of faith.
St Augustine once said that: ‘we are drawn to God not by our feet but by our hearts’. Nonetheless, I expect the comradeship of a pilgrimage, whereby one meets and interacts with strangers, will no doubt draw one closer to God’s kaleidoscope that is human nature but this novice pilgrim will also be attending to his soles.