Sunday, 29 August 2010

She Ain´t Heavy, She´s My Sister

They have nice hands and neat, clean faces. They have almost 40 years of combined service between them. They´re walking the Camino under a special dispensation, to pray for their community, which is going through a crisis. They wear their gray and white habits under their backpacks.

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. 

And yesterday they arrived here at the Peaceable, having walked all the way from Carrion de los Condes. The dogs adored them. Tim was smitten. Even the greyhounds ventured out to look them over. Soon our clothesline was hung with the various oddments of hand-made habits. They sang a pretty French song to bless our dinner. When they did the dinner dishes they also scrubbed down the countertops, swept the floor, and picked the black stuff out of the blender-blade attachments. In the wee hours I heard their voices speaking low in the salon, intoning together the night office of prayer.

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?)


ksam said...

Ok...eastern USA is on it! As an honest to God "Practicing Catklic" I am ashamed of my own brethren! We whine and complain of lack of "vocations" or is it answers to that call, and then...and then we treat the already profesed so poorly. Shame on all of us. Peaceable ... one and all... thank you for doing this.

Any word on Antoine??? Will be thinking of him at Mass this morning also.

WIshing the rest of your Sunday is terrific, Gracias, Karin

Anonymous said...

"Both fashion statements would seem to reinforce celibacy."
Now... that was very funny.
The Camino seems to be an endless stream of great stories. Thanks, keep them coming...


The FileNet Smurf said...

"I promised to ask all of you to pray for the Contemplative Community of St. John. So do that, OK?" Done.

Anonymous said...

will do...candle on the table, and a smile on my face,


Pilgrims Patch said...

Remember our discussion about the need to develop a subculture of alternative places for true pilgrim to stay. Houses that are for the committed. Your blog makes the point this time.It is time!

verena said...

lovely! your such a gifted writer! :-)

Pilgrim Nell said...

Candles lit and prayers ascending but I had to spend 15 minutes clearing my mind of your image of lycra clad biker boys before I could start to pray without giggling.
As for any the locations/institutions that said there was 'no room at the inn' for the two sisters I'd say name and shame the buggers.

claire said...

What a lovely post! Yest, I will pray for these sisters :-) Thank you for taking care of them.

francosantiago92 said...

thank you and the sisiters for the lovley story, i walked many caminos, lourdes, fatima, roma, padouve, santiago de compostela, isaw not onley the church from the front, many times from behind and inside, what i mean is, that pilgrims welcome with open moneybox, but if you aske for shelter by the church, uups, there change the face. so a big compliment to this woman. i will pray for them every day.

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