The Rule of Saint Benedict contains some beautiful instructions on how a monastic community should welcome guests:
[Let them] be received like Christ, for He will say, “I was as a stranger, and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35). … In the reception of poor men and pilgrims special attention should be shown, because in them is Christ most truly welcome. (Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 53)
For St Benedict, receiving a guest, particularly a pilgrim, is like receiving Christ and, just as Christ was welcomed into the house of Martha and Mary, on our pilgrimage from Manresa to Loyola we experienced the privilege of being received like Christ by generous strangers who provided food, lodging, and even somewhere to wash our clothes. At times it all seemed a long way from what we had read in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus about growing “accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging” (Constitutions, n. 67) during the pilgrimage.
Jerónimo Nadal, an early Jesuit who had the task of explaining the nascent Society’s Constitutions to its first members, wrote how one of the key characteristics of Jesuit life is mobility:
“[Jesuits] consider that they are in their most peaceful and pleasant house when they are constantly on the move, when they travel throughout the earth, when they have no place to call their own, when they are always in need, always in want – only let them in some small way imitate Christ Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head.”
That echoed with how each day of the pilgrimage we would set out at first light with a particular destination in mind but often with no guarantee of food or shelter when we got there. Our resting places ranged from church porches, to pilgrim hostels (albergues), parish centres, village halls, and even a disused hotel high up in the Aralar mountains. On the way we were sometimes welcomed as Christ was received, but we were also rejected as Christ was. At times it was difficult to find somewhere to lay our heads. Occasionally we were turned away and the experience of rejection was painful, particularly when we had expected a priest or religious community would be sympathetic to two pilgrims asking for nothing more than a place to put down their sleeping bags for the night. It was hard to accept being dismissed out of hand or told to go to the town hall, when we knew perfectly well that it would be closed on Sunday and we were simply being fobbed off. We appreciated that not everyone we went to would be in a position to help, but it was always easier to accept when someone declined if they had first listened to our reasons for asking for help. My own experience of the pilgrimage, therefore, involved learning that our home is the road, that we are a pilgrim Society, going where we are sent and where the Spirit leads us. The pilgrimage took us to the birthplaces of Peter Claver, Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola, yet their lives, their pilgrimages, took them to other lands. Peter Claver entered the noviciate at the age of 20 in 1601, discerned a calling to become a missionary in Colombia and remained there until his death in 1654, never returning to his hometown of Verdú.
Francis Xavier went to the University of Paris as a young man and began a journey that ended on an island off China, never seeing the castle of Javier again. Ignatius experienced his conversion in the family tower house at Loyola, but his first steps in discernment led him away from Loyola on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When he eventually returned to the town of Azpeitia near Loyola thirteen years later, he chose to stay with pilgrims and lepers at the Magdalena Hospital rather than in his former home. Thus not only were we walking in the opposite direction from the one followed by Ignatius on his journey from Loyola to Manresa, it was through places that three great Jesuit saints had consciously left behind. When meditating on these facts two lines from the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan’s lyric ‘The Retreat’ sprang to mind:
“Some men a forward motion love, But I by backward steps would move.”
Perhaps there was something in my life that was holding me back, making me yearn for an earlier time of comfort, security and independence. The “backward steps” took us through Verdú, Javier and Loyola, but the internal journey was through the choices I had made in the course of my life, about studies, employment, relationships, commitments, what my deepest desires were, and where I felt called. The Bad Spirit would say, “What are you doing walking round Spain like some superannuated gap-year student when you might be doing a proper job?” At the same time I knew that I had wrestled with a religious vocation on-and-off for more than a decade before crossing the threshold of the Jesuit novitiate in Birmingham last September.
Walking for more than four weeks in a foreign country when you don’t speak the local languages, have little money and few resources brings a variety of experiences, whether good, bad, pleasant, frustrating or comic.The very idea of travelling across Spain with no mobile phone, no GPS, some outdated 1:250,000 scale Michelin road maps, and only 6 Euros per day struck many people as bizarre. Placed in that situation we knew what it was like to be dependent on the generosity of others. Occasionally that generosity came unexpected and unasked. Late one morning as the sun beat down on a stretch of road on the outskirts of Bellpuig, a small town in Catalonia, we took refuge under the canopy of a petrol station.
It was our fifth day walking, the hottest day of the pilgrimage so far, and I was desperate for something to cool me down other than the lukewarm water in my flask. As I crouched on the ground cursing the whole idea of making the pilgrimage in the middle of a heatwave, a woman carrying two bags of ice cubes walked past and handed me an ice cube about the size of my fist. Before I realised what had happened and could thank her, she had climbed into her car and driven away. I didn’t know the Spanish word for “ice cube”, or even that petrol stations sold them by the bagload, but what I experienced was the answer to a plea I could not express. For the next five minutes I rubbed the ice cube into my face, my hair, round my neck, along my arms, and against my knees. Then and there it struck me how an apparently trivial action could be so important to another person. To give me an ice cube was no great sacrifice on her part, nor had I delayed her from leaving the petrol station, and here I am nearly six weeks later recalling her charity when it is quite possible that she has no memory of the walker near Bellpuig. This plain, everyday incident, quite unremarkable in itself, revealed traces God’s love and care, and was a moment for joy and thanks.
Each day of the pilgrimage we had to commit ourselves with our few resources to God’s care, uncertain of what awaited us in the next town or village. In that way there were meetings that were not purely chance; they became providential, because they showed us God’s love. Once when searching for the albergue in a medium-sized town we went into a shop to ask for directions, only to find the volunteer hospitaller was at the checkout. As the albergue was tucked away on the other side of town without meeting her we might have spent the afternoon wandering round in circles asking for directions. Or the time we arrived in the village of Sigüés, were kindly accommodated for free in the village hall, but then discovered there were no shops and while we had sufficient food we did not have any bread. Just as we discussed where to go in search of bread a travelling baker’s van pulled into the village square. Quite literally, the prayer “give us this day our daily bread” was answered. Sometimes reflecting on our journey we thought it might have been better to have taken two days to walk from one place to another, but then it occurred to us how by not reaching one destination on a certain day we would not have met a person who helped us in a particular way, and how different our experience might have been. Had we not returned to ask for help at the Cultural Centre in Irurtzun, we would not have learnt about the church at Zamartze where a friendly priest took us to visit the Sanctuary of San Miguel de Aralar. An uncomfortable night sleeping on the floor in Irurtzun had unexpectedly led us to the prayerful atmosphere of a shrine set in the outstanding natural beauty of the Aralar mountains.
As I stood on the summit of Hachueta above San Miguel I felt a deep sense of gratitude, akin to that experienced in the Contemplation to Attain Love in the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises. Not just on the pilgrimage but in my short time as a Jesuit, sometimes unsure of my true vocation, I have experienced happiness, surprise and wonder along with trials and hardships, and no doubt there will be more to come, but through it all God has made and will make all things work together for the good.