I awoke this morning to a beautiful misty sunrise, so I opened up the shelter very early and went back into the house for my morning tea. Coming outside again soon after 8.00, a note in the visitors book told me that one pilgrim had already passed by that day and had prayed in our little chapel.
Barbara has donated a new painting for our project. She comments:
On the first day of the week two of Jesus’ disciples set out for Emmaus. They are troubled by the recent death of Jesus and the first accounts of his disappearance from the tomb. While walking they encounter a stranger who joins them and begins to explain what is happening.
This encounter is pictured in this painting by Paul Cyr entitled The Meeting which now hangs on the wall in the new shelter. While the inspiration for the name of this project came from the more famous painting by Caravaggio, I have been thinking about the importance of the many encounters which take place along the Camino and their value for walkers.
Most encounters here in Emmaüs and in brief meetings while walking, start with questions about where the pilgrims have come from – both that day and their home or initial start of walking. They continue with questions about destinations – again that day, that journey and the ultimate Intention. It helps that I have walked from Le Puy where many pilgrims start walking in France and have walked to Santiago and more recently along part of the Camino Del Norte. So we often have shared memories or aspirations.
But the deeper encounters generally occur when people stop for longer – maybe for lunch or in the evenings in gites or alberques in Spain. Walking allows the brain to rest and priorities to be clearer. Many pilgrims start with a quest or particular purpose, sometimes a life decision or coming to terms with the death of a loved one, but find that what actually emerges is something entirely different. The various conversations and encounters on The Way help clarify this, as well as the laughter and friendships which develop as one meets people again over a few days walking.
My memories of people include a South African banker escaping from the financial crisis who left messages for me and my companions once he had decided to travel more quickly than us, an elegant Italian woman who wore a ‘little black dress’ in the evenings, a retired Dutch couple who were brilliant at bringing people together over dinner every evening. All have helped reinforce the importance of community, even such a transient one as on the Camino. Welcoming people here in Emmaus I have mostly met people from France though also a couple from Belgium and a young man from Switzerland. This welcome is one expression of that Camino community and it is a message I’ve taken home to share after each part of my own pilgrimage.
And once the disciples in Emmaus realised who they had seen in the breaking of the bread for their evening meal they too wanted to share that good news with their community and hurried back to Jerusalem.
I came out of the house about 10.00 am this morning to find Robert sitting quietly in our little chapel praying to Saint James, whose feast it is today. Robert is, so far as I know, our first pilgrim visitor from Poland. He is walking the Camino in stages, having set out from home four years ago. This year he’d started about 150 km north of Le Puy. He paid us the compliment of saying that all along the way he’d not seen anywhere else like our Emmaüs – by which I think he meant a little chapel that wasn’t part of a church. As he left he encountered his pilgrim friend Bernard, who then also decided to take a coffee.
Later a family of four, together with La Bohème, their donkey, stopped by for their lunch. Soon afterwards Damien joined them also for his lunch. And an hour later Marc and Cedric from Belgium stopped for a short while.
So Saint James has brought us lots of interesting encounters on this his feast day!
Pilgrims seldom stop for Morning Prayer but today (July 19) was an exception. I was just getting up when two young pilgrims knocked on the door asking if they could indeed have coffee and use the wifi and the toilet. Ombeline and Simon had camped the previous night in Arthez – in a shelter from the large storm. So of course I welcomed them and after coffee they joined me in Morning Prayer, concluding with a sung Benedictus. They had been walking for a few weeks and hoped to reach Santiago.
An hour later Dominik stopped by. He asked for coffee and after a brief consideration of the options we agreed that a proper cafetière was the best. He came from Basle and walked with a beautiful stick which he’d carved himself (Click on the photo to see the shell and other lovely decorations.) Dominik was wondering about what to do next in life – possibly something hospitable to do with food – though we agreed it might well be something different by the time he’d reached Santiago.
We were still in conversation when Pauline arrived with her youngest aughter and a teenage grandson. She felt there had been many blessings in her life as well as difficulties and was keen to share her faith with others. They are walking in stages year by year as many pilgrims do.
And finally around lunch time Louis and Guillaume stopped for yet another coffee. Guillame’s elegant baton, topped with feathers, had been given to him by Dominik so he was pleased to hear his friend was only a few kilometres ahead.
Despite this increase in numbers today, all of the visitors concurred that there are few pilgrims on the road this year. Louis suggested that the fluctuations in daily numbers may be because those who start part way tend to do so at the one of the grand étapes and often at a weekend, so will reach Arthez together. Whatever the reason it is a blessing that several of them stop in Emmaus to refresh themselves.
What does a ministry of welcome look like when there’s nobody to welcome?
I was excited to be invited to help host the Emmaus Camino Acceuil in Arthez-de-Béarn. This has been a wonderful opportunity to give something back to the Camino community in gratitude for the albergues, refugios and homes I have been welcomed into as a tired and anxious, overheated or soaking wet pilgrim myself on both the Camino Francés and the Camino Portugués. And without Spanish or Portuguese, at least with my French, I can be of use here in France.
At just 88km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Arthez is in a very special location, 3-4 days walk along from the Spanish border (or according to the on-line maps 1h15m by car!). Camino Acceuil is a family house in a quiet street, a gentle resting place along ‘the Way’ en route to the next town. Pilgrims are invited to pause before heading onto the next gîte d’étape at Maslacq or further along down the road. A beautifully designed cabin in a lovely garden with tea, coffee, wi-fi and WC, the essential pilgrim passport stamp and most importantly a prayer corner with candle, icon and invitation to offer a prayer intention. The image of hospitality at Emmaus provides the story of the risen Jesus accompanying two disciples down the road before sharing a meal together.
This week has been very quiet. A couple of pilgrims leaving Arthez village early in the morning to get ahead of the sun for the day and one or two more coming through later on from Pomps. I have met a couple walking past, already full of breakfast and keen to get on to the coffee break further down the road. I have sat waiting in the shade ready to jump up to greet anyone ambling down the road. One morning while saying prayers, I heard the tell-tale click-clack of walking poles on the tarmac – what to do? Jump up, run across the garden to say “bonjour!” or keep going with the psalm at hand?
So my dreams of ushering many people in with a smile for conversation have been somewhat thwarted. What to do? I have opened up each morning and said prayers for all those on the camino – wherever they are, coming down from Geneva, up in the Portuguese mountains, within sight of the cathedral towers near Santiago… I have also said prayers for all those on the move around the globe, anyone walking as a forced migrant across borders or refugee fleeing to safety. I have said prayers for those in our world today for those who cannot leave home, because they have to look after young children or ageing parents, or hold down two jobs… I have said prayers for those who because of poverty will never have the chance to buy a passport or due to disability cannot travel out of their country… I have said prayers for those who think they have to make pilgrimage as penance, little realising that God loves them already where they are.
Then of course on one very hot day, several more pilgrims stopped, and I was so happy to be able to offer water, respite from the heat and refreshment, stamp their pilgrim passports (something I have always dreamed of doing!) and wish them well on their way.
And once again, I have been touched by the welcome I have received here. A fun and friendly welcome meal from last week’s ‘caretakers’, a warm conversation from helper Marie-France and in the sunshine to warm my own tired bones after a busy few weeks at work. In the cathedral at Compostela the usual Alpha-Omega symbols are reversed, so we have the end and then the beginning. And so it begins again… once more, in presuming that I will be one to offer welcome, it is I myself who have found a welcome in the embrace of others and ultimately in God.