The scallop shell has been an important symbol for people throughout many ages and cultures. It was regarded by some as a symbol of the womb, of fertility. Others saw its converging lines as a reminder of the rising sun. Christianity adapted these images as well, as a renewal of life, of resurrection. In addition to these symbolic meanings, a practical use by a saint gave it new purpose: a symbol of journey and pilgrimage.
The apostle St. James the Great traveled from the Middle East to Spain, it is said, telling the Good News of Jesus Christ and carrying a scallop shell. With it, he begged for no more than he could gather in one scoop, whether it be a drink of water, a mouthful of beans or a bit of bread. With this small, consistent measure, even the poorest folks that he came across were able to share with him without being burdened. Legend says that St. James is buried in the church at Compostela, Spain. Medieval pilgrims followed his route across Southern Europe, coming to venerate his relics at the church–and carrying a scallop shell. People still make this pilgrimage. Today the Way of St. James, the Camino de Santiago, is marked with signs illustrated with scallop shells. The shells have become an important part of Western art iconography, appearing in both secular and religious paintings.
I found a scallop shell on the beach last week. I picked it up. It was large, white, and beautiful. It was also broken.
I keep it as a symbol of my own pilgrimage and journey of life and spirit. Like this shell, my journey is rather less than perfect. In fact, it is quite often broken, yet still filled with hope, wonder, and much beauty.