Sprezzatura Monday: A Pilgrim in Spain

With just under a week to go for you to enter the Blog of the Courtier Birthday Contest, this week we will be taking a look at five persons related to the ideal of “sprezzatura”: Count Baldassare Castiglione’s idea that one ought to do whatever he does with a nonchalant grace.  It just so happens that today is the Feast of St. James the Apostle, the patron saint of Spain.  While Castiglione was more interested in educating us about the right way and the wrong way to go about doing temporal things, the honoring of St. James by pilgrimage to his shrine down the centuries provides those who undertake the task an opportunity for a kind of spiritual sprezzatura.

St. James was named the patron saint of Spain as a result of his missionary work there in the first century, and because of his tomb being in the town of Santiago de Compostela in the region of Galicia.  I am not going to delve into the historicity of the events surrounding his preaching in Spain, or the pious legends which have grown up around him and his relics.  Non-Catholics often mistakenly believe that Catholics are idol-worshipers because of our customs and traditions surrounding such things as relics, which of course is not true at all. However what matters for our purposes is the fact that people in the past and today believe that St. James is buried in this corner of Spain, and what they did to commemorate that belief.

This belief provided the basis for the opportunity to engage in the Camino de Santiago, or “Way of St. James”, which for centuries pilgrims have taken on foot across northern Spain to reach the Apostle’s tomb.  Depending on where you start, the walk to the cathedral city could take a few days, or a few months.  The iconic images of this pilgrimage include the wearing of a scallop shell on the hat or cloak, for the practical purpose of scooping up water or begging alms, and the carrying of a staff to help with one’s footing on rough paths or when fording streams. Along the way, the pilgrim would have the chance to reflect upon his life and atone for his sins, culminating in receiving the Sacrament of Penance at the cathedral dedicated to St. James and built over his burial-place.

As an educated and cosmopolitan man of his age, Castiglione was no doubt familiar with the Camino de Santiago, particularly given its universal popularity throughout Christendom and his own long period of residence in Spain. Indeed, Castiglione died in the Castilian city of Toledo in 1529. While in coining the term “sprezzatura” he was focused more of the path of one seeking to rise in earthly estimation, rather than in the eyes of God, Castiglione does not push Faith off to the side as mere window dressing, as did his contemporary Niccolò Machiavelli. Instead, Castiglione believes that all the good that men do must flow from putting God first.

In the 4th part of his Book of the Courtier Castiglione writes that the ideal prince, whom courtiers are to imitate, should put the virtue of justice as among the hallmarks of being a good leader. That virtue flows from a recognition that God must be the center of the Christian life for all:

I should tell how justice also fosters that piety towards God which is the duty of all men, and especially of princes, who ought to love Him above every other thing and direct all their actions to Him as to the true end…For it is impossible to govern rightly either one’s self or others without the help of God; who to the good sometimes sends good fortune as His minister to relieve them from grievous perils; sometimes adverse fortune, to prevent their being so lulled by prosperity as to forget Him.

The Camino de Santiago offers the pilgrim, as it did to St. James when he trekked across Spain spreading the Gospel in the 1st century, the opportunity to humble oneself, and to re-focus the direction of life on God. Along the pilgrim way the rich and poor, blue-blooded and blue-collar, are called to use the time spent along the Camino for reflection, atonement, and ultimately, joy. The Camino reminds the pilgrim that God’s justice is absolute; no matter how powerful or weak the soul, all must rely on the mercy of God and His justice.

While there is nothing particularly easy or pleasant about trekking hundreds of miles on a journey, if it is a journey undertaken with purpose, hope, and joy at reaching the final destination, then the journey itself and the way it is carried out matters, rather than merely being something to be endured. If sprezzatura means going about one’s business with a minimum of fussing about the difficult bits, and simultaneously eschewing obvious attempts to draw attention to oneself, then the Camino de Santiago provides the Christian pilgrim with the opportunity to do so in an uniquely spiritual way. St. James may have been a humble fisherman from Galilee, but his efforts to evangelize the Spanish people drew attention to Christ, rather than to himself, and made a great Christian nation. One could not hope to be a better courtier than one serving that heavenly court, known as the Kingdom of God.

Statue of St. James dressed as a pilgrim on the
Western facade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

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