Friday, 4 September 2015

Old Man San Anton

from the fields to the south you see how big he really is


San Anton is famous and beloved and beautiful despite his many years. I live about 100 kilometers from his place outside Castrojeriz.  We only became acquainted a few months ago, when someone put me in charge of his daily caretakers. I cannot say I know him well.  

San Anton is stony and brooding and powerful; his figure is skeletal. He stands along the road where thousands pass. People stop to snap his photo, but only some of them follow the arrows round to the open gate. Inside they find the ravaged ruin of a monastery hospital and church, now reduced to a rustic rest-stop. The visitors stand and stare up at Anton’s roofless apse. If they’re aware of such things, they feel the power of the place.   

There’s a little pilgrim shelter built in there, with bunks for 12 people to sleep. A peevish old man next door controls the water supply. There’s no electricity to speak of, and very little water. There is no hot water at all, unless you warm it up on the gas cooker. But what seems to scare most people away is its total lack of wifi.
in through the back gates

San Anton is emblematic of the scruffy, minimalist shelters that pilgrims settled-for for centuries, in the years when the Santiago pilgrimage dropped out of public popularity. He runs on goodwill and donations. The people who keep him going are volunteers, like in many other pilgrim albergues.
But the volunteers at San Anton, like San Anton himself, are exceptional.

Most hospitaleros have a lot of advance time to plan for their term of service. My guys came out of the woodwork at the last minute -- I learned in early April that I was in charge, and the doors would open May 1. I had a month to find 20 volunteers.

I did not think I could do that. I resigned myself to spending much of my own summer at San Anton. 
“Let Things Come to You,” a wise meme told me then. I grabbed onto that, and chose to believe it. I put out the word on the internet: Come and serve at San Anton!  
father/daughter hospi team from USA

And so they came – hospitaleros from Scotland, Ireland, England, Belgium, South Africa, Austria, USA, Germany, Spain, and Poland. More than enough; I had to turn away some who’d never walked The Way, who’d never spent time outdoors, who needed special medical care, who just wanted a free place to live on the camino. Some canceled out, others were called away, but always another one, a new one, emerged just in time. I lost a volunteer to stomach flu, and another whose girlfriend decided after three days that he just couldn’t take it. 

All but two hospis have turned out to be excellent, so far. And the not-so-excellent ones were not bad hospitaleros. They’d have done fine in a more civilized albergue. They weren’t a good fit. They didn’t “get” what San Anton is about. 

He is not about crowd control, orderliness, or hygiene. Anton is a ruin. There will be dust and mud. There will be spiders and flies. There will be busloads of tourists demanding to use the toilet (which is reserved for pilgrims staying overnight); there will be long, dull afternoons with nobody there at all. Anton is not about hospitaleros. He just tolerates them, I think. San Anton is exactly what you see when you come in the gate.   

He is not about money. There’s a tendency for hospis to put the donation box next to the credential stamp, especially when the bus tourists show up. There’s a moment when the pilgrim asks “how much?” and the hospi has to say, “whatever amount you can give. We’re donativo…” And trust the traveler to put in at least enough Euro to cover his own costs.
German/Austrian hospis

San Anton is poor, old, and skinny, but he is proud. He needs to be maintained, but he does not need to be improved. Hot water, bowers of flowers, washing machines, swimming pools, lights at night… San Anton never had those things, and he shows you real quick just how little you can live on, too.

Anton says pilgrims don’t need wifi.  They don’t need a hot showers – they can survive on cold showers, or no showers at all! They might be used to three-course spreads at dinnertime, but a simple salad and spaghetti will do just as well. Twenty-first century pilgrims can go to bed at sundown, like people did there for centuries.  But if they stay up a while, there are ghost stories around the campfire. The strip of sky seen through Anton’s broken ribs at night puts on a spectacular show of stars. Pilgrims who stay awake long enough will hear the owls shriek.    

(For pilgrims who sleep, I went ahead and asked for money to buy new mattresses, and now I’m buying bedbug-proof covers for those. Anton may be scruffy, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to be tawdry, or infested. We gotta keep his dignity, really.)


I have never spent a night inside the gates of San Anton. I have never served there myself as a hospitalera. But the old guy's got something going on when it comes to keeping himself looked-after. He’s attracted just the right kind of folks, from all over the world. 
People as wiry, tough, and beautiful as he is. 

Think about becoming a hospitalero at Monasterio San Anton for two weeks in 2016. If you have made the Camino de Santiago, are in good health, can withstand "camping-out" conditions, and have some training in hospitality, get in touch. I need 19 committed people willing to serve two-week slots from May through September.   

8 comments:

Verena Ma said...

you got it well dear, it's a wonderful place.
I love it.
after working there for a few days i wrote this:
"San Anton feels like an amazing place, beautiful, peaceful and quiet. Its magic kind of slows down people almost as soon as they walk in the door. They stop in awe and feel the lovely silence behind the rustling of the Meseta wind in the trees and the sounds of the many birds living here. They feel touched by the enormous space the ruined church is still forming and by the simplicity and friendliness of our lifestyle here."
And yes, I'm so glad that I'll be back :-) Thank you!

https://www.facebook.com/verena.ma

tritetales.com said...

I'm sorry it will be closed when I come by in November. And further, I'll just miss your clean-up days. Oh well, I can do some clean up anyway, further along the way.
- Clare

Lee A. Tolman said...

Enjoyed your writing Reb. Look forward to serving. Hey Verena, maybe we could be a team.

Lee A. Tolman said...

Enjoyed your writing Reb. Look forward to serving. Hey Verena, maybe we could be a team.

Verena Ma said...

Yessss :-)

Verena Ma said...

Yessss :-)

Corinne said...

I am available July..Aug 2016....loved serving st San Anton

Corinne said...

still in Castrojeriz...just can't leave....