The Way of St. James & The Scallop Shell

We laid my 90-year-old mother to rest yesterday. The celebration of her life was filled with laughter, tears, and memories. My mom was a planner, and she left us a lot of information to help us as we planned her funeral. But how could she have known that she would smooth the way for us to start our Camino del Norte on time? Mike and I had contingency plans in case we’d had to interrupt our 500-mile walk in Spain. As it is, I am at the Delta Sky Lounge, waiting for the first of 3 legs to Bilbao where we will be welcomed to El Pais Vasco by my cousins Ismael and Inma tomorrow.

Before I begin sharing our journey, I wanted to give some information about “The Way of St. James”, or the Camino de Santiago. There are numerous routes to reach the Cathedral. We are once again embarking on El Camino del Norte, the Northern Route along the Cantabrian coast. The route is the closest to my Basque family. The highlight of our last Camino was spending time with my cousins. Mike and I will feel great comfort in their loving arms after our loss.

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Buen Camino ~

Scallop Shell that my Mom gave me 5 years ago when we did our first Camino

A Little about St. James the Apostle As Bible stories suggest, St. James the Apostle, along with his brother John (the Evangelist), was one of the first disciples of Jesus. They were related to Jesus by way of their mothers; Salome and Mary were believed to be sisters. James and John were disciples of John the Baptist (also a cousin), until Jesus called them to follow him. Both were highly emotional followers who were sometimes rebuked by Jesus for their sense of ‘spiritual ambition’ and for their non-peaceful ideas about how their enemies ought to be dealt with. Nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’ by Jesus, their anger was a character trait that had to be rectified in the course of their journey with their holy teacher. Records suggest that they were not always popular with the other disciples, as there was often jostling for positions of authority within the circle. James and John being family members were held up as being somewhat more ‘special’ by some followers outside of the close group of disciples, which didn’t go down well with the others. They also quarreled that they were entitled to sit at the side of Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven, and they subsequently learned from their Master that their place at his side had to be ordained by a higher power, and that it had to be earned through the sacrifice of the ego. Disciples were just that, they were pupils at the feet of a Master and had to humble themselves in service to others.    

After the death of Jesus, St. James took his ministry to the Iberian Peninsula, and to this day is the Patron Saint of Spain.  During the days of his ministry, it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James on the bank of the Ebro River. He beheld a vision of her upon a pillar named the Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Today, the pillar can be found in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza, Spain. He is recorded as being the first martyr amongst all the disciples of Jesus, having been put to death by beheading by Herod Agrippa in AD 44.

St. James and the Scallop Shell

Having been a fisherman in Galilea, and having taken the road that helped him discover his spirit, the Scallop Shell is the emblem of St. James. Its symbolism relates to two layers of the human condition; the physical and the spiritual. St. James was an ordinary pilgrim like the rest of us. He walked a long and difficult road with Jesus; he was imprisoned by his raging emotions, and he went through metaphoric fires to free himself and discover the vastness of his spirit. He learned how to live an authentic, peaceful life and he shared his personal lessons with others. 

Today, we make the same journey as such people as St. James. On the physical level, we pilgrims come from all walks of life, departing from different points and making different types of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. Some of us walk slowly, others challenge ourselves by walking fast and giving ourselves goals. Some of us ride bicycles, some go on horseback. There are those of us who walk the Camino in stages, and others who walk a little and bus a little. 

On the spiritual levels, we are all undertaking our own unique journeys, governed by the lessons that we need to learn, and the people that we are evolving into. No two pilgrims are alike, and though we walk the same roads on the outside, our inner pathways wind through very different emotional landscapes. The Scallop Shell has many grooved lines that lead from the outer rim to a meeting point at the base. The shell itself represents the many different spiritual/religious/humanist pathways that lead to the same place, to the universal center of all life-forms, the spirit, the soul.

When pilgrims carry the Scallop Shell it represents our personal journey, the sacred path that we must take within. We are all on the outer rim of the spirit, struggling to find our way back to our center. The Scallop Shell reminds us why we are walking, especially at the points when the journey feels too hard and we want to give up. It reminds us to focus on our journey only, and that each person has their own story that is unfolding. It reminds us that we are all ultimately one sacred soul, and that each of our roads are leading back to each other.

9 thoughts on “The Way of St. James & The Scallop Shell

  1. With a few minor glitches… Mike’s flight landed in Amsterdam with a very short window before our flight to Bilbao, so his luggage didn’t arrive until more than 24 hours later. But my cousin Ismael and his wife Inma came to pick us up in Bilbao, made food for a roadside picnic, helped us to find a store to buy a new MAC charger (I forgot mine in either the plane or the AMS Delta Lounge), found a lovely restaurant for “pintxos” (Basque tapas), and walked with us along the San Sebastian beach and promenade (similar to The Strand). We slept for almost 11 hours and woke up the next morning refreshed. xox


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