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Jerry Earl Johnston: Blistered feet for St. James: Following in the footsteps of a disciple of Christ

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 4:30 a.m. MDT

A general view of the Obradoiro's square in front of St. James Cathedral, left, in Santiago de Compostela, northern Spain, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010.

Lalo R. Villar, Associated Press

The story goes that when the Savior told his disciples to “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” the apostle James took him quite literally, lengthened his stride and ended up preaching in northwestern Spain.

Today, a little church in the town of Santiago de Compostela marks the spot where true believers claim the bones of James are buried. Legend has it a shepherd boy was guided to the site by a star.

What’s more, for more than a thousand years now, a road along the northern border of Spain, the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) has led pilgrims from France — 600 miles away — to those relics at Compostela.

Few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make that pilgrimage. But Matt Greenhalgh of Brigham City is one who did.

“It took 31 days to get to the church in Santiago from France,” he said. “Once there, I walked another three days to get to the sea.”

If it's true Camino pilgrims look for miracles, Matt’s feet may be Exhibit A. Early on, he counted so many blisters (30 at one point) that fellow trekkers named him “Mister Blister.”

“Everyone had suggestions,” Matt said, “Vaseline, two pairs of socks. More than once, I decided to quit, but kept going instead.”

What is the Samuel Beckett line? “I can’t go on. I go on.”

That was Matt.

When things got unbearable, Matt, as pilgrims are wont to do, said a prayer. Finally, one fellow traveler told him some taping tricks that eased the pain.

He’ll always be grateful.

“The Way,” a recent movie starring Martin Sheen, tells the story of a group of pilgrims who hiked the Camino. And Matt says the film gets it pretty close. Pilgrims visit sacred and historic sites, participate in local celebrations and tell the type of tales that pilgrims have told each other since the days of Chaucer. Each pilgrim carries a credential that can be stamped at cafes, schools, churches — dozens of places — as proof he was there. “Camino families” make their own meals and set their own schedules. Friends come and go. Romances happen. And for many, spiritual experiences abound.

But most of all, Matt said, people’s eyes get opened.

“I’d say if you can do it, do it,” he said. “When I walked into Santiago through the arch and heard the bagpipes playing, it was a feeling I’ll never forget. The Camino is an endurance trek. But it’s also an amazing intercultural experience. I saw signs in a dozen languages and met people from everywhere. I even met an 81-year-old guy who walked the Camino while smoking cigarettes. You soon learn that nobody is too young, too old or too small to make the trek.”

As for the apostle James, his own endurance and blistered feet would earn him the honor of being named the patron saint of Spain. A celebration is held in Spain on his Feast Day each year on July 25, and his image can be found in paintings, on flags, carved in stone and — more often than not — on the hearts of the travelers who, by the millions, have made the soul-searching walk along his camino.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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