The pilgrim's name was Carly, or some approximation thereof. She was from China, from Hangzhou, a city south of Shanghai. She is a corporate recruiter, traveling the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail alone, in December, with no Spanish language skills and little English. She’d dropped her mobile phone in a puddle. Every day she was cut off a little more from everything she knew.
Carly stayed at our house Christmas eve.
She walked from Carrion de los Condes, arrived at dusk, washed and napped and had some tea, and went with us at 8 p.m. to the neighbors’ house for roast lamb. (Our neighbors have the hospitality gene. And who’s going to turn away a stranger on Christmas eve?)
Carly sat quietly among the merry group, politely tried a taste of everything we offered, occasionally touched my arm to ask is this cucumber, or squash? She was tired. I thought she was having trouble tracking the Spanish conversation, so I translated parts of it. None of us knew any of the Chinese languages. Nary a word.
Then someone asked Carly the inevitable pilgrim question: Why are you walking the Camino? And why alone, in December?
Carly answered in halting, unsure English. She warmed to the language as she went on. We sat, rapt, as she told us why. (Ollie and I translated to Spanish for our hosts.)
“December is when I can escape my job. And December is when nobody else is on the trail. I want to walk alone. I tried to find a Chinese person to walk with me, but no one had heard of this place or this walk.”
“In China it is all study, study, study when you are young, and work, work, work when you’re adult. There is no time for forming yourself. There’s never any attention for why you are doing all of this, what it means. There is nothing to make you know you mean something in this world. There is no teaching about God.”
“So I am walking to find what I am. I want to find God. I understand this is a religious pilgrimage, so I come here to find him. Or her. To find about religion.”
Everyone looked at each other.
“But China is home to some of the most ancient and elegant religions of the world,” I said. “Confucius. The Tao. The Buddha?” Carly shook her head. It was like she’d never heard of them.
“We have a family religion,” she said. “Ancestors. And there are Christians in China, in my city. Two kinds of churches, one with Jesus, and one with Mary. I don’t know the difference.”
“So… are you Christian?” someone asked.
“I love Jesus,” she said plainly. “But I don’t know about him, or the church. That is why I came.”
Everyone sat quietly for a moment.
“He is here,” she said. “God is here.”
"God is everywhere," Maria Valle said.
Carly and I left the party soon after that. We talked on the way home about camino churches and Mary and Jesus. Clearly religious buzzwords like “salvation” and “righteousness” and “savior” were of no use to her. Scripture was meaningless. She was context-free, a tabula rasa, a hungry soul that had, somehow, found an anchor in the wide sea of secular China.
The churches along the Way are locked up in this off-season December. There’s no Chinese Bible within 100 miles of here. I didn’t know what to tell Carly, how to help her grow in her simple faith. I wasn’t sure if I should. She was doing pretty well on her own.
“I don’t need books and buildings and priests. I am finding him. He is here.” She waved her hands in the dark, to pull Calle Ontanon, Palencia, the highway and the starry sky into the equation. “In the quiet. God is everywhere.”
“And here,” I said, touching her shoulder. “In you. The reason we are smiling. The reason you came here to walk. You have the spirit of the Christ.”
The walk from MariValle’s house is not very long. Carly was exhausted. She went straight to bed when we got home.
She left in the morning before I woke.
If you pray, please put in a word for her.