This is the second of five reflections following my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. As I was walking, I quickly realised that I was not only part of a community of walkers, but also of a community that extended far beyond.
Behind the scenes
Even before I set off on my pilgrimage, I already felt part of a community of walkers (and cyclists): friends who had already been and were ready to give me good advice, both practical and spiritual. Walking the Camino gives you something in common very quickly.
This sense of belonging to a community was also my experience as soon as I arrived in Madrid. At the train station I met an Italian walker, who was also heading to Leon to start her journey there. We talked a little, and then made our way to our allocated carriages. I saw her again a few times in the following week. Although I did not set out to make great friends, the conversations and encounters on the way were moving and profound, whether we shared a common language or not.
What I did not fully appreciate until after a few days of walking is the community supporting the travelling pilgrims: those who clean, cook, wash, tidy up and, most of all, welcome. Even at the end of what must have been a long season of a continuous stream of pilgrims, the hospitality and generosity that I encountered was heartwarming. They were the elderly couple that ran a hostel, struggling to juggle all the house-hold tasks; the person who set up a shelter on a deserted farm track with a stove, hot coffee and fresh fruit to take away; the person who offered a pastry to go with an early morning coffee, or a cold beer in the afternoon; and the many people I did not meet who will have changed the sheets on the beds and swept the floors hundreds of times.
These are the people whose names I did not forget, but whose names I did not ask. Yet, without these people, it would have been impossible to walk the miles I did, let alone to enjoy them. These people are as much fellow-travellers as those who walked or cycled alongside me.
It is not very different from the many other people who make my life what it is, but whose names I have never asked. Not just the people at the supermarket check-out or the waiters at a restaurant. No, also the countless people who make my clothes, print my books, clean my water, mend the roads, keep us safe. For each of us, there are innumerous nameless people without whom we could not live. If that doesn’t make us think differently about our ‘individual’ achievements, I don’t know what would!
However, that is not to say that individual achievements should not be celebrated. On the contrary, celebrating the individual is an opportunity to recognise the effort of a community. I would hope that those providing hospitality along the Camino take pride and pleasure in the progress of each pilgrim. But they can only do that, if their efforts are recognised, and that is something too easily forgotten.
I know that I have a long way to go, but my journey has left me with a two-fold aspiration. Firstly, I will try to be a little more aware of those who help me to be who I am. To say thank you to those whom I know, and to get to know some of those whom I have never met. Secondly, I will seek to take more pleasure in being someone else’s supporter, whether known, named or not.
That is what Christ meant when He said ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’. It is learning how to love with an unconditional love; a love by which we are known without knowing. It takes humility, trust and practice, but ultimately it will lead to a life more fulfilled and joyful than we could have ever imagined. So, get to know those who support you, or at least have a go.