Sunday, 29 August 2010
She Ain´t Heavy, She´s My Sister
They are Sister Mary Elizabeth and Sister Miriam, from the contemplative Community of St. John in France. They started walking from there several weeks ago, following a monastic pilgrim tradition of seeking shelter at convents, monasteries, and parish houses all along the Way. (Public albergues, an innovation aimed at the latest upsurge of tourism, they usually leave for secular pilgrims.)
But like the "donativo" and the "Casa de Acogida" traditions of old, the monastic hospitality concept is evidently dying out. As harmless and decent as these two sisters are, they are sleeping outdoors more and more. They say they really don´t mind, that dossing down in doorways is part of the adventure.
But c´mon. A little nun pilgrim asks if she can sleep in your spare room tonight. Do you tell her to hit the bricks?
Tons of people do, for whatever reason. Even fellow nuns do. I asked Miriam to tell me some tales. In a sunny and sweet way, she narrated a hair-raising account of repeat rejection.
In Navarette the sisters found no convent, so they went to the public albergue. There were two beds available. They were the only two women in the place, plunked down in a roomful of bicycle boys fragrant with pub-fumes.
"I couldn´t do it. I know what Providence is. I am grateful for the albergues and the volunteers. But I just couldn´t stay there," Miriam said.
Some would say these nuns are too high-strung and demanding, that the Camino is meant for flexible people willing to take what´s offered. But these two are already flexed right to the breaking point. They´ve been inside their convent walls, in silence and prayer, for decades. Their camino is an extraordinary change from the close-knit, exclusively feminine world they inhabit. A pack of bikers is tough enough for any modern woman to cope with, much less a vowed religious. (Although when I consider it, a vowed nun is not so different from a camino biker. Both groups tend to run in gender-specific packs and wear matching uniforms. The nuns wear loose gray and white habits; the bikers stuff themselves into Spandex sheaths spangled with lurid advertisements. Both fashion statements would seem to reinforce celibacy.)
Back in Navarrete the sisters packed up and headed for the church. An old man outside told them they were welcome at his house, to come over after the 8 p.m. Mass. Which they did. And when they arrived, the old man´s son met them at the door.
He told them to go away, that they couldn´t stay there.
It was after 9 p.m., too late to find anywhere else. The sisters walked out of town, found a soft spot in a vineyard, and slept under the stars.
In Burgos the sisters met with the superiors of three different religious congregations. They toured the grounds, had tea and biscuits, were asked to pray that the aging orders would receive more young vocations. And then they were told "good luck" and "good bye." Offering rooms to wandering nuns isn´t part of some orders´ traditions.
Still other places were wonderfully welcoming: the priest at Los Arcos found them a place to stay for three days while Sister Miriam recovered from a pulled muscle in her back. All down the camino, families opened their doors and their cupboards to house and feed them. Hospitaleros, bartenders, priests, and fellow nuns phoned around town to find spare rooms. Someone came through almost every time, they said.
They were on just such a search on Friday in Fromista, when I met them first. I was there with the guitarristas, and the two sisters sat quietly in the pews, their backpacks off to one side. One of them had a terrible cold. They waited to talk to the priest about where they might stay, but the priest was on vacation. Three local nuns sat in the pew behind theirs, but they didn´t have any guest quarters at their convent, they said. Instead, they directed the travelers to a cheap hostel in the square.
I would´ve brought home at least the sick one. (I hardly ever go to Fromista these days without bringing home some pilg who´s been hard done-by in that town. What´s up with that, Fromista?) But on Friday I went there with Fred. His car was packed full of guitars and guitarists, leaving no room for even the smallest nun. We gave the sisters some money so they could book into a pension or the cheap hostel. Then we rolled out of town.
Sister Miriam left her sniffling companion at the church and went to find shelter. The cheap hostel was full. The pilgrim albergue was full. The sun was going down. Sister Miriam sat down on a bench and thought about crying. A lady sat down next to her and said hello. The nuns spent that night in the gazebo behind the lady´s house.
They are sweet, joyful people. Having these ladies stay was like having fresh flowers delivered to the house.
So next time nuns ask to stay at your place, bring ´em home. They promise to pray for you when they leave the next day. And if their prayers are anywhere near as powerful as their charm, you´ve got nothing to lose.
(And even if nuns don´t figure into your daily round, you still can pray for them. I promised to ask all of you to pray for the Contemplative Community of St. John. So do that, OK?)