Two women stood behind me in the hallway at my friend David’s church fellowship, the West Bridgford Baptist Church near Nottingham, England, speaking with one another. I was not in their conversation but was standing there looking through a table of free books. Clearly they were reconnecting after one of them had been gone awhile. That’s when I overheard “so, Ann, what’s it feel like to have returned?”
Ann replied “it is difficult to put into words, finishing the Camino had this sense of richness to it and I miss it. I am feeling dazed to be back in what could be called, ‘real life’.”
“Well,” her friend said, “welcome home. I can imagine it was something. I’ll see you Tuesday night, then, right?”
“What’s Tuesday night?” Ann asked.
“The church council meeting you chair?” The other woman responded, smiling. “I guess ‘real life’ beckons all too soon.” And they parted.
“Did she say, CAMINO?” I said to myself, while holding the small Amy Carmichael treasure “If” in my hand. “Did I hear right?”
I turned, as Ann had not yet left the area and addressed her, introducing myself and saying–
“Excuse me. Did you mention the Camino? As in the Camino de Santiago de la Compostela?”
“Yes, I did.” Ann answered. Ann’s a medium-build woman in her 60s or 70s with short, salt and pepper dark hair, a kind, gently-lined face, tanned skin, sincere smile, bright eyes, and was dressed in a beautiful burgundy dress and grey sweater, carrying her bible and purse in her right hand. “My husband and I just completed the Frances Route on October 4th.”
“Seriously! I just completed the del Norte on September 21st,” I told her.
Suddenly we had a shared story. We were Pilgrims. We had a common experience and a vocabulary for it. Instantly we were old friends.
“I walked the last 100km a couple years ago and wanted to do the entire journey,” Ann continued. “I asked my husband, who was not keen on the idea really, if he’d walk the first week with me. He’d agreed. But then during the year as we prepared I watched God work in his heart and he ended up wanting to walk the whole way. It was incredible.”
“What is one thing you’ve returned having discovered?” I asked.
“Well, certainly one thing is to not analyze what happened too much, but let it continue to work on me. In addition, God recommissioned me to this ministry here, during the English mass at the Santiago cathedral.”
“The one held in the side chapel?” I asked.
“The very one,” she answered.
“That’s where God encountered me as well,” and I told her of my experience with God there.
Ann said, “One thing I returned with was an awareness of the lack of deep connection in this life with others, whereas on the Camino there’s that rich, international fellowship with one another that you experience, day by day.”
“I encountered the same,” I responded, “and have wondered if that is possible in this life ‘on the outside’ when although we would like to, we are not all walking the same direction.”
Clearly Ann and I, there in the West Bridgford Baptist Church hallway, on that grey carpet, by the book table giving away books from the library of a woman named Grace, experienced that fellowship.
I experience something like it with those whom I meet who share the spirit of Christ. Most recently with my dear English family, David Luce and the DPs and Potters (his children and grandchildren). We share this deep love and joy together.
Of course many I know have people like this- those with whom it is easy to catch up, and with whom we can be authentic, vulnerable, and joyfully “our real selves.”
I think since the Camino immerses the pilgrim in an experience that has the tendency to strip away the busy dross of this life, what’s left tends to be more authentic. There are exceptions to this, certainly, but the fellowship is still real.
While on my last walk from Finisterre to Muxia I experienced this in a conversation with a man from Germany named Andreas.
I’d introduced myself to him, just before my two walking companions and I were planning to leave the makeshift bar where we had stopped to rest. Andreas was living at that bar for a few days, helping with some basic construction labor.
I asked him, “What have you discovered by walking the Camino?”
The question struck a nerve. He moved in closer to me, took my hand, tears brimmed his eyes, and he said, “I have learned, that God is real.”
The words he spoke, with his accented English, reverberated with a depth of experience and reality. It was as if the very air molecules began to vibrate.
“Really!” I said looking into his deep blue eyes, “Tell me more.”
For the next 45 minutes to an hour he did. Story after story poured from this man, and the tears streamed down his face. He had left his previous life behind in Düsseldorf when, five months before, he had started to walk.
“I was just going to walk for a week or so. But there was nothing behind me. My money, house, job were gone. My girlfriend and I had split. So I kept walking and eventually I was in southern France and began to hear of the Camino. So started on the Way.”
Mind you this man had no clothing except the clothes he wore, no money, no extra shoes. God showed up through the love and care of many complete strangers, who reached out in ways small and large. The stories he told in that time we talked, they would fill a book.
“I was lying miserably wet on the ground, in the rain, in the woods in Germany, and praying to the God I then didn’t believe existed, saying, “Why don’t you just let me die?”
“But I didn’t, Brian. God instead began to prove Himself to me. He is real. I wandered into this small French cafe and ordered a coffee and baguette. I had euros enough only for that little food because someone had given me money the previous day.”
“The waitress gave it to me and said, ‘The coffee you may pay for however the bread, that’s on me.'”
“I was stunned. I had said nothing to her about having no other money. She just did that. Then she asked,”
“‘Where are you planning to stay tonight?'”
“I told her I thought I’d sleep in the woods. To this she said,
‘No, you will go to the next town, there is a donativo albergue there. You can stay there without cost.'”
What ended up happening there, was this couple who owned the coffee shop saw the state of his boots, gave him €50 for new ones, then gave him boots, insisted he keep the money, and then provided him with a place to stay.
Such love and care were shown to Andreas more times than he could recount but demonstrated to him undeniably the fact, the greatness, and the goodness of God.
By the time I had parted, I felt like we were long time friends. “I will never forget you,” he told me. I believed him.
That conversation with Andreas and the subsequent one with Ann reminded me of the mysterious fellowship available to us in this world, a spirit-induced depth and connection.
I was at the Post Office in Ornamore today mailing home my bulky sleeping bag and mentioned to the postmaster that I had walked the camino and didn’t need the sleeping bag anymore. She lit up!
“You did! My friends did that. My husband and I went to meet them in Santiago and attended the pilgrims’ mass with them. That was so powerful! What have you discovered?”
We shared this marvelous conversation.
Perhaps in this world it is not that we cannot have the depth of fellowship, but that we seldom stop to show interest in others, even just to ask– “what have you discovered in life recently?” Who knows, we might discover we are all walking similar directions after all, on a path much like the Camino.