Spring 2001, Volume 37, No. 2

Contents

FEATURE
Lives of a Saint

SPECIAL SECTION
Altruism 101
Reach Out!
Venture Catalysts
Sagehens in Paradise

DEPARTMENTS
-Pomona Forum-
Altruism 101
-News Print-
Professor's Philosophy of Life Unshaken

-Pomona Today-
Professor of the Year
Inside the Power Crunch
Rite of Passage
Top Five
Frats with a Difference
Bridge Over the Pacific

-New Knowledge-
The Secrets of the Hydra
-Sports Report-
Dynamic Duos
-Bookshelf-
Getting On
Threshholding
George Moore
-Campaign Update-
American Dreams

ALUMNI VOICES
-Parlor Talk-
Traditions
-Family Tree-
Allen-Lee-Kingman-McDonald
-Alumni Profile-
Casey Trupin '95
-Alumni Puzzler-
Inside-Out
-Back Cover-
Pilgrims' Progress



 


 

Ascending the first hill, we looked back at the sun rising over the medieval city of Le Puy en Velay and were filled with awe--not only at the beauty of the vista, but at the magnitude of our undertaking. In an attempt to recreate the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, we were embarking on a journey that would be longer and more arduous than anything we had ever experienced. As pilgrims, we would traverse a varied physical and emotional landscape--from mountains to desert flatlands, from torrential rain to scorching heat, from hope and joy to exhaustion, pain and occasionally despair. Sixty-seven days and a thousand miles later, as we climbed Monte del Gozo and were greeted with our first glimpse of Santiago de Compostela, we would hit another emotional peak. Connecting these two events, these two locations, was the medieval pilgrimage road itself--a path that we walked in space and time.
   Wishing to experience and understand the medieval pilgrimage process with every muscle and bone, my wife, Alice, and I walked this pilgrimage road during the summer of 2000. During our odyssey, we became part of a stream of pilgrims dating back over a thousand years. In some respects, the world and the process have changed notably since the Middle Ages. In other ways, we were privy to glimpses of an older world. Sweating, suffering, laughing, aching, eating, drinking, sleeping as thousands had before us, we learned through our bodies historical lessons that no book could teach us.
   I first heard of the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in art history classes at Pomona College. Ever since, I have been fascinated by the cult of saints' relics and the pilgrimage to be in their presence. Over the years, as a historian of medieval art, I have deepened and broadened my knowledge of this historical phenomenon. However, nothing could substitute for the personal, physical education of becoming a pilgrim.
   As we awoke in the early morning of May 18 and proceeded toward the Cathedral of Le Puy for the pilgrims' Mass and benediction, we felt a combination of excited hopefulness, enthusiasm and a little trepidation. We had chosen to begin our pilgrimage at the shrine of the Virgin of Le Puy, following in the footsteps of the first identified pilgrims--Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy and two hundred monks, who made the journey to Santiago in the winter of 950-1. Though separated by 1,050 years, we surely felt some of the same emotions. Like Godescalc, we were equipped with the accoutrements and symbols of medieval pilgrims--medieval-style pilgrim hats to shelter us from the sun, simple staffs to assist our footing, and scallop shells both marking us as pilgrims and placing us in the protection of St. James.
   As we traversed verdant hills on that first day, we sought to understand how our feelings might echo those of the thousands of pilgrims who had walked this path before us. Surely they too delighted in the splendors of the countryside, reveled in the weather, smelled the flowers, accepted the discomfort, found shelter and comfort in the local churches, and were grateful to arrive, exhausted though safe, at the day's destination. Like them, we suffered daily--sore feet, a broken tooth, emergency medical treatment, physical exhaustion. Like them, we were rejuvenated by rest, food and a face-to-face encounter with the saints.
    Our 10th day on the road brought us to our first major stop--Conques. Possessing the relics of the martyr St. Foy, the abbey church of Conques was an important pilgrimage site in its own right. The splendid church, with its early 12th-century Romanesque tympanum of the Last Judgement, invites the viewer to contemplate the role of the saint, who is depicted interceding with God on behalf of those who venerate her. As though echoing the heavenly protection that St. Foy offers, her monastery has been providing refuge for travel-weary pilgrims since the Middle Ages. At Conques we became part of that ancient monastic tradition, as the monks received us, sheltered us, fed us, and encouraged us onward toward our goal.
   Frequently as we trundled into town, we seemed to strike locals and visitors as living vestiges of an era long gone. Exhausted and parched from a long walk in a heatwave, we entered Cahors over the medieval Pont ValentrŽ. Realizing what we were, people stopped and stared in amazement. In other places, we were touched by the warm and spontaneous reception we received. The ancient city of Moissac--a major stop along the medieval pilgrimage road--greeted us with a pleasant surprise: fresh bread and wine from local merchants.
   After weeks of walking through vineyards, hills and towns, we neared our half-way point--the Pyrenees--with trepidation. We could see them for several days before arriving--looming in the distance, getting closer with each step. Waking before dawn, we began our climb just as the sun began its daily ascent. It was imperative that we make the journey over the pass before the sun went down, since a cold night in the mountains with no shelter could be extremely dangerous. The difficulty of the climb seemed insignificant in comparison to the beauty of the vistas, the eagles soaring overhead, and the exhilaration of crossing this formidable mid-point. Upon cresting the pass we were able to look down into the ancient kingdom of Navarre--Spain lay before us.
   As we walked in the footsteps of countless pilgrims before us, we were thrilled to find ourselves on stretches of the old Roman roads that had not changed since the Middle Ages. Traveling these long, desolate stretches, where not a single tree offered shade from the fierce Spanish sun, we found an eerie, silent sense of communion with our medieval predecessors, who walked in a far less populated world. Like them, we walked these same stone roads, looked out across the same landscapes, wondered about the possibility of shelter in the same far-off towns and villages, and found water where we could.
   Waking before dawn in the tiny village of Olmos de Atapuerca, we began our 47th day on the road, heading toward the city of Burgos. As we came upon a 14th-century roadside cross, an old woman approached us. Teary-eyed and clearly moved to see two "medieval" pilgrims, she wished us well and said that she would pray for us.
   Between Burgos and Leon one walks for days, even weeks, across a dry, hot land--the color scheme reduced to brown and gold, the path often straight and flat. While many complain that this stretch is dull, we were struck by its desolate beauty. Here the contrast with the harsh elements makes the hospices feel more welcoming. Splendid Romanesque churches, such as St. Martin at Fromista, serve as both physical and spiritual oases--providing much-appreciated relief to the weary pilgrim, as they have for centuries.
    Our 60th day on the road was among the most memorable, as we entered Galicia on the sublime ascent towards O Cebreiro. Though the terrain is more arduous, the excitement of nearing the goal mitigates the physical strain. While we were exhilarated at the thought of arriving in time for the feast of St. James on July 25, we were also somewhat reluctant to finish too soon. After two months, we had grown accustomed to life on the pilgrimage road and we were in no hurry to stop. So, we slowed our pace and strove to savor every moment, every vista, every ache and pain, every chance encounter.
    We had seen very few places comparable to the bewitchingly charming medieval village of O Cebreiro--its splendid setting on a mountain with sweeping vistas on all sides, gnome-like stone and straw houses and a powerful historical connection to the pilgrimage road and several famous medieval miracles. This was one of the places where we most strongly felt the connection with the world of the medieval pilgrim. As if responding to our augmented state of receptivity, the sun performed a stunning display of color as it sank beneath the Galician mountains to the west, beckoning us onward toward Santiago. We awoke at dawn and were treated to an equally splendid sunrise, as the entire valley below was enveloped in thick fog. Invigorated, yet calmed by the fog, we virtually floated onward to the west.
    Among the more challenging endeavors of the last week on the road was trying to persuade my wife that reaching the marker indicating 47 kilometers to Santiago was a momentous occasion. Though unconvinced, Alice humored me and agreed to take my picture at this monument.
    Finally we reached the eucalyptus groves that surround Santiago de Compostela. We spent our last night out in the town of Lavacolla--the traditional place where pilgrims bathed and washed their clothes--ritually cleansing themselves before the final entry into Santiago de Compostela and meeting with St. James. The last night out was marked by a complex array of emotions--excitement for the morrow's arrival, tempered with the realization that this unique experience was nearly over.
    We awoke before dawn on July 23rd and began our final approach to Santiago de Compostela. This entailed ascending the aptly-named Monte del Gozo (Mountain of Joy), from which one first sees the city and the towers of the cathedral. As we began to climb the last crest, we were drenched by a torrential downpour. Entering Santiago like a pair of marinated sagehens was not exactly what we had envisioned; however nothing could break the spell of euphoria that we were under. As if applauding our emotional continence, the sky suddenly burst forth with a double rainbow, guiding our way to the top.
    Neither of us very clearly recalls the final four or five kilometers that brought us to the center of town. It was as though we strode upon clouds from Monte del Gozo to the faŤade of the cathedral. Eyes wide, knees weak, we gave in to a mood of tranquil rejoicing. Sixty-seven days and one thousand miles away from our departing point, we joined the ranks of those who had walked here to visit the shrine of St. James.
   There are certain rituals of arrival that have been performed by pilgrims for centuries. The first is to place one's hand on the Tree of Jesse column beneath the statue of St. James on the 12th-century Portico de la Gloria at the west end of the Romanesque nave. By doing so, one symbolically places oneself under the protection of St. James. Over the centuries the hands of thousands of pilgrims have worn a hand-print into the stone--a tactile reminder of the magnitude and the physicality of the pilgrimage.
   Crossing the threshold, we moved into the Romanesque nave, its massive barrel vaults soaring overhead. Their segmented rhythm draws one toward the altar--toward the relics--as though the very fabric of the church is urging the pilgrim to complete the journey. Past the high altar, we followed the flow of pilgrims into the ambulatory and awaited our turn to climb the stairway leading to the reliquary bust of St. James. It is traditional to greet St. James by "hugging the apostle"--placing one's arms around the massive shoulders of this reliquary image from behind. This physical contact--the very heart of the pilgrimage--stresses the corporeal nature of the pilgrimage itself. As pilgrimage is a very physical phenomenon intended to foster a heightened spiritual sense of contact, it is appropriate that the culmination of the pilgrimage is a physical, intimate action that expresses the emotional, spiritual bond between the pilgrim and St. James.
   One is then directed to descend to the crypt where the relics of the saint are kept. Like the "hand-print" on the Portico de la Gloria, these stairs are worn down by the constant flow of pilgrims.
    The pilgrims' Mass, which essentially completes the arrival ritual, utilizes all of the physical senses, playing upon sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. This last sense has led to the development of one of the most spectacular aspects of the Santiago liturgy--the swinging of the botafumiero. This immense incense-censor is elevated high above the altar and swung across the transept on a stout rope that carries it nearly as high as the vaults. As it hurtles from vault to altar to vault and back, the botafumiero dispenses great clouds of incense. The association between incense and the presence of the divine is meant to trigger in the mind of the pilgrim a sense of glimpsing heaven.
    Here our pilgrimage was officially completed. For the medieval pilgrims, however, this was only the first leg. They still faced an arduous return journey. Some would not live to see their return; others would return changed. We wondered about the impact of revisiting places formerly foreign, now familiar. Would the safe return passage to Conques elicit even greater joy than our initial arrival? We were not destined to find out--at least not this time.
   We did, however, have one additional step to take to round out the pilgrimage process. This is the requisite visit to the Officio del Pellegrinos in Santiago del Compostela to register and receive our Compostela--a certificate that verifies the completion of the pilgrimage. While the details may have changed since the Middle Ages, the idea behind the practice is essentially the same. The Compostela denotes, in a very physical, documentary sense, that the pilgrim has somehow been transformed by the experience.
    Having successfully completed our pilgrimage--alive and intact, contrary to the worries and expectations of some friends, family and colleagues--we were left with the equally difficult task of sorting out what we had learned from it all. We had not set out to historically reenact the Medieval pilgrimage as much as to experience it with our own bodies, minds, emotions--with the intention of gaining a better understanding of medieval pilgrimage life. In this we were successful beyond our expectations. In the footsteps of pilgrims past we left our own footprints as we joined the river of pilgrims that has flowed for over a thousand years.  --Scott Montgomery is assistant professor of visual arts at the University of North Texas.