“I’m not sure why I’m doing this,” an Australian told me yesterday. There are times when I wonder that myself. Last week I saw some graffiti on the Camino: WHY ARE YOU WALKING? So much time and energy goes into just reaching the next destination, it is possible to neglect or even forget the work of the soul. I suspect that this journey doesn’t have a lot to do with the quality or clarity of my thoughts, but has more to do with cultivating receptivity to the holy moments as they present themselves.
I have observed many walkers, particularly the young, who seem to rush straight ahead with barely a glance to right or left, much less a pause to listen to a small bird or the sound of rustling poplars. I myself have devoted too little time “to stray about / voluptuously through fields and rural walks, / and ask no record of the hours, resigned / to vacant musing, unreproved neglect / of all things, and deliberate holiday.” (Wordsworth, “The Prelude”). But then Wordsworth didn’t have to get to Santiago in 33 days.
Yesterday something shifted for me. Reaching the impressive ruins of the medieval monastery of San Anton, I didn’t just pause for a quick snapshot of the arch over the road and then hurry on. I found a side path that led to the roofless interior of the ancient church, where only the cooing of doves broke the deep silence. Here I ate bread and cheese in unhurried solitude, listening to the memories of ancient stones.
I was tempted to spend the night there, in its primitive hostel with no electricity, but something called me to press on a few more miles to the hill town of Castrojeriz. Perched on a steep slope below a the remains of an old castle, its stone streets and narrow passages wind confusingly like a maze, making it easy to get lost, or at least you never seem to go the same way twice. My own wanderings in this mysterious place brought me to an open door where gentle meditation music wafted out into the street. The sign above the door read: The Hospital of the Soul. The word “hospital” on the Camino is related to “hostel” or “hospitality,” but its modern association with healing is also fitting. Next to the door was posted an invitation to come inside, explore the house, and make retreat for a while. I entered, passing among beautiful contemplative photographs taken along the Camino. When I found the rustic fireside room painted with strong tones of stone and sea, lit by a transparent ceiling, I took a seat as if I belonged there. A Spanish man was sitting on the couch, writing. A woman brought me a cup of tea. In the sweet hour that followed, I made some journal entries until Mau, the Italian who lives there with the Spanish woman, Nia, came in to warm himself by the fire.
Mau has walked the Camino many times, and seeing so much rushing along, and so few places to stop and go inward rather than onward, that he and Nia, whom he met on the Camino seven years ago, bought this house and refurbished it into a place where the stranger is welcome and the soul can breathe, “Everyone is welcome here,” he told me, “but it”s not for everyone. Many people hurry along the Camino who show little interest in the work of the soul.”
We had a rich, even holy, conversation, one I will long remember. When I finally took my leave to attend vespers at the local convent of cloistered nuns, I told Mau I hoped I would see him again someday. “Perhaps,” he said, “but it is not necessary. We have met.”