Life as a Pilgrimage: What Have We Learned from St James? 18

Antonio Veneziano — Apostle James the Greater

Calicem salutaris accipiam et nomen Domini invocabo!

Three lessons I’ve learned from Saint James

The Catholic Church venerates saints in a particular way. We honor and emulate them as loyal servants of the One, True God. We see them as living models, not dead witnesses, because our God is the Lord of the living, not of the dead. Therefore, it does us enormous good to read and reflect on the lives of the saints, their perseverance amidst the trials of life, their virtues, and even their weakness. For we too are called to be saints, though we are still weak human beings, just like them.

Saint James is an excellent model of a frail human being, who was called by God to follow him unto death, and who ultimately persevered in the faith to receive the eternal reward of sainthood.

1. Saints are ordinary men and women like us

James was just a fisherman. He may have been a devout Jew before he met Jesus; it doesn’t matter. Matthew, the tax-collector was probably not a very devout jew.

James had a temper. Jesus called him and his brother, John, “Sons of Thunder.” Maybe their Father Zebedee’s nickname was “Thunder.” Most likely, however, Christ gave them that epithet, because they and a penchant for explosive anger. The asked Jesus if they could call down fire from heaven to burn an entire Samaritan village — not exactly a sign of compassion and understanding for their fellow men.

Whatever it was that earned James the nickname “Thunder-Boy,” he earned it. Evidently, Jesus saw something in James he liked. You could say he saw it and liked it from all eternity. From a human perspective, that is, temporal and short-sighted, a hot-head like James might not seem worthy of the Lords mission to preach the Beatitudes, feed the poor, show compassion to the sinner. God’s perspective is different. He sees potential for the saint in the sinner.

James, indeed was a sinner. Fortunately, the Gospel does not tell us much about James’s personal sins (Peter, Matthew, and Judas received most of the attention in this regard). However, in addition to James’s impetuous and ambitious nature, we also know that he liked to take naps at the wrong time; we know that he could be manipulative and cunning; we know that he hit the highway when Jesus was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemame, that he hid, and that he would not show his face at his master’s execution (although his brother, John, made it a point to be there). James could exhibit pretty shameful behavior, from time to time.

James is a lot like us, isn’t he?

Lesson of Life: If being human with a long list of sins is part of your curriculum vitae, you too can be a saint.

2. Life on earth is a pilgrimage

Okay, maybe I was a little rash when I said James hit the highway. Then again, maybe I wasn’t.

God knew his apostles would scatter on the night he was handed over. He also knew they would regroup, that their faith would be confirmed, and that they would be ready to receive further instructions about their future mission. After Pentecost, the Apostles truly were apostles (despite their continued shortcomings). James, Peter, and the other began healing and preaching in the temple almost immediately. When persecution became fierce, they did not give up, they only got stronger.

Tradition has it, that the apostles divided up the known world and set out on missionary voyages to baptize and preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. According to that tradition, James made it all the way to the Iberian Peninsula, modern-day Spain.

James’s body lies in rest at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Today it is most popular Christian pilgrimage sites in the world, after Jerusalem and Rome.

In the middle ages, pilgrims from all over Europe would set out from their doorsteps, and walk “El Camino de Santiago,” the way or path of St. James. Here is a map of recognized modern-day pilgrimage routes in Europe and a link to the Confraternity of Saint James website for pilgrimages:

Caminos de Europa

James probably did not have a map like this. As the Lord foretold, he had only the Holy Spirit to guide him. That’s all he needed.

As you can see, the destination point on the map, Santiago de Compostela, is located, literally, at the end of the earth. James fulfilled the Lord’s command: he kept and spread the faith. That’s what life on earth is all about — life is a pilgrimage of faith.

Some time after James returned to Jerusalem from his missionary journey, his life abruptly ended. According to St. Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, James was the first of his confreres to face martyrdom. All the rest, with the exception of his brother, John, would follow in his footsteps.

In the year 44 A.D., Herod Agrippa beheaded the apostle James, as a warning sign to the vibrant new religion not to make waves, not to disturb the peace. Now, scroll back up and look at the map again. What was the result?

Lesson of Faith: The pilgrim’s path is a path of faith; we do not know what all to expect along the way; we only know that if we persevere in faith, God will make our lives fruitful in ways we cannot imagine.

3. The cup of salvation is a cup of blessings

The Psalm verse I quoted at the beginning of this post is from Psalm 115. Here is a translation of verses 3 and 4 in English:

How can I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will take up the Cup of Salvation and call on the Name of the Lord!

Psalm 115 hearkens to the Catholic Liturgy for the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and should be understood in conjunction with the Gospel texts corresponding to the Lord’s Last Supper, along with this verse from St. Paul:

The Cup of Blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the Blood of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)

You may recall from yesterday’s reflection that James and John (through their mom’s proxy), petitioned Jesus to participate closely with him in his glory. They knew not what they asked. Christ, invited them to “drink the chalice of which he was to drink.” When they insisted that they were up to that challenge, the Lord forewarned that indeed one day they would both take up the Lord’s chalice and drink (on the night of Holy Thursday, they did not prove worthy to drink of the Lord’s chalice — no one did).

Their worthiness to drink from that chalice was contingent on their willingness to participate in the Lord’s passion fully — with their whole heart, soul, and life.

Grace is, by definition, an unmerited gift. Mysteriously, we must somehow also be made worthy, and our worthiness depends on our willingness to participate, and then to follow through. True, the Lord gives strength to persevere. Yet we are the masters of our own acts. We are the ones who must assent. When we recognize all the good things the Lord has done, we must say, assertedly:

Yes. I cannot possibly live up to this challenge, by my own virtue. Yet I will accept this cup that the Lord has given me and I will call on the Name of the Lord.

Lesson of Hope and Love: I will take up the cup of salvation. I will call on the Name of the Lord.

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  1. That is exactly the same sentence that caught my eye, offering us both hope and humility.
    I’ve totally enjoyed both yesterday’s and today’s posts on St. James. Thanks!

    • That’s why we need saints: to remind us who we are, fundamentally, and what we are called to be. A friend of mine, Fr Owen Kearns, once called it “substantial humility.” The virtue requires that we are deeply in touch with and accepting of our humanity. Then we must depend on the Lord who made our humanity His humanity. From there the work begins.

      Thanks! I am glad you liked the posts.

      • My oldest son also carries his name along with Sts. Andrew and Dominic. I figure he should be pretty well covered.:) God bless you too!

  2. Thanks for the link to the Confraternity of St. James. Have you watched the movie ‘The Way’? This was my introduction to the “El Camino de Santiago.” On my bucket list of to-do’s!

    • It’s on my bucket-list too. I thought I might be going this summer, but it looks like maybe next year. Let’s see what God’s plans are.

      I will have to check out “The Way.” Thanks for recommending it!

  3. Thank you for giving us this look at this man who was certainly in faith for the long run. When we think of saints and other great men and women, they often come to us as gilded cardboard figures, composed solely of virtues and with none of the dust and grunge that makes us human. It is inspiring to know James was just like us.

    • The lives of the saints have won many converts who were (are) to become future saints, precisely for this reason. I’m thinking particularly of St. Ignatius Loyola, whose feast is coming up. Thanks for the comment!

  4. This was fantastic! Like Terry, I especially liked this:

    Lesson of Life: If being human with a long list of sins is part of your curriculum vitae, you too can be a saint.

    So many people think that because they have indiscretions or sins in their past that all hope is lost for them. They deny themselves a chance at redemption, and deny that God can redeem them through His grace. If we live an examined life and learn from our mistakes we can become the saints we are called to be. I used a somewhat clumsy analogy of this in my blog today at

    • Thanks OC. You’re right. Hope is such an essential Christian virtue that our culture (and fallen nature) needs so much today. Thanks for sharing your insight and the link to your post (which I will read during my lunch break today).

      BTW… GO SOX!
      and B-Strong!

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