Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2022 by Giles Ryan

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

At the end of the road is a box of bones.

For a thousand years pilgrims have come to this church, drawn by the idea of being close to the remains of a person who knew Jesus. Over the millennium this tremendous edifice has grown up, a kind of architectural miscellany, Romanesque at its core with added flourishes of Gothic and Spanish Baroque, as if each successive century wished to reaffirm a truth - he's here, Santiago, James who walked with Jesus.

I stand with hundreds of other pilgrims in the central nave under the great barrel vault and listen to the voices of the priests saying the Mass in a panoply of languages. But I want to see more, so I go around to the side aisles and the series of small chapels, seeing each in turn in their separate alcoves. Also around the sides of the church are priests hearing confessions in all the languages of Europe and in these languages they give absolution, for surely the pilgrims have earned it with their penance on the long, long road. Ego te absolvo…..

Next I go into the crypt below the main altar and see the large, ornate solid silver reliquary which contains the bones of the Apostle James, son of Zebedee, killed by Herod Agrippa in 44 CE, and his bones somehow brought to Galicia. There is a prie-dieu in the crypt so that pilgrims may kneel and offer their prayers and linger for a moment before the reliquary. Many do, while I, having shared their long journey, stand aside for awhile and watch. I think that if the pilgrim who has come all this way wishes to stay and reflect on the experience, then here is the place to do it. If the pilgrim is devout, then the thoughts may be appropriate to the setting, but another kind of pilgrim may daydream and find his mind wander off to Alexander, or Octavian before he became Caesar Augustus, or he may think of the Emperor Constantine or Saint Helena.

Our skeptical age will wonder how anyone ever believed in the power of relics, but it really shouldn't surprise us. Are we not surrounded by things which both repel our reason and compel our belief? Is it such a far journey from the medieval faith in relics to the widespread delusions of our own times  – the willing embrace of the cult of celebrity, the deceit of advertising, the false promise of charisma? Before the Protestant Reformation and the birth of what historians call modernity, faith in the efficacy of relics was widely accepted, and it was always understood that proximity to the remnants of lives greater than our own will confer a benefit or bestow a grace. Relics could be the putative corporeal remains, some fragment of a body, or objects which the revered person had touched.

This understanding predated Christianity. As one example, Octavian in 30 BCE visited the tomb of Alexander the Great in the city that bore his name. He went to the great mausoleum constructed by the Ptolemaic kings and demanded to see the corpse which had been preserved for three hundred years by the embalming arts of the Egyptians. By one account, Octavian bent to kiss the embalmed corpse, very likely with the idea of somehow borrowing the great conqueror’s glory, but his rough caress caused the nose to break off! We have no more details of the story but I've long wondered, did Octavian leave it there, or did he carry away the relic nose as a secret talisman?

The importance of relics in Christianity goes back at least to the early fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine ended the sporadic and random persecutions of the Christians. His mother, Helena, herself a Christian and by all accounts a formidable woman, made her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, hoping to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles. There, with the help of people no doubt eager to win the approval of her son, she searched for the cross on which Jesus died. If you want something badly enough and have the eager help of those with no wish to disappoint you, you'll very likely get what you want. And so Helena found her cross – the first of many true crosses – and by some accounts she had it broken up into pieces to share among other Christians, and in short order a brisk trade grew up and relics were found or created and spread throughout Christendom.

Myths grew around these relics. Some would cure the sick, or absolve you of your sins, or mitigate your suffering in Purgatory, but the sinner must draw near to the place where the relics were found. Great churches rose up at the sites of relics, and we can see the power of the relic myth on full display in the Cathedral in Santiago  – the paintings, the frescos, the sculpture, the ornate ceilings. And the silver reliquary itself, a work of art with richly figured detail.

I reflect on all this, standing in the crypt,  gazing at the reliquary, and later still as I walk about the city. Someone's bones are no doubt there but who can be certain of their provenance? But let's set that aside for the moment, because the idea is more important than whatever the now unknowable facts may be. And the idea, the verity within it all, is that for centuries people believed that something good would come of closeness to these bones and other relics in other shrines across Europe. And if some knight wandered weaponless on this Camino, hoping for forgiveness for the violence of his life, then at least he killed no one while coming here. And other pilgrims seeking forgiveness for sins less fierce at least did not commit the same sins as they walked to Santiago. They believed that something good might come from the journey itself, that perhaps something like grace might be found along the way, and it might even be discovered within themselves if not at the end of the road.

Leaving the crypt, I put aside these thoughts, for it matters not whose bones are in the box. The heart of the matter is that I am here in Santiago, so very happy to have made this journey once again across this stunningly beautiful country.

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