ST ANTON/ST NICHOLAS – This Camino has found me each night in different kinds of Albergues (pilgrim hostels), either private, municipal, or religious. An Albergues is more or less a modern building with large rooms of bunk beds, showers, laundry facilities, and toilets. Each has its own rules and personality, and are an essential part of The Camino experience. It is where you meet other pilgrims and swap stories about the day.
Before Albergues, pilgrims slept outside, in homes, and when in trouble or danger, Hospitals. The modern day hospital, sometimes called a hospice, are a throwback to a more ancient experience and have a special set of guidelines.
- No electricity, hot water or wifi
- Staffed by volunteers
- Located in historically significant places (a former hospital or hospice) that are remote
- The door never closes, and they never turn away a pilgrim.
- Donativo – by donation.
I have not seen these rules written anywhere, they are ones observed in practice.
Tonight I stayed at Hospital de Peregrinos de San Antón, or the Hospital for the Pilgrims of Saint Anthony which is among the 14c ruins of a former monastery, outpost, and hospital for a now defunct order of the Catholic Church. The Order of Saint Anthony was a healing order based on the Egyptian 3c hermit of the same name.
I came to know St. Anthony in 2005 when the staff at my first church gave me 10” figurine. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and I was forever losing my keys (among other things). About a month after this gift found a home on my bookshelf, the Saint committed suicide one night by jumping off and cracking off both his head, and the head of baby Jesus. I guess my disorganization was just too much.
San Anton’s located here in the 12c, to both protect the pilgrims of the Camino, and help the sick or wounded. In the 18c the order became corrupt and was disbanded by the Pope and the monastery fell into ruin.
The ruins are beautiful, and the architecture impressive. When checking in the volunteer, Kerri, reminds me that there is no electricity, warm showers, wifi, or other modern amenities. It feels like I’m signing a waiver of liability, but I’m excited to stay here. I am the first and over the afternoon, six others would come along and I figure out calling this place a hospital, is not purely figurative; there is healing to begin here.
People who want to stay at a Hospital are a different breed. One might think they are here for the adventure of it, but it seems they have their reasons for walking The Camino. There is Allie-Mac, from South Africa who has his South African flag attached to his backpack. Once he sees my Ghana flag, and learns I live in Ghana, we share African greetings with each other. This is Allie-Mac’s second night at St. Anton’s.
There is a young author from Connecticut, who had walked in from the next town to look around the ruins after having rushed by them yesterday. Impulsively she decides to spend the night with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, and ones borrowed from the donativo box (I too wore a coat from that donativo box). I learned she had lost her husband in November, but before his death, they had watched the movie The Way, and he told her he wanted her to do it after he was gone. There were two Dutch women who had both left their husbands of 30 years, and started their Camino in Lourdes, France. A man and a dog, on their way back home from Santiago. Four years earlier he had left his wife and daughter to walk from (and was heading back to) Switzerland, and then there was me, unaware of the changes that were about to begin in me.
As I listen to their stories before dinner and feel the weight of emotional sadness filled the room. The weight of their packs is nothing compared to what they are carrying, emotionally. I wonder about the volunteers who run the place, how can they listen to these stories every night?
The next morning I had the good fortune to run into The Marys (who I hadn’t seen in days) and together we walked toward the Hospice of San Nicolas. After arriving I asked, “How do you do it?”
I was shutting down from compassion fatigue, and needed advice from these professionals. This night, I pulled no strings, but they didn’t know. I watched their pastoral care, and how adept they were at keeping boundaries.
A highlight of the Camino is the communal meal, a meal we cook, wash up after, and eat together like a family. This candlelit meal feels like you are a part of something special, unique and when I meet pilgrims who have shared this experience in the following days, there is a common bond.
While everyone is cooking dinner, I play guitar and sing songs from Taize. The room has beautiful acoustics, and I enjoy playing this fine Spanish guitar and hearing the music resonate in the room. As we eat, I feel the night getting cold, and a pilgrim closes the doors to the outside. Both hosts jump up, and urgently ask them to be re-opened. Apparently, a hospice must always have open doors to welcome a passing pilgrim (see rule #4 above).
But in the morning I vow to find a regular Albergues, one with electricity, and a proper pilgrim meal. All my devices are run down, I’m tired of pasta, and am struggling with “a pilgrim is always grateful”.
Kerri told the story of her first Camino after she turned 50. She was a driven software developer from California, and had come to conquer the Camino…until she reached San Anton’s. She had the sort of experience I am discovering I am having. An awakening that wasn’t about the destination, or the number of miles walked, or even your arrival time. The Camino uses is your Journey, and that kind of thing can’t be hurried. “Nobody does a second Camino faster,” she jokes, but her meaning is clear, why not walk this Camino as if it was your second?
After all my jousting about Ambition the past few days, I leave San Anton’s rethinking their conclusions. Kerri will soon return to the States as her two weeks are up, (volunteers have a two week maximum stay, to avoid the emotional burnout of listening to pilgrim’s stories every night).
In the morning, I take a more ancient path not on the road and just before reaching town, double back to take a picture of them as a reminder of the change they began in this Camino of mine.
“All journeys have secret destinations for which the traveler is unaware,” she reminds me as I leave the second time. I feel lighter, and am excited about the course correction Kerri has begun and the secret destinations of my Camino.