August 8, 2010

Author Q&A: Running on faith

A USM professor makes the trek to a shrine in Spain with a photographer to capture the arduous journey made by pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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There aren't maybe the bandits there were during the Middle Ages. You know, there were people preying on pilgrims. I don't think that there's that level of violence on the route that there was in the Middle Ages, but it's still a big adventure. So anybody who's ever done it, it's a major accomplishment.

The thing that's amazing to me is that people have done it over and over again. I know people who have done it every few years. It becomes a kind of a psychic, spiritual journey that they like to take. 

Q: If you wanted to, you could even stay in some of the hostels that have been there since the Middle Ages.

A: You can. Of course, many of the poorer, small ones are gone. And of course, many of the big fancy ones have been turned into fancy hotels. There is now a network of more modern hospices that you can stay in.

If you do go, whether in a car or on foot, there are many, many things that medieval pilgrims and early modern pilgrims talk about that are still there, that you can still see, especially once you get into Spain but also in southern France. The landscape hasn't changed that much. The buildings are still there.

That medieval experience is, in some ways, still recapturable. Amazingly so, actually. 

Q: This pilgrimage has become popular again in recent years. Why is that, and who is going?

A: Let me just give you some figures. In 1985, there were 2,500 pilgrims who got the compostela, which is the official certificate you've done it. In 1990, that had doubled to 5,000. In 1995, it was about 20,000. In 2000, it was 55,000, and in 2004, which was the last holy year, there were 180,000 people who got the compostela.

Now there are millions of people who go to Santiago, but those are the people who actually walked the requisite amount. And this year, which is the next holy year after 2004, they're expecting over 200,000 people to get the compostela. It's just ballooned, and it's a little mysterious.

The one thing that happened was in 1993 UNESCO, the U.N. cultural wing, added the Camino in Spain -- that is the part of the route that goes through northern Spain -- to their world heritage list, so that gave it a kind of prominence. In 1998, they added all the French routes. So in the 1990s, suddenly you have a kind of a visibility, and I think that's when it really takes off.

But also there seems to be a kind of spiritual need in modern culture. People seem to be looking not just for religion but for some kind of spiritual fulfillment. 

Q: It occurs to me that the world is changing so quickly, maybe people need something like this to cope with it.

A: Yeah, because you are stripping back down to real basics when you're on the Camino. It really is a very old-fashioned kind of experience. It's very physical, also very mentally taxing, but also rewarding.

I think people find a kind of community when they meet at the hospice with other pilgrims, and there's a sense that you are losing all of the language, nationality, money, status, and you're just reduced to kind of a basic human being, and you meet with other human beings doing the same thing. 

Q: How dangerous was it in medieval times? I remember reading in the book that medieval pilgrims would draw up a will and settle their debts before they left, so they must have been at least anticipating the possibility that they wouldn't return home.

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