Today we leave the path we have followed for much of our trip through Germany, the Camino. That is, the Camino de Santiago, or Jakobsweg, as it’s called here. The map of sixteenth-century Europe is criss-crossed with routes to Compostela, where lay the bones of St. James, the western-most Apostle. (Here are the modern routes.) And it’s quite likely that Luther would have shared the way with pilgrims heading toward Spain.
Rome, Luther’s own destination, and Santiago de Compostela were the two principal objectives for ambitious pilgrims, for they held the tombs of the Apostles Peter, Paul, and James. Those with a lot of money and moxie could try for Jerusalem itself, the most holy of all places for medieval Christianity. Those with less freedom or resources could visit any of thousands of local shrines and collections—sites of miracles, apparitions, or physical pieces of a saint’s corpse or clothing. This was quite a business, not unlike tourism is today. Luther’s later protector Frederick the Wise of Saxony had spent a considerable fortune amassing thousands of holy relics. And not just for his own salvation: payment to see them generated a sizable income.
The modern pilgrim’s motto has become “The Journey is the Destination.” This would not have flown in Luther’s times. Pilgrims were naggingly difficult for anybody to discipline, and pastoral letters abound encouraging pilgrims to spend their time in prayer, in contemplation of the saint they were to visit, and in asking intercession for sin before God, rather than reveling in the moment, carousing, and doing other things far-flung travelers have always been know to do. For as a religious undertaking, a pilgrimage was understood within the sacrament of penance: the visitation of a saint worked forgiveness of past sins through the power of that saint’s intercession.
There’s always been a large slice of curiosity within the pilgrimage pie, and even for Luther the prospect of seeing the world must have been attractive. But the true purpose for him was penance: to approach the saints and request their intercession.
The Reformation rid Protestant Christianity of pilgrimages, encouraging people to visit and do good to the living saint next door. But there’s something missing in that. Christianity is not a system of disembodied ideals, social or otherwise. It is people relating to God, in history, with all those complications. And since we do believe in the resurrection of the dead, no one’s bones are really dead. They’re sleeping. Just ask Ezekiel.