Following a path of piety and perseverance etched across the Spanish countryside since the Middle Ages, modern-day pilgrim Russell Shaw recently walked the breadth of Spain to reach the legendary burial place of St. James the Apostle.
"I thought it looked like an interesting walk, and walking for me is an opportunity for me to spend some time in meditation," said Shaw, who is an insurance underwriter.
So the devout Catholic left his Gateway home and headed for Europe.
Starting at Roncesvalles in northeastern Spain, Shaw, 63, spent a month backpacking the 440 miles leading to Santiago de Compostela, the medieval city that has beckoned millions of pilgrims across the ages.
His trek to the spectacular city in Spain's Galicia region was the completion of a predestined path, said Shaw, who finished his quest last month.
A long-distance hiker, Shaw said he first yearned to follow El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, while trekking the Appalachian Trail. It was then that a friend shared an article about the centuries-old pilgrimage site.
A series of spiritual signs seemed to point him to Santiago de Compostela. While attending a retreat at Our Lady of Divine Providence House of Prayer in Clearwater, he learned the contemplative method of prayer inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Later he found out that the saint, founder of the Jesuits, was from Spain.
When Shaw became part of the Cursillo movement, a Christian renewal program, he learned it also had originated in Spain. Other unmistakable signs followed, and before long, he knew that he would join the throngs from around the world who crowd Santiago de Compostela's magnificent cathedral. But he would be spiritually ready. For Shaw, who completed the Appalachian Trail in stages, such preparation would require walking.
"When I walk . . . I have time to think, and for spiritual growth that is important to me," he said. "I find that I can be open to listen. Most of my prayer life has been talking. And to walk in an area where I expected so much spirituality was an exciting possibility. I walked roads that saints walked."
The trail Shaw so faithfully traveled was enthusiastically endorsed by church officials and the Spanish monarchy hundreds of years ago. The journey of pilgrims to Galicia helped establish towns along the routes they traveled and a thriving city grew up around the cathedral said to house the remains of St. James.
Legend has it that the body of the apostle, who was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I around A.D. 44, was taken by ship to Spain and buried in a crypt. Apparently no one remembered it until its discovery 800 years later, after a hermit's vision revealed the burial spot.
It is on this site that the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela stands. To Shaw, it matters little whether the remains of St. James actually are in the lighted crypt, down the worn concrete steps that pilgrims descend to kneel and pray.
"His spirit is there," said Shaw, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church and a Eucharistic minister.
The religious itinerary Shaw traveled, known as the French Way because of its origins on the French border, began at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees. In actuality, though, his spiritual journey began days earlier, in Lourdes, France, where he visited the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858. From there, he traveled by train to Spain, where his pilgrimage began in earnest.
Lugging 44 pounds of supplies on his back, Shaw made his first official stop as a pilgrim at a monastery in Roncesvalles, where he received a proper send-off.
"We had our first Mass," he said. "It was a Mass to bless the pilgrims."
His adventure across Spain had begun.
It was a hike that took him up inclines and through villages, cities and farmland and into the homes of kindly people encountered along the way. He saw his first fig trees and olive groves. He picked almonds. An elderly village woman showed him how to pump precious water for his water bottle. A farmer riding an old John Deere tractor set him back on track after he had strayed from the pilgrim's trail. He even helped a family dig potatoes and received one as payment. He ate it raw, savoring every morsel, just as he had as a boy on his family's farm in Westville, Ill.
"The experience really was like taking a walk back in time," Shaw said. "The people were so generous and warm-hearted. They didn't have four cars, two cell phones hanging out each ear. They have time for family, to promenade in the evenings."
In Larrosona, he was welcomed to town by the mayor, who presented him with a scallop shell, symbol of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim.
"He went back to his house and he brought me one," Shaw said. "He felt that I needed one."
Another time, as he approached a tiny village, tired and hungry, a woman with three cows in tow invited him to lunch.
"Senor, if you are hungry, come with me," she said and took him home to eat at her kitchen table.
"She gave me soup, coffee, fruit, ham," said Shaw, a member of the St. Petersburg (Gateway) Rotary Club.
While in Spain, Rotary clubs in several cities assisted him on his journey. But for much of the time, as he traveled along the route marked with dabs of yellow paint on trees, buildings or the sides of roads, Shaw was on his own. He was never afraid.
"I never _ in all the time I was in Spain _ I never felt uncomfortable being alone," he said.
But like the pilgrims of old, Shaw, who celebrated his 63rd birthday while on the trail, encountered a few hardships. At times he felt the burden of his backpack. His feet grew painful, and one foot became numb. Home in St. Petersburg for almost a month, he still fears losing toenails that felt the abuse of the long hike.
His reward, though, came Oct. 4 with a safe arrival at his destination.
As he approached the city, Shaw felt both elation and sadness that the journey was over.
Walking along the historic path, shaded with overhanging boughs from apple trees, fell into a reflective mood. He felt sad for the beggars he passed along the way. He recalled Ava, a young pilgrim he met who is HIV-positive, and he reflected on the humble and magnificent houses of worship in which he had knelt.
"It became very emotional," he said.
By 4:30 that afternoon, he arrived in the plaza dominated by the towering cathedral renowned for its Romanesque facade. It was time to pause.
"It is so huge," Shaw said. "You have to back up to really get a feel for this thing. I did that and sat for a half an hour before I went in."
The pilgrimage was not yet complete.
Climbing the steps of the cathedral, he said, "I set my pack down in the entryway and walked all the way down to the altar to give a prayer of thanksgiving."
Back home, the glow of his spiritual quest is evident. Questions have been answered. Guidance has been received.
"The Lord has something for me to do," Shaw said. "I know that I need to simplify my life. My priorities have changed dramatically and I want to focus on trying to help people, my family, anyone the Lord wants me to help, because I know that is what he wants me to do."