In 1080 AD, so the story goes, thirty men set out together from their homes in the Lorraine area of France. Their destination was the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
Twenty-nine of the pilgrims swore to help each other along the way. Only one—for reasons unknown—did not join the pact.
When the pilgrims reached Porta Clusa in Gascony in southwest France, one of the twenty-nine fell ill with a terrible sickness. But his companions took him along with them as they had promised. Sometimes the sick pilgrim managed to ride, but other times he was so ill that his companions had to carry him.
The journey to the foot of the Cize Pass in the Pyrenees, which normally took foot soldiers five days, lasted fifteen days as the pilgrims labored to help their ill companion.
And then, tired of the effort, the twenty-eight men who had sworn the oath abandoned the sick pilgrim in the town of Saint-Michel on the French side of the pass. Only the pilgrim who had avoided the pact stayed behind.
The next day, a little rested, the sick pilgrim said he would attempt the pass if the healthy pilgrim would help. The healthy pilgrim said of course he would help, and promised never to leave the sick pilgrim while they both lived.
Toward the end of the day, as they were still climbing the mountain, the sick pilgrim died, and Saint James himself guided him to heaven.
The healthy pilgrim was left alone in the dark with a dead man’s body. This was Basque country, and he had heard terrible stories of barbarous Basques and the things they did to Frenchmen.
Terrified, he cried out to Saint James.
And almost immediately, a rider appeared.
“What are you doing here on the mountain in the dark?” the rider asked.
“I need to bury my companion,” the pilgrim said, “but there’s nowhere in this wasteland to give him a Christian burial.”
“Hand him to me,” the rider said, “and climb up behind.”
The pilgrim did as instructed, and they rode together through the night: the rider, the pilgrim, and the dead man.
As the sun rose, the rider told the pilgrim to dismount, and passed down his dead companion.
“Ask the canons at the cathedral to bury this pilgrim,” the rider said. “And when you next meet up with your twenty-eight faithless companions, which you will do in León, tell them Saint James is unhappy with them, and will not be pleased with their prayers or their pilgrimage until they have done penance for their sins.”
The pilgrim looked around in wonder, and discovered he was only a mile away from the Monte de Gozo monastery, a short walk to Santiago de Compostela. They had done what should have been twelve days’ hard riding in a single night.
The rider, the pilgrim realized, could only be Saint James himself.
He turned to thank the apostle, but found he was alone.
* * *
This is my retelling of the fourth miracle listed in The Miracles of Saint James section of the Codex Calixtenus, a twelfth-century manuscript about Saint James and his pilgrimage.
If you’re interested in more miracles and other historical information about the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago, I highly recommend The Miracles of Saint James: Translations from the Liber Sancti Jacobi.