It felt oddly under water, removed from the ordinary. Sounds were muffled, tempers cool. It was a long weekend, a meeting of the Acogida Cristiana en el Camino – a group of Christians who provide accommodation for travelers on the Camino de Santiago. Half of us were priests or nuns, so it was only natural to meet at the convent of the Benedictine Sisters in Leon, halfway down the camino. It is a place familiar to pilgrims who´ve passed through the city, as the sisters keep a big pilgrim shelter there.
Pilgrims sleep in the bare-bones albergue, then move on the next day. The fact they are staying in a nunnery barely registers. They don´t see many nuns unless they go to the evening prayers and pilgrim blessing in the chapel. Few do. They´re worn-down from a week´s walk on the plain old plains, and wine bars and pizzerias and a great stone cathedral somehow lure them away from the convent. A chilly chapel and 20 black-clad nuns can´t compete.
The sisters do not compete. They have their own world going on.
They´ve inhabited this slice of downtown since the 16th century, and with only a few historic interruptions they have continued the same round of singing, prayers, and worship without cease. They run a school, make medieval-style banners and hangings, keep an orchard and the albergue and an adjacent minimalist-chic hostel. And they host retreats and small conferences.
It was a three-day meeting, and aside from a breezy walk to a nearby shrine and a cathedral tour we did not see much of the city around us. We were immersed. As guests of the house, the sisters´ round of psalms and prayers was integrated into our schedule of meetings. It would´ve been churlish to skip Compline for the sake of a glass of Toro and a tapa, as good as those may be in the bar-rich Barrio Humedo. We stuck together, and stuck to the schedule.
It was a Hospitalero Gut-Check. We discussed the meaning of hospitality in the Bible and Christian tradition. We poked around the philosophy and the role of hospitaleros: We are, Biblically, acting as deacons, missionaries, and sometimes evangelists. We looked at how a tradition of Christian hospitality grew up along the trail as more and more people took to traveling it. Who were those hospitaleros? How did earlier pilgrims view their hosts, and how did the hosts treat their pilgrims?
We looked at how the camino changed since the 1980´s, when the only albergues around were run by religious orders or confraternities or other church groups, on a donation basis. The only pilgrims around were academics or hardcore Catholic penitents. People along the road hosted pilgrims in their homes, as pilgrims were few in number, and usually trustworthy and helpful. The pilgrims, the hosts, and the towns around them all knew the score.
And then, in the 1990´s, the Camino de Santiago was “discovered.”
Over the past two decades an onslaught of hundreds of thousands of visitors swamped the primitive Christian accommodations system. Private albergues sprang up, hostels, hotels, restaurants, baggage services... the camino became a money-making proposition, and a magnet for people in search of cheap holidays. Hikers with no spiritual motivation took advantage of an infrastructure not designed to support them. Travelers, given a choice, prove unwilling to contribute much of anything. The priest in charge of the massive albergue in Ponferrada – a donativo place with space for 240 people – said the average pilgrim leaves 3 Euros in the box.
Pilgrims no longer come from a Christian background. Often, the volunteers running the albergues are not Christians either. (Hundreds of generous former pilgrims volunteer each year for two-week periods to keep the non-profit hostels running. You don´t have to be a Catholic or a Christian to be a fine hospitalero, so don´t misunderstand me.)
The point is: when a Christian pilgrimage loses its Christianity, it becomes just another hiking trail. Modern pilgrims who undertake this ancient pilgrim path as a spiritual discipline are finding themselves lost in a crowd of souvenir vendors, Coke machines, and wannabe Templar knights.
Still. The Camino de Santiago is bigger than people. It is a sacred trail that´s waxed and waned over centuries and sustained itself through wars and counter-Reformations, inquisitions and invasions. We are surely not the first Christians who´ve wondered if this pilgrimage has been bought and sold, pimped and publicized to death. We do not despair.
Because we are still here. Hospitaleros (and villagers along the Way) are the other half of the pilgrimage equation, the counter-balance to the waves of seekers and pilgrims. If we don´t give up on being a Christian presence here, the Camino will not lose the Christian character that makes it unique, and so deeply, mysteriously appealing.
And that is why we met, and why we spent three days politely taking turns, telling tales and explicating, organizing and singing.
I think the singing was the best part. In the meetings we sang bouncy new Camino songs with three Augustinian sisters from Carrion de los Condes. And in between meals and meetings we went to the chapel again, and sat in serenity as the sweet-voiced Benedictines chanted Psalms back and forth across the choir.
We chanted too, those of us who knew how, and most of us did. A church full of us. It was beautiful, sweet, soothing. After the hours of hard news and philosophy and hashing-out, delivered at breakneck speed in a clatter of regional Spanish accents, it was like cool water to just sing “Alleluia.”
And to be reminded
this is really not about us at all.