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The pilgrim’s guide

Peter Fleming  |  02 November 2020

St Bona of Pisa made her first great journey at the age of 14. Her life became dedicated to leading others on pilgrimages along the Camino de Santiago to help guide them towards God.

Life is like a train!’ sing the porters in the musical On the Twentieth Century, in which a theatre producer has just one train journey between Chicago and New York to convince an old flame and star actress to sign up to his new project, ‘Mary Magdalene’ – not for any pious reason, but to save him from bankruptcy.

‘You get on at the beginning,
You get off at the end…!’

The makers of the musical were not the first to see physical journeying as a metaphor of our spiritual life; indeed, one might argue that Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales (late 14th century) were representative of all humanity wending its way through this world to a spiritual border with the next.

One hundred and seventy three years before Chaucer was born, a young girl made an astounding journey from Pisa, where she had been born, to Palestine, where her father was engaged in one of the crusades. It was an astonishing achievement for St Bona (‘The Good One’) at the tender age of 14.

Although we marvel at her pluck, it’s worth noting that women had long contributed to the popularity of journeys to the Holy Land. St Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, travelled to the East in 326CE and established pilgrimage sites still visited by the faithful to this day; and there is a remarkable letter recounting in detail such a trip by Egeria in the 380s.

St Bona, for her adeptness at making pilgrimages, was appointed by the Knights of St James – an order established to protect pilgrims – as a guide along the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, which is still one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in Western Europe.

In medieval times, the Camino de Santiago would begin from the pilgrim’s front door; it ended at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. The journey from Pisa was about 1900 kilometres, and St Bona guided pilgrims along the way nine complete times. (She grew ill and died on the tenth journey.)

St Bona was inspired to devote herself to St James by a childhood vision. At age 7, she saw Jesus reach out his hand to her from a crucifix, and, when she became frightened of a later vision, she seemed to see St James call her back to the presence of Jesus. If pilgrimage is a metaphor of life, this kindness by James was taken by St Bona as a metaphor of her own future: just as James had led her back to Christ, so too she might do good by leading pilgrims to St James.

We little appreciate the travails of such a trip then. The guide on the pilgrimage faced extreme hardship in a journey mostly accomplished on foot. Imagine, too, the gift of patience required of her, to have to answer to needy, demanding travellers for so long, so repetitively, and in such conditions. A wise person once advised never to travel overseas with families of friends – their divergent priorities could end the friendship. St Bona sacrificed her own needs to the needs of strangers all her life.

For St Bona’s heroic devotion to pilgrims, Pope John XXIII made her patron of them in 1962 – but not only of them; she is also patron saint of flight attendants and cabin crews. In an age of coronavirus and its devastating effects on the individuals in such professions, now is the time for a resurgence in prayer to St Bona; for to paraphrase Gough Whitlam’s famous remark, we are all ‘fellow travellers’ with them. 



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