One of the most common questions on the Camino is "Where are you from?" Because of my nomadic life, I have always had to read the question behind the question when this question is posed. It would be easy on the Camino for me to say "Tucson" I suppose. It is where I have lived for the 10 years and technically, it is still my community of assignment (for a few more weeks). But in reality, I left Tucson a year ago and haven't considered it my home since I finished my work at the Newman Center (although, in a very real way, Tucson will be a home to me in my heart forever.) So the answer is always complicated. Jerusalem and Salamanca have been good short-term homes for me during my sabbatical and Salamanca is still my home base here in Spain. And, of course I am gearing up for the move to Antioch in a few short weeks. Such is the life of itinerancy. Such is the life of the Dominican Friar. We move from community to community, none our possession, none our true home.
The Camino de Santiago has been a wonderful metaphor for this itinerancy. It has been a series of communities for me on a number of levels. As I have walked the Camino, I have visited, stayed with and prayed with 3 different Dominican Communities of the Spanish Province. I have also stayed in hostels and albergues run by various other orders, affording me a glimpse into their lives and the opportunity to pray with them. Even as I write this, I am the guest of a community of Benedictine Monks who have offered me hospitality and rest for an ailing foot. They have a rich life of prayer and service to pilgrims, and their hospitality is a gift beyond measure at the moment. I have been edified by the full church at their Masses and their daily office.
Beyond the literal movement from religious community to religious community and from town to town, the Camino offers a number of other rich lessons about itinerancy and community. The connection between my vow of poverty and itinerancy has never been more apparent than when I have to move day to day with everything I need on my back. And it is shocking and wonderfully freeing to know that the contents of a 45 liter backpack are enough; that 2 shirts, 2 pair of underwear, 2 pair of pants, 4 pair of socks, and my habit are plenty of clothing. The demand of simplicity and the desire to carry as little weight as possible on my back quickly teaches us lessons about dependence, interdependence, and simply doing without, that I hope all continue to affect my life when I return to the US, and especially as I prepare to move my things from one community to another.
And then there is the other experience of community that one encounters on the Camino: the communities that form as we walk. I was robbed or the experience of community in my first few days of walking in France. The experience of walking in solitude profited in its own way, but I am a communal creature and I found the lack of a pilgrim community defeating. Since St. Jean Pied de Port, the experience has been much more rich precisely because of the relationships that I have encountered on the way. From day one, the first night in Orisson, I have been a part of several communities of pilgrims. That first group formed around the communal meal and a dice game at Orisson. I walked with Chris, Sarah, Dave, Richard, and Susan for the first few days. Michelle joined us on day 2, and we made our way to through those hard first days, through blisters and rain and mud, but always with great humor, red wine, local beer and lots and lots of laughter. When I said goodbye to that group at Pamplona, there was the real sadness of goodbye to a community - one forged of common hardship and accomplishments. I am still in touch with them. Others have come and gone from that group and I still come across some of them (with great joy) here and there on the Camino, and they have a special place in my heart because we conquered the Pyranees together.
Since leaving them, I have formed other small communities with different individuals and small groups around shared meals, shared lodging, a shared washing machine, and, very often, around shared walking. There's Gary the Canadian and Dutch Ellen, who themselves formed a community early on and invited me in to share dinner with them. In one meal we formed a nice bond and I have walked with them sometimes since then. Then there was the Australian couple, Michael and Lisa, who were walking with the three Irish girlfriends. We walked together for a few miles over a couple of days. Michael and I bonded over a common interest in roller coasters and amusement parks(he's a coaster photographer). Texas Terry walked with me the last few kilometers into Logroño and took my mind off the heat of a very long day when the walking was still very hard. Keith, the evangelical minister and his young friend, Marcel were a community for me over a few days. Keith and I talked theology and the state of our churches. Tim the Oblate who is in a hurry to get to Santiago was my walking partner for one day. Enrico the Philosopher and Dominican aspirant from Germany was my community for a day. Lynne is an American from Colorado. We spent 2 days walking together and hanging in the same Albergues before she rented a bike in León and went on ahead. Irene the Spaniard, Monica from Denmark, Rhea from Germany. These are people who were part of my community for a few days. Sam and Katrin are Camino friends with whom I have shared miles and meals; and I keep running into Andy, Barbara, and Daniel, an unlikely threesome that have invited me to enjoy their company on occasion. Greg the guitarist from San Jose and I have formed community around singing and a common love for American folk music. Steve from Mobile, and Pepe and Buzz, have invited me to share meals with them along the way. In between times of walking alone (now a precious commodity and opportunity for prayer, reflection, contemplation), these little communal experiences, some deep and some momentary, provide rich conversation, commiseration, opportunities to unload, and conversation to take our minds off the difficulty of the task at hand. It is amazing how much more quickly the time and miles go by in the midst of good conversation. These small examples of community break up when one stops for lunch or a coffee break and the others decide to go on. There is no shame in needing the break and no foul in deciding to keep going. Sometimes the community breaks up over different lodging plans, or the decision of one party to take in a few extra kilometers. Perhaps we will see each other again, perhaps not. For the moment, we have enriched each other and shared the community of the Camino.
Liturgy has provided some communal experiences too. As a priest, I have often celebrated or concelebrated pilgrim Masses in various stopping points on the Camino. I have shared unique community with the various priests who have welcomed me to their sacristies and sanctuaries and allowed me to share their celebrations. But it has also given me opportunity to connect with some other pilgrims. At Carrion de la Conde, the pastor invited me to help with the individual blessing of pilgrims at the Mass. It was, by far, the most meaningful such blessing I have experienced on the Camino, both as priest and as Pilgrim. Many of the people I blessed have seen me in subsequent stops or on the Way and shared with me how meaningful it was for them. Then one young American couple that I blessed in Carrion, later shared with me that they have had to walk a shorter Camino because they found put just before they left that she is expecting their first child. They asked me to bless them and that was a poignant powerful moment of community. Community that comes out of my priesthood is a reality in my life and it is interesting how that has been typified on the Camino too. The confessions I have heard, the communion and blessings I have given, the stories I have listened to. These are Camino community too.
One special moment of community also started with those blessings in Carrion. Last night I ran into another man, Alberto from Northern Italy, who had received the pilgrims blessing from my hands. He too has stopped in Rabanal for a couple of days of rest. Earlier in the day I noticed him consulting with a few people about blisters he had "treated" earlier in the Camino. Each of these people were eternally grateful for whatever he had done for their feet. Later, noticing that I was limping, he asked what was wrong with my foot. We had a long conversation and then he went into action. First he brought a basin of cold water and told me to soak the foot, While I did that, he prepared a basin of hot water and told me to alternate between the two. He then brought salt water for me to soak in. He shared ointment and stretch bandage and rather specific instructions for how to proceed on the Camino. It turns out that he is a mountain manager at a ski resort and knows a lot about foot care and foot injury. I was profuse in thanking him. He told me that he had been greatly blessed by what I did (a priest giving him a blessing) and it was the least he could do to return the blessing. "You are needed on the Camino," he told me, "we have to get you back out there..."
This foot issue has been the occasion of much community. Matt, the American doctor examined it, advised me, shared some codiene, and encouraged me to stay off the foot for a few days. Bonnie, who has had her share of foot issues and who has been walking near me since St. Jean Pied de Port, introduced me to Mike, who is driving a van on the Camino as a support vehicle for a group of American students who are walking. Mike welcomed the company and offered to let me ride the rest of the way to Santiago if that's what it took to get me there. I don't ask for or accept help easily. I am very independent and don't much like having to depend on others. That part of community has always been challenging for me. Once again, the Camino provides the lesson in microcosm.
Bosco and Helen are the Camino Community that keeps popping up in my Camino life. They are a couple from New Zealand who are married 36 years. They have traveled extensively and we find lots and lots to talk about when we walk together. We have often said goodbye to each other thinking that our different itineraries would cause us to go our separate ways; but somehow we keep finding our way back to each other. So we have stopped saying goodbye. We have shared life stories and Camino expectations, we have prayed together, eaten together, walked and rested together. The one time that I had an "albergue crisis," I was walking with them and a young American woman name Minnie. We arrived in Terradillos de los Templarios after all the albergues were full. The hospitalero at one Albergue called ahead for 10 kilometers and found that all possibilities were "completo." So that night, Helen, Bosco, Minnie, a Brazilian couple (Wellington and Vivian) and I slept on mats on the crowded floor of the common room at that albergue. It was a great experience of community! I was afraid I had really lost Bosco and Helen after Leon, not having seen them for four days. I ran into Minnie yesterday and she too had not seen them. So it was a pleasant surprised that that little community was reunited yesterday in Rabanal, where Helen and Bosco are also spending a little retreat time with the Benedictines.
Community is one of the pillars of Dominican life. It is one of the reasons I am a Dominican. I share a special bond of community with my Dominican brothers, especially with my classmates and those with whom I have ministered over the years. Community is an important part of the way I understand the Christian life and the way I practice ministry. How many times have students and parishioners heard me say "Community is the canvas on which the rest of the Christian life is painted?" Community is simply an important part of my life. How grateful I am for the friendships that are still part of my life from all the many phases of life, places I have lived, jobs and ministries I have had, and both momentary and long-term communities of which I have been a part. Itinerant life does not preclude relationship, and in many ways, itinerancy has demanded the formation of community even as I have move from place to place.
So I guess I should not be surprised that community would be one of the lenses through which I would come to view the Camino. Nor am I surprised by the lessons about community that the Camino is teaching me. It is the itinerant life in microcosm. And, as in my life, I am so thankful for those who have made up my little Camino Communities, and I look forward to the blessings of communities to come.
The Pilgrim Priest
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a priest of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in the Western USA. From April 20 - June 1, 2015 he walked from Lourdes, France to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. This page contains observations, images and reflections from the Way of St. James.
Fr. Bartholomew Hutcherson, OP, "The Pilgrim Preacher" is an Itinerant Preacher and member of the Western Dominican Province Preaching Team. He is available for retreats, conferences, and Parish Missions. He offers pilgrimages periodically and shares images and reflections on this website as "virtual pilgrimages."