Who was St. James?

As I prepare for my Camino, it occurs to me that I should learn a little about St. James the Great whose relics are believed to buried at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  500 miles is a long way to walk without knowing anything about the person who has inspired millions to make a pilgrimage to his final resting place.

Who was St. James?

James, along with his brother John, was one of Jesus’ twelve original disciples.  He is remembered as ambitious, asking Jesus to grant him a seat at his side when he is glorified.  Jesus is not amused.  This also annoys the other apostles.  The ensuing kerfuffle leads Jesus to remind the apostles that the path to greatness is by being a servant and slave to all.  It is from this passage that the concept of “servant leadership” begins to emerge.

He is also remembered for having a hot temper.  He and his brother offer to bring down fire on a village of Samaritans as retribution when they fail to receive Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem.  Again, Jesus is not amused and rebukes them.   

After Jesus’ death, James got on the wrong side of Herod and was one of the earliest of Jesus’ followers to be martyred.  He was beheaded and tradition holds that his head is under the altar at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem.  I don’t remember seeing it there, but I’ll take Wikipedia’s word for it.

How did the rest of James’ remains end up in Spain?

Tradition has it that James traveled to Spain to evangelize following Jesus’ death.  It’s a bit murky as to what happened next, but he must have returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred.  With his head buried in Jerusalem, the rest of his remains were returned to Spain by his followers where they were buried at Compostela.  There is a rival tradition that has his remains buried at a church in Toulouse, France.  The historical record supporting this narrative is spotty, to put it politely.  

Why have millions of people walked the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James?

Since at least the 9th century, pilgrims have been making their way from throughout Europe and beyond to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Not surprisingly, many of the pilgrimage routes follow earlier Roman traveling routes.  Some people no doubt sincerely believe they are making their way to St. James’ final resting place (sans head).

Many others, myself included, take the view that the spiritual and physical discipline of walking the Way of St. James is the point and not so much the destination.  One is following in the footsteps of millions of people, called by their faith to journey hundreds of miles.  That has power in and of itself.  The Camino is one of the world’s thin places, where the barrier between humanity and the divine is almost penetrable. 

In reflecting upon St. James and his life, I’m reminded that the temptations of ambition and retribution do not a happy life make.  Jesus sets James and the other disciples straight.  There’s a lesson in that.

Thank you to everyone who has generously supported my walk with a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development.  If you haven’t yet done so and would like to make a donation, you can do so by clicking “Support my Journey!”

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

2 thoughts on “Who was St. James?

  1. Hi Rob, I am so excited for you that you are doing the pilgrim walk. Have you read David Lodge’s Therapy? Part of it is on the walk. Which part of the walk are you doing? I was in Portugal this summer and we walked a short distance on the path from Portugal to Spain which is very beautiful though I am sure the path from France is as well but just want to put in a plug for Portugal. I have just become an empty nester – my youngest left for a year in Israel to study, a year long pilgrimage – which is hard to describe how I feel about it. Sad but also nice to have all this time that I am not needed by anyone( though my daughter just called so am not done with parenting.) Look forward to hearing about your experiences on the pilgrim trail!

    All best Beth


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