How often do you stop and reflect? In the rush of a fast-paced society, how frequently does a word or phrase slacken your pace, or perhaps even bring you to a full halt? Every day, I work on improving the experience of pilgrims traveling The Way of St. James. I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve spoken the name of this historic route over the last few months. But this morning, as I read over route details for the hundredth time, perusing hotel schedules, tour guides, and trip agendas, a thought occurred to me that ground my day to an unexpected halt. I realized, rather suddenly, that I knew virtually nothing about St. James!
Well, that’s not entirely true. Having grown up in the Church, I have a basic, catechism-esque knowledge of the Biblical James. He was one of the first disciples to follow Jesus. He was one of the three chosen by Jesus to witness the Transfiguration. After Christ’s ascension, he became one of the twelve apostles, advancing the early church far beyond the walls of Jerusalem. And of course, he was canonized as the Patron Saint of Spain. I’ve know this much concerning James since I was a child. But how did St. James get to Spain from Jerusalem? What led him to choose such a destination? Was it his sole apostolic destination or simply the last stop on a route covering hundreds of miles and spanning many years?
I knew there was more to be learned. But I was vividly aware that I had never before bothered to initiate the learning. Well thankfully, there is no time like the present to remedy past oversights. I began to search, looking into the life of this James: this son of Zebedee – this Son of Thunder. Here is what I discovered. You ready? Guess what… there is almost no information available on St. James. Unlike many of the disciples, he is not featured prominently in any of the apocryphal gospels. Even in scripture, he is typically only mentioned in conjunction with his brother John. Additionally, he was the first apostle to be martyred, and the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in scripture (Acts 12:2). Accordingly, the book of Acts, and the rest of the New Testament, tell us almost nothing regarding his ministry.
According to Catholic tradition, when the apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, St. James was assigned the Iberian Peninsula. It is believed that James spent some amount of time planting churches in Spain during the fourteen years between Christ’s ascension and James martyrdom, both of which occurred in Jerusalem. In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he mentions his intention to visit Spain. While Paul typically preferred to evangelize unreached areas, it is quite possible the early martyrdom of James, on possibly a furlough-type visit to Jerusalem, resulted in a fledgling Spanish church that Paul was helping to oversee.
Despite my inability to find an abundance of historical information, I found it both productive and satisfying to have taken a brief moment and gone deeper. The next time I say the words, “The Way of St. James,” it will be with a new perspective and a new appreciation for the faith inherent in those who embark on its pilgrimage.
Tiffany Olson loves all things spiritual and travel. She works at a small web firm where her primary duty is to help inform that public on a wide range of interesting topics including all of the wonders found along the way from El Camino to Santiago.