For your birthday, I want to tell you a story. It’s a story, however, that’s not just meant for you, but also for your brothers, for Dad, for me, for everyone. It’s a story that begins in Spain …
In the very northwest corner of Spain is a beautiful shrine called the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where, according to tradition, the apostle St. James is buried. Beginning in the 9th century, this cathedral was the destination of what became known as The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago), a leading pilgrimage route for people all over Europe; in fact, the pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned in Europe, and it was customary for those who returned from their pilgrimage to bring back a scalloped shell as proof they made it to the coast and completed their journey. Over time, the scalloped shell became a traditional symbol of the pilgrim because the shell’s grooves, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes to Santiago de Compostela.
Today, people still make that pilgrimage, walking el camino (the way) over mountain ranges, alongside streams, through beautiful open fields and, at the end of each day, stopping to rest in one of the countless villages along the way. The pilgrims typically carry three things: a walking stick, a scalloped shell as symbol that they are a pilgrim, and a “pilgrim passport” which is stamped with an official St. James stamp at every village where they stop to spend the night. By the time they reach their destination this passport is filled with stamps marking the points along their walk.
Just this week I watched a beautiful movie entitled The Way starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. The movie tells the story of a grieving father walking to Santiago de Compostela carrying the cremated remains of his son. Along the way he meets other pilgrims, each one with a different reason for walking el camino: to lose weight, to get over a relationship, to grieve, to find God. Even those who were doing it for no reason whatsoever, in the end, found meaning.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of this modern day pilgrimage is this: over and over, as people pass each other on el camino, sit down for a meal together at the end of the day or stand in line to get their passports stamped, you hear them wishing each other a buen camino. Translated literally, buen camino means “a good walk/path”, but within the context of a pilgrimage the phrase takes on a deeper meaning. To wish someone a buen camino is to wish them well in finding meaning and purpose on their pilgrimage.
And that, dear Nicholas is what I wish for you … a buen camino. One day I hope that you may have the opportunity to travel to Santiago de Compostela, but in the meantime, wherever you go and whatever you do, remember that while many may refer to life as a journey, it’s really a pilgrimage (whether or not we choose to call it by that name) and we are all pilgrims (whether or not we choose to acknowledge it).
So today, instead of wishing you a happy birthday I’m going to wish you a buen camino. Today. Tomorrow. Always.