A while back, I walked the Camino de Santiago as part of my grief healing process after losing my son. I had been informed, and found it true, that the spirituality, the soul saving energy of the Holy Spirit was “so thick there that you could cut it with a knife.” The love and fraternity penetrated every perigrino, the pilgrims there for so many reasons, with such affect and effect that even the social participants would be changed forever. Especially during the evenings at the albergues, the Spanish hostels for pilgrims, where sharing, toasting and camaraderie were evident. It was truly one of the highlights of my life – so much so that I would return back to operate my own albergue along “the way.”
And so, I saw myself working with such effort that I was exhausted each day. We decided to operate our hostel for no set fee, the pilgrim would pay what they could afford, a tariff called “donitivo,” or simply, donation of what one feels is worthy. At the beginning, it was like my first marathon – exhilarating at each day’s finish line, but so worth it that even my wife, who I pulled into this journey with me, felt this service fulfilling. But this calling began to take its toll. We certainly collected enough to pay our bills, as many donated much, much more than the 12 euro typical of most albergues with set fees. But day after day, week after week, year after year we were worn down.
Much like the decades of veterinary medicine I practiced, I loved the calling, the connections I made, the love and brotherhood I shared. I knew what I was doing was worthwhile, and made a difference in so many lives, but, still, after all the time, we were just weary. Some days turned into most days that I wondered if people cared how much effort was involved in what I did for them. And like the few that didn’t seem to appreciate my veterinary service, the traveler or two that didn’t express appreciation or even pay anything at all for the meal and bed that we provided began to hurt my feelings.
I grew indignant, such that I looked forward to the slow season, when fewer and fewer people would impose upon me. I was just plain tired. And so when November, and then December rolled around, I was so relieved. Imagine my frustration when, at the end of December, more tour groups came through and kept me at capacity for day after day, and now weeks of exhaustion. Every night, Sharon and I melted into our bed, only to be startled a few hours later to start it all over again. Preparing their food, and changing the linens on the beds that the next nights refugees would so appreciate.
And so that night, ever so memorable, began just like every other. It was cold, we were full, and the words came so easily – “sorry but we’re full – continue on to the next town,” where lodging might be available. But this was different. These travelers were so presumptuous, even inconsiderate. It was well after ten, and they thought there were vacancies? We had been full, and turning people away since 2 o’clock! But what was most inconsiderate was not the hour, but the condition of these travelers. He was old and clearly out of shape, and she was very pregnant. What the heck were they thinking, doing the Camino at all, in their conditions, much less when it was so cold. Their previous town had been well over 10 kilometers prior, how could he possibly expect her to make it here, and now … nothing for another 18 kilometers. They could never continue on.
I reminisced back to that night, forever ago, when I trudged ahead on my own first Camino, so cold and tired, only to find the fee for lodging I so desperately needed to be “cash only,” and more than I had remaining in my pocket. The tears were streaming down my cheeks as I was turned away, on to the next town, in the freezing driving rain.
This was precisely why I had no set fee – someone might need my help and not have whatever I wanted to charge. A donation of the travelers’ choosing seemed so appropriate. And this was, in fact, the tradition, a thousand years ago, when so many saints and sinners, including my favorite St Francis, had walked this Camino de Santiago.
It’s hard to put into words my appreciation, that first Camino, when just around the corner from where I had been turned away in that freezing rain, was a different albergue, one that wasn’t in the guidebook, that allowed me to stay for what I could afford.
Sharon startled me from those memories, when she whispered into my ear what I should have thought of myself as the weary couple turned and walked away in disappointment. “We’ll make room somewhere, they can even stay in our room, they’ll never make it to the next town. Besides, they’re probably also full at this hour.”
“Wait!” I shouted as they disappeared in the dark, “If you want to, you can sleep in with the pups.”
To help pay the bills, we raised boxer dogs and had a litter almost ready to wean in what used to be the garage. It was foul smelling of canine waste, and probably loud with whining and barking, but at least they would have a cover for the night.
I was surprised that my wife wasn’t happy with me. Apparently she was serious about giving up our own bed. She was nuts, there was no way I was going to go without, because of someone else’s lack of planning. I was tired, and had worked hard.
My heart was full of chaos, I was exhausted, and I needed rest for tomorrow. But there would never be another tomorrow. My life would be demanded of me tonight. And in my business, I had missed Him in our midst. I’d prepared my entire life for this very night, and yet my own lamp was without oil.
I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.
But I had given them shelter. Wasn’t that good enough? Was it?
I’d never killed anyone or robbed, or cheated, or told any big lies. Wasn’t that good enough?
I had allowed the mother of my Lord to sleep with my dogs. How could I possibly know she would have the child that night? I hadn’t turned them away, had I?
Would you have?