Hey there folks,
The following is a talk I gave today at the First Presbyterian Church in Lovington, New Mexico. It’s a long wall of text, so power through it, eh?
Ellen told me that I have to keep this short, that I could not ramble on for an hour like I did last time. So hopefully I’ll stick to this document and not stray too far from the message I’m trying to impart. I’ve had about two months to pen this – naturally, I waited until the last minute.
Earlier this year, after what seemed less than a month of planning and forethought, I embarked upon my second international solo journey. Yes, I had certainly kicked the idea around many a time afore, but it wasn’t until late January that I decided – impulsively – that I needed to once more take to the road and see the world as only a lonesome pilgrim can.
I packed my bag (yes, singular) with everything I needed for this four-month journey. Two changes of clothes, a pair of tactical sandals Tony procured for me in Afghanistan, my well-worn hiking boots, a light coat I nicked from my Dad, the barest amount of toiletries I could get away with, a blanket (that doubled as a poncho, towel, extra layer, and more), and two leather-bound journals already heavily stained with my awkward scrawl of penmanship.
I wasn’t trying to find myself or running away from my problems, for indeed, my Life in Lovington – though dull at times – was one of contentment. Forrest provided me with a steady job and benefits, and Catalyst – the software company – lined my pockets with extra cash. My family has always been in the area and I have a small group of good friends I could always turn to. Though a Catholic, this church will always be home to me, no matter where I go. Yes, Life in Lovington was quiet but idyllic.
But it wasn’t enough for me.
No, ever since I made my first Camino back in 2014 I have longed to return to the road, to recapture that high that is almost indescribable to those who haven’t walked that timeless path. For two years, I worked two jobs to build up my funds before I could one more embark upon a world voyage. There’s an entire world out there, and one day looking at pictures of it via Google simply ceases to be good enough. Chasing dollar signs is no way to live one’s Life and I found that was exactly what I was doing. I wasn’t living.
Armed with my petite bag (the most beautiful bag in the entirety of Spain, one Frenchman would later remark) and the fire in my heart, Mom and I drove to Midland in the still hours of the morning of April 5th to catch my flight to Missouri. As we drove, I played all manner of foreign heavy metal bands – I find heavy metal just as soothing as classical or opera. Many of these bands hail from Scandinavia yet I don’t speak Finnish or Swedish. However, in the words of the drunken author Van Houten from the excellent book The Fault in Our Stars, “Who the hell speaks Swedish? The important thing is not what nonsense the voices are saying but what the voices are feeling.”
That line has always resonated with me for one needs to merely look to their social media account or national news service to see all manner of voices merely saying without feeling. Our politicians sling more mud at one another than pigs in a pen without addressing any tangible issues. The opinions of movie stars and pop musicians seem to compel many people to parrot and engage in mimicry without critically thinking or engaging one another. One would believe the entire country – and possibly the world – had simply resorted to spouting nonsense without actually putting any emotion behind their words. Indeed, who the hell speaks Swedish?
I spent a week in Missouri with the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) engaging in all manner of Camino activities. We regaled one another with our own Camino stories and experiences, learned how to properly run an albergue (the hostels for pilgrims), and shared as only the best of friends can. And I knew these people for a week. Yet it isn’t how long you know a person what dictates becoming fast friends: it’s what you have felt together.
From there I embarked to Ireland, spending a week hiking the Wicklow Way – a trail taking me from Dublin to the coastal village of Rosslare – meeting all manner of Irish types. I recall walking my second day and running out of water, searching in vain for a fountain or shop to top off. Finding none, as the Wicklow Way winds throughout the countryside and avoids most villages, I accepted my fate of dying of thirst in the Wicklow Mountains.
As Providence would have it, I chanced upon a group of Irish walking the other way. “Out on holiday,” they said. We chatted for a bit – they enamored with finding a lonesome American on their hidden secret, and me enjoying those distinct Irish accents. One gentleman noticed the tattoo on my right forearm and asked if I was intending making pilgrimage to Santiago.
A nation of good Catholics, you understand.
“Yes,” I laughed, “provided I don’t die of thirst first,” flashing my empty water bottle. Despite my remonstrations, they gave me two spare flasks and an apple, not taking “no” for an answer. Here I was – a smelly hiker just about lost in yet another foreign country – and these folks showed me the kindness that only strangers can provide. I offered my thanks as best I could; how does one repay actions such as that? Patrick – as he called himself – merely offered me a traditional Gaelic blessing in parting:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
We parted ways on that Irish prayer, but not before the group wished me a Buen Camino; that is, a Good Way, the traditional blessing for pilgrims on their way to Santiago. A group of four strangers had shown me the kindness and hospitality of the Good Samaritan, and here it was only my second day of walking. I am thankful for that day – every day – and grateful to have met such kind souls in the wilderness of God’s Emerald Isle.
I could go on for hours about Ireland but I’ll skip ahead to France. My original plan to walk from Mont St Michel to Santiago was quickly scrapped as I took up a volunteer position on a Norman farm. By chance, I had met a young Frenchman, Pierre Jean, on the boat to Cherbourg who told me of the Wwoofing program. Enthralled by this kid (he was barely 18), I decided to try my hand at volunteering without pay and soon found residence with Dan and Kay – two British expats living their dream of a sustainable farm in Normandy.
For two weeks I labored alongside my hosts in their fields, their house, and pens, doing all manner of farm work. I will say – briefly – that volunteering on the farm in France was my childhood relived, but in a much greener, and wetter, environment. France reminded me to be thankful and grateful for everything I had as a pampered American – indeed, when was the last time any of us non-agricultural types have raised an animal for slaughter, plowed our own fields, harvested our own crops, and gave thanks for plentiful rain? Dan and Kay lived simply without flare, the kind of lifestyle many people simply wouldn’t understand: why bother with all that hard work when you can just buy whatever you need at Wal Mart? My two weeks in France were a reminder to be grateful, to not strive for frivolous or unnecessary items, to be content with what God has given me. It took cutting grass with a scythe to recall that Life lesson.
Fast forward to Spain, and I’m once more walking the Way of Saint James, intent on making it to Santiago with time to spare. I had spent my first night in St. Jean Pied de Port at the very same hostel I stayed at a couple of years ago, the last stop in France before crossing the Pyrenees into Navarra. For many pilgrims, this is their traditional starting point; for many sitting about the communal dinner table, this was their first Camino.
We all have our reasons for walking and we each walk our own Camino. But there, around a table of 14 nationalities and just as many languages, we all shared that common experience: we are here as friends. It doesn’t matter what sort of work you do, or how much money you have, or where you hail from, for on Camino, we revert to being humans. There were no tribes or clans – just as Christ had wanted – and all it took was walking this mystical path together.
Around my second week, I stumbled into an albergue in the small pueblo of El Burgo Ranero, accompanied by Sigurd of Iceland. Behind the registration desk was a fellow American – Peter Munro of Portland, Maine – who wore an APOC pin. We got to chatting – for it’s always nice to meet a fellow countryman whilst you’re abroad – and I learned he was by his lonesome. Typically an albergue has two or more volunteers to care for the pilgrims. Unfortunately for Peter, his accomplice had to leave after his second day, leaving Peter behind to care for the 30-bed albergue and her daily charges. It was his first full day alone.
Sigurd and I had dinner at the restaurant across the street, where we shared our table with an English chap, laughing and schmoozing as pilgrims are wont to do. For me, however, it was a rather quiet dinner as I couldn’t stop thinking about Peter’s plight: how can one man manage all this? I recalled the passage in Matthew about denying one’s self to take up the proverbial cross. Here I was: an able-bodied, mostly young man with plenty of time to spare, having been trained back in April on how to run a hostel, with a rather humbling decision staring me in the face.
The next morning at 5AM, I bid Sigurd farewell and buen camino, took up my cross, and volunteered to help Peter manage the albergue as his assistant hospitalero. Together we cleaned the grounds, did the laundry, managed the shopping, registered pilgrims, and did our best to welcome all into our pilgrim’s sanctuary. The albergue, we both believed, should never turn away a single soul, for indeed, what does the Bible urge us to do as Christians? To show hospitality to everyone regardless of who they might be. To show kindness and compassion to all those who knock upon our door. To sacrifice ourselves for the good of others.
In the time I spent at El Burgo Ranero, I was contacted by a representative from a Spanish order of hospitaleros who were looking for volunteers at other albergues. This woman, an expat American, had found me via my blog, and, knowing I had time to spare, asked if I would be interested in volunteering at a new building in the city of Grado on Camino Primitivo. She lived in the next village, and over dinner and wine, we came to an agreement. After my tenure at El Burgo, I would find myself volunteering in Grado, rounding out my European leg of the journey.
In the interim, I once more rejoined the Way, making my way towards the city of Leon, reuniting here and there with many of my former charges from El Burgo. “A pilgrim first, a hospitalero second, and again a pilgrim!” was oft how I was met by these chance, joyful reunions. From Leon I walked north via Camino San Salvador – an unsung, untouched way – before spending time at Casa Lucero in Samas, under the care of an American friend of mine, Ashley.
Ashley and I had met back in Missouri during the Gathering, having attended the same training program we now found ourselves both putting to good use. She had left her career behind in the States to pursue her dream of running her own pilgrim sanctuary; and here we both were, indulging in her dream. For several days I watched as this young woman welcomed strangers into her home and treated them all as long lost family members coming by for an impromptu visit. And which of these strangers was an angel or Christ Himself in disguise? In truth, they all were.
We all have dreams and aspirations, and Ashley is, for me, a paragon of what one can achieve by working hard and never giving up.
Several days later, I bid farewell to Ashley, making my way to Grado, to take over the management of the new albergue. Together with Andreu, a charming man from Barcelona, the two of us did our best to create the best experience for those pilgrims walking the Way from Oveido. For two weeks we labored alongside one another, a fresh batch of pilgrims greeting us every afternoon, and departing from our care the following morning.
In Andreu I found the very best kind of friend and companion. We both enjoyed the same kind of music and cinema, and found our work ethics were similar (get it done swiftly, but correctly, so we could enjoy the native vintage in peace). We both had our own pain and reasons for walking Camino, and by our tenure’s end, could have a conversation with mere glances. And we were both possessed by this desire to assist others at our expense, to provide a helping hand to those in need, to always strive to be kind.
We had a good amount of shenanigans and stories together, but that’s for another day. Let’s turn to Chile.
Foremost, thank you for assisting me in raising the funds necessary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). We couldn’t have done it without your help.
For two weeks, I worked alongside a group of college kids from across the United States. I say kids because I was the third oldest there. Many had never been outside the country afore, and many still had little idea what the world was truly like outside Hollywood and Buzzfeed. The poverty of Santiago de Chile was an awakening that caused quite a bit of tears and anguish amongst my cohorts. But together we strived to do our part to make the world just a little bit better.
Several days into our mission, we were given a talk from Father Sebastian, a native Chilean, who had been a priest for almost 30 years. He was a brilliant man, speaking softly, but with gripping emotion. But his eyes – he was tired. You could see how worn this man was fighting a losing battle for the Church in a world that is now considered post-Christian. “Chile,” he said, “is a war that the Church is losing.”
In his talk, he thanked us for the assistance we were providing in the suburb of Maipu, but cautioned us to not be boastful of our accomplishments. “Before you put all your pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever,” he said, “showing off how much ‘good’ you are doing, take a look at your own country, and ask yourself, why am I not doing these things back home?” Indeed, how could we missionaries pull the splinter from our Chilean brothers’ eyes before removing it from our own?
His words struck a chord amongst the group, for indeed, how many of us could say we’ve done such things in our native land? It’s a glamorous allure – to do good in other countries, to help the poor and meek across the globe. But we had neglected our own homes in doing so. The United States has her share of poor, downtrodden, sick, and unfortunate souls he reminded us; why were we in a country half of us couldn’t find on a map to begin with? Too many people fall through the cracks in our own bloated and unwieldy educational and medical systems here at home; what good, ultimately, were we achieving in Chile?
For months I had been volunteering across the globe, offering my time and skills to those who needed it. Indeed, it was doing good, but what about my home? What about the United States? New Mexico? Lovington? They too call out for succor and sustenance, and as a native son, is it not my duty to see to their well-being? We are all the nation of humanity, but Christ commanded us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Working on the farm was a reminder that hard work is its own reward, that we needn’t be chasing dollars or materials. There is something to be said for working with your hands, to see the fruit of your labors become a tangible resource.
Being a hospitalero involves a good deal of sacrifice, of denying ourselves, for the betterment of our charges. It involves a good deal of patience, of tact, kindness, and empathy for your charges. It is a reminder that there is only the nation of humanity, and that we are all God’s children.
Serving as a missionary reminded me that faith is a powerful thing, that we needn’t dismiss the Almighty because we don’t understand or refuse to see. Faith isn’t a sprint, where we try our fastest and damnedest to reach the finish line, but a marathon relay, where we must pace ourselves and accept that together we will all reach the end eventually.
My original plan to walk for several months was shaped for the better into one series of volunteering positions abroad. From the farm, to the albergues, to the mission, my journey for self-enlightenment taught me that the self is not the most important thing in Life: it is other people.
In closing, one of my favorite quotes is thus: A man often meets his Fate on the path he takes to avoid it. And in this past year, despite my reticence and refusal to accept the Truth, I can no longer deny this Fate. In the spirit of selfless service, and realizing the good that can be achieved by taking up my cross in my own backyard, spurred on by the people I’ve met and experiences lived, I have accepted the position of 9th grade English teacher here in Lovington. It took me several years and a couple thousand miles to realize it, but here I am Lord. Send me.
I certainly don’t speak Swedish, but I understand what the voices are feeling. And I feel my place is here.