The Penitent Pilgrim

I’m about to set off on an 800 km pilgrimage – walking the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and then across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella.  This is a sacred journey that has been beckoning me for many years and I’ve finally decided to heed the call and don my backpack and hiking boots.

Of course every prilgrimage should have a purpose as there is a lot of introspection  and soul-searching that takes place along the way and my journey will be no exception in this regard.  However, I read recently in Wilna Wilkinson’s book, The Way of the Stars and Stones, that there are perks for those who venture along Camino de Santiago (or The Way of St James as it is also known).  She says that a thirteenth century Christian document promises the following:

1.  A remission of one-third of your sins just for making the pilgrimage.

2.  Total remission of all your sins if your journey proves fatal and you die along the way.

3.  Forty days off (I assume it’s your time in Purgatory) if you take part in religious processions in Santiago de Compostella.

4.  Two hundred days off if the procession above is led by a mitred bishop, and six hundred days off if you take part in the procession on the 24th July.

5.  Two hundred days less in limbo if an archbishop or cardinal officiates at a mass you attend.

6.  The clincher is the special dispensation you get from the Pope if you walk the whole way naked!  Nothing is mentioned of the penalties for the sinful/lustful thoughts that behaviour of this kind would plant in the hearts and minds of fellow pilgrims or priests, let alone the Pope.  Be that as it may, it’s an impressive list and one that gives rise to further considerations.

So let’s see. I could be left with only two-thirds of my life’s sins to atone for and have a few hundred days knocked off my time in Purgatory for doing this walk – that sounds great.  What I’m curious about now though, is how many days have I been booked into Purgatory already?  It would be helpful to know this, because then I could perhaps walk the Camino umpteen times (and on the correct dates) to wipe my slate clean.

Obviously I won’t need to have this exact detail if I die along the way because then the total remission warranty kicks in.  Not sure if I want to put this one to the test just yet though.  Another question – what happens to the limbo reward if the Catholic Church now no longer believes in limbo?  Does it get carried over to the Purgatory clause?

I know this is a difficult walk to do.  After all, walking the route was used as a form of punishment during the Spanish Inquisition and they didn’t give naughty folks light sentences, as we know.  And then again, perish the thought, how do we even know the authenticity of this old document?  I mean, what if it was written by a  mischievous (or slightly inebriated) monk with a sick sense of humour, chuckling wickedly as he wondered how many pilgrims would fall for this over the centuries.  Rather cruel, don’t you think, making people suffer aches, pains, blisters and agony making the long journey and not getting the promised rewards for their efforts.

Another thing I’d like to know is this – if you start your walk in France and head over the gruelling Pyrenees instead of starting at Roncesvalles in Spain, or at the 100km mark at Sarria, do you get more days off?  It seems unfair that those making less of an effort should get the same reward.  It should be like frequent flyer awards – the more you walk, the more you get off.  Another thought – is there an expiry date for remission days earned?

It certainly seems a lot of hard graft to get into Heaven when compared with what my husband Rob was offered in the Mustang district of Nepal when he cycled to Muktinath Temple.  There, apparently, if you annoint yourself with water from all one hundred and eight fountains, you are guaranteed a place in Heaven.  It took Rob less than half an hour to walk around and assure his eternal resting place.  Admittedly, the ride to the Temple was quite energetic.

So it’s quite apparent that this rather vague thirteenth century document needs some clarifying.  Perhaps I will meet the ghost of Sant Iago (St James) along the way and I can ask him how it works.  Stranger things have been known to happen – like people walking the whole way buck naked!  Or do I get one thousand more days in Purgatory for joking about this very serious matter?


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