Being a peregrino on the Camino, I am surrounded by history. For example, since I was ignorant of some features of St. Francis’s life, I did not realize that he might have traveled the Camino in the early 1200’s. On the one hand, it is possible that this legend is a later fabrication because none of the earliest biographies of St. Francis mentions his pilgrimage. On the other hand, it makes sense that this simple man, seeking to be in peace with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water and Mother Earth, and desiring to “Follow Christ,” would walk the Camino.
Even though there is no proof, several sites claim that St. Francis visited there. If St. Francis walked the Camino during the 1200’s, then he would have noticed that much was happening in Spain. As the Camino wound through villages, towns, and cities, peregrinos would have eaten and spent the night at numerous monasteries. As early as the 6th and 7th centuries, individual monasteries arose in Spain. During the 10th and 11th centuries, the Cluny Abbey in France, a Benedictine Abbey, spread its influence into Spain. Responsible only to the Pope, this Abbey played a major role both in reforming the Christian churches in Europe as well as helping different regions of Europe regain stability through its influencing kings and nobility. As a result of the annual donations of Ferdinand I of Leon in the mid 11th century which exceeded any previous donations to the Abbey, Spanish Catholicism became drawn into the broader world of Catholicism in general and the Benedictine reform movement in particular. Adopting the Benedictine Rule in 960 CE, the Spanish Benedictine Monastery at Samos became an important stopping point for peregrinos as it was the oldest and largest Benedictine monastery in Spain.
Peregrinos would have knelt, prayed, ate, and slept in dozens of smaller churches as well as the large cathedrals of Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, and Leon. Scholars estimate that during the thirteenth-century, over 200 cathedrals were being built in Europe! While financed in many ways and commissioned by many city and religious officials, these churches and cathedrals were usually built by paid, itinerant stone masons. As a matter of civic pride, officials, aristocracy, and merchants in one city competed with those in another city for the most prestigious cathedral. Leon rushed to complete its “House of Light” cathedral in order for it to outdo the prestigious Burgos cathedral. These cathedrals offered “sermons in stone and glass” for illiterate people of the middle ages. Even if St. Francis didn’t sleep in all these monasteries, churches, or cathedrals, he would have known about their existence. St. Francis knew of a Spain filled with Christian history.
Wondering where the St. Francis’ slept leads to the rhetorical question: where are all the monks and nuns sleeping today? The churches are never full, except when there is a service for the pilgrims. The monasteries do not have many monks or nuns. In fact, the convent in Sahagun had eleven nuns. Four of the nuns appeared to be of African ancestry; the other seven nuns appeared to be over 60 years of age. Even the great Benedictine monastery at Samos which had space for probably 100 monks has only six monks. Where are the monks and nuns?
There is no easy answer. Certainly, people began to loosen their affiliation with the Catholic Church’s hierarchy because of its collaboration with Franco and its silence during World War II. The monolithic Roman Catholic culture of Spain also allowed no Christian alternatives to emerge. While my experience was very limited, I saw only one store-front church in Fromista that declared itself “Evangelical Iglesias.”
While the question “Did St. Francis sleep here?” is an interesting historical question, the question “Where are the monks and nuns sleeping now?” is a more relevant question. Does one accept the easily-felt, haunting sensation that the Christian faith has nothing valid or important for modern life? Or, does one move to watch for evidence of vitality and significance that even today exists? I watch for the latter.