Susan and I are novice shelter hosts, and we don’t know what success looks like. Well, of course, lots of pilgrims stopping for rest and refreshment; warm comments in the visitors’ book; conversations and company; and perhaps the chance to pray and sing together. At the start we think that ‘success’ lies in our own hands. I’m afraid we’re guilty of an urge to ‘go out into the highways and byways and compel them to come in’. But we are soon humbled. There may be pilgrims, there may not. They may stop, or they may walk briskly past. They may knock on the door, or they may sit in the shelter, refresh themselves and go on without our knowing that they were ever there, except that they leave a note of thanks. They may want to talk to us, or they may prefer to eat their picnic alone. They may go into the chapel, or they may bypass it (and the visitors’ book) altogether.
We do our very best to be welcoming. While the weather holds, we sit out and greet passers by; when it turns wet and cold we occupy ourselves indoors, but keep an eye on the shelter in hopes that we shall be needed. One morning Susan, running errands in the town, sends a text: ‘2 pilgrims, one with blisters’. Her act of ‘welcome in passing’ rewards me (who have done nothing to deserve it) with the rarest encounter of the week. One of the two (the one, I think, with the blisters, though he doesn’t say so) is an English speaker, walking the camino to settle his mind to life-changing events in his family. Our exchange is interrupted. It will never be finished and I shall never know the end of the story. Camino conversations are like that: immediate, direct, incomplete.
Our most joyous experience is with a group of 16 people – several families and their priest – from a parish in Paris. On a damp day they crowd into the shelter to eat their lunch, knee to knee in serried ranks. They want to know all about us (‘Vive Oxford!’ one writes in the visitors’ book, in a salute to where we come from), they tell us about their pilgrimage, and there’s a great deal of friendly talk and a lot of laughing. They troop into the house to use the toilet (Paradis! exclaims one woman) and the queue chants ‘Ubi caritas’ several times through with various harmonies while it’s waiting. Before the pilgrims go, they sing an Emmaüs hymn for us: ‘Nous t’avons reconnu, Seigneur, à la fraction du pain’. I’m sure Jesus is present at every meal they share together.
After a week of taking care of the shelter, ‘success’, we discover, is not a matter of numbers or testimonials, but of offering and receiving. And it seems uncertain whether we have done the first or the second.