Death in Spain

Today is the feast of St James, patron of Spain. Every loyal Spaniard will tell you that the apostle’s head is kept in a beautiful reliquary above the high altar of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. It is as certain as the fact that Spain is the land of lands, and intense though local patriotism always is, there are times when my tierra is identified with the whole country. Today that must surely be the case. The bagpipes which blare out the apostle’s triumph before the cathedral will be silent because Spain is mourning the loss of all those killed or injured in yesterday’s rail accident near Santiago.

Why does God allow such things? Why does he not intervene to save his children from such a terrible fate? That is a question asked in every generation, and the only answer that to me makes any sense at all is that it is the price we pay for free will. We are not pieces of clockwork, wound up, set running, and kept to pre-determined tracks. God respects our freedom, allows us to use or abuse it, to make mistakes. But that is only a partial answer. Ultimately, we do not know why God allows such tragedies. We must live with the pain of not knowing, of feeling loss. That is the price we pay for being human; and the only consolation is knowing that God has shared that being human and himself paid the price along with us.

Requiescant in pace. Amen.


St James, Spain and Anger Management

One of the nicknames given to St James, the son of Zebedee, was Boanerges or ‘Son of Thunder’. I have often wondered about that. He and his brother John were among the first disciples of Jesus and always close to him. They had a pushy mother and a reputation for temper, wanting to call down fire and brimstone on a Samaritan town which would not accept them. James is thought to have been the first of the apostles to die for his faith (cf Acts 12.1), and I am not alone in suspecting that fiery temper of his had something to do with it.

So far so good. Where do Spain and anger management come into things? The twelfth-century Historia Compostellana records the legend that St James preached the gospel in Iberia and that after he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa, his body was taken to Galicia and buried at Santiago de Compostela. There is not time enough to go into all the details of the story, nor to examine all the subsequent legends which grew up around it (nor all the doubts which have been cast on it from early times to the present). It must suffice to say that St James in Spain became a warrior hero. Cervantes puts into the mouth of Don Quixote the common opinion:

St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had . . . has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.

That is the power of St James in Spain, and you need to understand something of the vulnerability of the Spanish peoples throughout the Middle Ages to understand its force. There was always a kind of liminality, a trembling on the edge. The fluidity of the religious situation, with Christian bishops sometimes becoming converts to Judaism or Islam, as well as Jews and Moslems becoming Christians, is difficult for us to appreciate. The Reconquista must have looked very different when one was in the midst of it. Today, when we read accounts of what we would now call ‘hate crimes’, we need to remember this uncertainty and the fear it engendered.

Where there is  great fear, there will often be great anger, too. St James makes a wonderful patron for people with hot tempers for the simple reason that his temper was his glory. He took something that most people, certainly most religious people, would condemn, a capacity for anger, and allowed grace to transform it into energy for good. The hot-headed James we see in the gospel, a man who was probably a bit defensive and unsure of himself, became fearless for God, valiant for truth, a mighty champion of the Lord. He reminds us that God makes saints not in spite of our flaws but through them.

St James, pray for us!