A lot of people wouldn't associate the words "heroism" or "nobility" with pilgrims. And yet I wonder if maybe all pilgrims who walk to Santiago are heroes? I don't know. All I know is that heroism is sometimes more obvious than others. On my own pilgrimages and in my time in the Pilgrims' Office I've met people who have walked with disabilities or had to overcome huge challenges. Recently a man arrived carrying his rucksack who had walked with one leg and a crutch from France. Other pilgrims are obviously ill. Sometimes we find out how ill they are. For some it is the last pilgrimage.
Often pilgrims arrive and the struggle they have made to reach the Tomb of the Apostle is etched on their faces. This can be true of pilgrims walking the 100 kms from Sarria as well as much longer distances. Maybe inside everyone's rucksack there is pain and suffering of some kind or another. But as in life some people are exceptional. I would like to tell you about two pilgrims. No pictures, no pack drill, and, as they say, some of the details have been changed.
I looked up from my desk after I had pressed the gadget which flashes the desk number on the screen above the door. A middle aged couple approached. Quiet and demure, neatly dressed in hiking clothes. I guessed they were Spanish. They stood there almost at attention whilst I introduced myself and asked for their credenciales. As they handed them over I sensed their seriousness. For many people receiving the final stamp and the Compostela is a solemn moment. I opened out their credenciales on the desk in front of me and it was clear that theirs had been a long journey. I noticed the first stamp and asked for confirmation, "Where did you start from?" "Arles, in France," was the reply. Now it is not unusual for us to receive pilgrims who started in Arles. It is however highly unusual for two Spanish people living in Spain to travel this distance from outside their own country. I said that I'd heard the route was beautiful and I asked how they had found walking in France. We chatted as pilgrims do about walking, the route, where they slept and so on. I explained I was applying the final stamp of the Cathedral on their credenciales and asked them to confirm their names which would go on their Compostela. The atmosphere changed to one of greater seriousness. "Sir," they said, " we have walked before and we would like a dedication on our Compostelas." "Of course," I replied, "In what name?" I have learned that it is best not to ask anything about the dedication unless the information is volunteered. Sometimes the memory is too painful. As I wrote I kept my head down but the woman kept talking and the story emerged. "The name is that of our daughter. She died at the age of 10, 10 years ago. This is our 10th Compostela dedicated to her memory. Every year we have walked and every year we have needed to walk farther. This year we have walked farther than ever before. Now it is time to stop."
As I handed over their Compostelas we grasped each others hands. In that moment I saw the nobility of all pilgrims who walk with grief and pain yet have the courage to keep going because they walk with a purpose. Pilgrims also have a destination and this dignified couple had now reached theirs. A tear rolled down the mother's face which she brushed away saying quietly, almost to herself, "no more tears" as if saying it might make it so.
A line from a song in comes to mind. It too was born of tragedy:
"There's peace I'm sure. And I know there'll be no more... Tears in heaven"