I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life.
-- May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal
This summer, I spent two weeks in Spain, hiking the northern end of the Camino, the trail by which pilgrims have hiked to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela since medieval times. Compostela is, by legend, the last resting place of St. James, and thus a major destination for pilgrims, since Peter is the only other one of the Twelve whose burial place is known and reasonably accessible by foot from Europe. (In theory, I guess, one could hike to St. John’s burial site in Turkey, but it’s a lot farther.) The Camino is actually a series of routes, leading from France, Germany, the Low Countries -- from wherever “home” was to Santiago.
The first thing you do when you begin your Camino is to obtain a “credential” -- a pilgrim passport that allows you to stay in the hostels along the route. I brought mine from the United States, but stopped by the local Pilgrim Office anyway to check the weather, since the first stage I was doing was known to be treacherous. There, in the office, was a large bin of scallop shells, the traditional emblem of the pilgrimage. Each shell was pierced and attached to a piece of string, so that you could tie it onto your backpack. I thought they were cute, so I took one.
I soon learned those shells were not “cute”; they were survival gear, the real passport that opened, not the doors of the hostels, but the doors of people’s hearts. Pilgrims, it turns out, are a kind of national pet project, and people take pride and joy in caring for them. With a scallop shell on my backpack, I was transformed from a dirty, smelly hiker into an object of care. People would come running over to talk to me, bless me, offer me directions. It was an astonishing display of hospitality, and it continued for mile after mile, town after town.
On my last Sunday, I went to mass at the Cathedral of Santiago, not in Compostela, but in Bilbao. The text was the sending of the seventy: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16), and it came to me that my anxieties had been proved false. I had feared that a small woman hiking alone might be subjected to violence. I had worried that pilgrims might be easy targets of theft in a country that was reeling under economic collapse. Instead, I had encountered not a country of wolves, but a country of shepherds, a place where people cared for one another and for the stranger alike.
I am not sure that pilgrim here would receive the same kind of welcome. Too often, we see a stranger and walk away, too busy to be troubled with helping them, or even with being friendly. Sometimes, the demons of race and class have something to do with it. We have developed a culture of gated communities and armed neighborhood patrols, a country in which the stranger is too often perceived, not as a gift from God, but as a threat to our own wellbeing. We have lost the habit of welcoming one another, even though that’s what Jesus told us to do.
I found myself wondering how we, as disciples, shepherd one another, what it would look like if we who have pledged to follow the way of Jesus would learn to reach out, to care, to assist one another, the stranger, the lost ones in our midst. I suspect that we would become, over time, a different kind of people: a people whose hearts were more open, a people who had learned to trust, because we would have built, together, a world that was trustworthy.
I wonder what is stopping us from doing it.
I wonder why we let it stop us.
Deborah Meister is the rector at St. Alban's parish. Share your thoughts, comments, and reflections on Facebook.