All of the students participating in Honors Passport: Pilgrimage are required to present on a particular site or theme, in that way helping to teach the course. Olivia Overton, an Honors College Fellow and freshman civil engineering major, presented on the portal of St.-Trophîme in Arles. As in many portals we visited, this one represents the Last Judgement and includes some especially vivid scenes of the damned in hell. Here, Olivia imagines how a young pilgrim in the Middle Ages might have responded to St.-Trophîme’s sculptural program.
The sun was beating down on our necks. Our sandals were covered in dust and mud, tracking little pieces of soil from the trail with us. I could feel every stone, stick, and bump underfoot as we walked, bracing with each step for the next. The faint smell of sweat hung in the air around us.
This might have been a miserable walk, or even a useless walk by others’ standards, but not for my family. We were on el Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, heading to Santiago de Compostela on a pilgrimage for the pardon of our sins. The last year had been tough on my family and our village. A great disease struck in combination with a poor harvest year that devastated my town. Our local parish encouraged all people who were able to travel on the Camino to seek pardon for the community from God. The priest said that God was punishing us for falling off the path of God, and that the Camino was the only way to set things right.
My family left on the Camino about a week ago from our home. We brought only the necessities with us, leaving behind my mother in the village to care for my youngest sister, who just celebrated her first birthday. My mother told me as I left that she would be praying for us every day along the journey.
The first stop for my family was the Church of San Trophime in Arles. We were supposed to be in the city within the day. I could feel myself grow more weary and tired of the Camino with every passing day, but my father encouraged us that we must “go on” for the glory of the Lord and the saving of our village. I was beginning to wish that I had stayed with my mother back in our village. Although I knew why this pilgrimage was important, it doubted that my participation would change the outcome in any way. This felt like my community’s Camino, not mine.
As we turned a forested corner in the path, up ahead we could see beautiful city gates. Beyond that lay a bustling city with vendors lining the streets and other pilgrims, some we had met along the Camino earlier, milling about with a look of awe on their faces. I knew I had that same look on my face as well. I had never seen anything like this before. My village was nothing compared to this. The beauty and excitement of Arles was overwhelming. We were finally here.
Without thinking, I burst into a sprint towards the gates, leaving behind my family and my pack in my rush of joy and excitement. Although I knew my feet were still hurting and my blisters had not somehow disappeared in that moment from the trail to the gates, I did not feel anything. I felt like I was being pulled at top speed, like some divine force was ushering me into the city itself. I knew I could run for ages until I found the church of San Trophime. I knew that the feeling at the gates when I arrived would pale in comparison to the power and awe I would feel standing in front of the church, making everything worthwhile.
I dodged people in the street, barely avoided tripping on loose stones, and navigated the city by heart and not by map. Some people stopped and stared with a look of annoyance and confusion on their faces as I ran by, but the pilgrims I crossed in the street just gave me a knowing look as if they had experienced the same thing. I turned a corner, still running, and I saw it. The sun hit the portal perfectly, illuminating the sculptures on its facade, and the area surrounding it was quiet and still almost as if the portal itself had been holding its breath waiting for me to arrive. I stopped in front of it.
I stared in wonder at the beautiful scenes of fear and hope, of new life and eternal damnation. I circled the sides, looked at it top to bottom and thought to myself about what my family back home would say to something like this. I think this would make my mom pray even harder than she already does. I think this makes me want to pray harder too. I was finally seeing in person and actually feeling everything I had learned about in church. No longer was the emotion I was supposed to be feeling thrust upon me from my father, mother, or anyone else. I felt like every emotion was coming from me and that the Lord had decided to bless me with a connection in that moment.
I circled the portal until I was sure I had spotted everything: The Christ in Majesty, the Archangel Michael weighing souls, the Procession of Damned, the March of the Innocents, and everything in between. Then, I sat and waited for my family in front of the portal. When they turned the corner, I realized I was happy to have run here myself. This felt too personal of a matter to share with them. I knew that from now on this Camino would be more than just a request from the pulpit. It would be my Camino. Of my own free will and spiritual call.
As my family stood in front of the portal just as I had, preparing to go in, I noticed something had changed. The sun on our backs no longer seemed looming. It felt like a quiet “go on.”