Friday, 18 April 2014
"Please help," the nun said.
"Please help," said the monjita on the telephone. She and the sisters who usually run the albergue are off on a retreat. "None of the people filling in has any English. Most of the pilgrims coming in have no Spanish. You told me to call if I need help, and now I do," she said.
And so I went. On Thursday morning in Carrion de los Condes, a smiling group of Madrileño volunteers met me at the door, lay members of the Trinitarian religious order in Alcorcon, outside Madrid. I walked in at about 11 a.m. for a quick run-through, just to learn where things are kept and how the routine runs, just an hour or so, seeing as I would be back early Sunday morning to run the place myself.
But no. I had to stay, they said. Had to help process the incoming pilgrims, said MariCarmen and Carmen and Maria.
They asked so nicely. I didn´t have a whole lot else to do. So I stayed.
I did not walk out again til the bells clanged and jangled next door to announce the 6 p.m. Mass.
In the hours between we registered 44 pilgrims, sang to them, blessed them, counted out coins for the laundry machines, run them through the rules and the hours, mopped up flooded showers, started the desserts for the communal dinner (all the restaurants are closed for the holiday), and ourselves ate, in shifts, a hearty takeout lunch with the Trinitarian and parish priests. We ate out of takeout containers, perched on lawn chairs, hunkered over trestle tables out in the garage.
I spoke a lot of Spanish and a lot of English.
The afternoon passed fast.
I remembered how nice it is to be a hospitalera in an albergue. It is a calling, a time-honored ministry. It is also exhausting. The pilgrims coming through the door were done-in by the spring sunshine and long miles, but the hospis were just as wrinkled round the eyes. Their many trips up and down the stairs and the long nights spent sleeping beneath a tower full of bells weighed on their features.
Still, their patience, at times, was Job-like. Their love was brotherly. At one point, a foot-washing even broke out -- the non-symbolic, Epsom-salt kind. We laid our hands on the sick, we fed the hungry, sheltered the travelers, we told a couple of transients sure, they could get showers before they caught the bus south. (When a pilgrim arrived with no money, they paid his five-Euro fee.)
And me, I spoke. I communicated with people whose exotic languages I´ve only encountered in Ikea furniture-assembly instructions: French people, Poles, Finns ... Canadians, even! I learned what they needed and I turned it into Spanish for the Trinitarians. Unburdened by the rules of grammar, I spoke with the tongues of Men and Angels.
I shared the Good News of a clean bed and dinner.
The nun asked, so I said yes. Now I am knackered.
And that was just the quick run-through.
Tomorrow morning I go back to stay the full 24-hour shift, filling the gap til the replacement crew arrives.
Then we´ll see who´s asking for help!