There is an earlier post on this blog entitled "There Ain't Room Enough In This Town..." I just realized that the text of that post never got uploaded to the blog, only the title. I have lost the original text, but it said something like: "When I wander into these small towns wearing my habit and backpack, I stand out a little. The towns folk openly and unabashedly stare. I imagine myself like the outlaw coming into the desert town in those old Westerns. Everybody looks out his window at the stranger who has slowed up and in anticipation of the coming confrontation."
Rewriting this has given me another opportunity to reflect on the wearing of my habit on the Camino. A few days ago, at a coffee stop, a man asked me, in a rather condescending tone, "Do you WALK in that... 'outfit'?" It took him a couple of seconds to come up with the word 'outfit.' And I think he realized he had crossed a boundary with the question. My friends were amused as I sarcastically responded "No I just change into it for coffee stops..." I then explained that I was a Dominicahasn priest and that the 'outfit' is the habit of my Order.
I have met with lots of different responses to the habit. Most often, people simply ask me if it is hot walking in it (It is.). I am also asked if it is hard to keep clean (It is.). I really appreciate the kind of question that a young Spaniard asked me on Monday: "So what's your story?" I prefer that question because it makes the discussion about a person, nor about an object - the Camino us about people.
For the record, I made the personal commitment to wear my habit on the Camino, because I consider this a Spiritual Exercise and I tend to wear my habit for Spiritual exercises. Also, my walking the Camino is the last part of an amazing year of reconnecting through formation and education with my Dominican identity. I have been blessed to live this year with Dominicans all over the world in different international situations. That has given me an amazing reaffirmation of my Dominican vocation and the love I have for this Order.
As to people's reactions: it's a mixed bag. The habit definitely inspires conversation. For many people, it immediately identifies me as a religious. I get the occasional "wow, how refreshing to see a religious walkingsee the Camino in a habit!" For some, they simply don't know what to think (there's a lot of crazy people out here on the Camino). For some, it is a definite wall that makes them uncomfortable. For these people, it makes me less approachable. When I am aware of that, I can disarm the situation and be inviting in other ways. There is a noticeable (almost immediate) negative reaction by a particular segment if the population walking: middle-aged American women. I don't really know what to do with that unless they engage me in conversation (One lady from Berkeley went out of her way to explain to me that all these Virgin Marys in Spain are really fertility goddesses and that she loved sitting in the presence of the feminine energy.)
There are a couple of practical reasons to wear the habit: it is an excellent sun shield and makes me very easy to find in a crowd. Today while I was walking along a deserted road in the Castilian countryside, an approaching bus stopped, an attractive blond lady got off the bus walked up and gave me a big hug and said "You're Greg's friend!" Of the hundreds of pilgrims that bus passed this morning, the tour guide of my friends group knew I was me because I am wearing my habit. Many people say things like "I saw you about a kilometer ahead of me. You were easy to spot in the crowd."
Full dusclosure: knowing I was going to have to wash the habit by hand, and it would need to dry quickly, I actually had one made (thanks Kim Breen) of very thin poly-cotton fabric FOR THE CAMINO. And I still hate washing it by hand. So, when I can I spend the money to have it machine washed and dried. It is more wrinkled every day than I would typically wear it. But you do what you can. All in all, I am glad to represent. I am a Dominican. I am walking the Camino in the same way that Our Holy Father Dominic walked wherever he went. There is no real evidence he ever made the pilgrimage to Santiago, but we know he walked all over northern Spain' and I am very blessed to be walking in those footsteps AS A DOMINICAN.
My very favorite response to the Habit was from my Dominican brother in Burgos when I arrived at the Convent: "¡Fijate! ¡Andas en el habito! ¡Que testimonio!" He gets it. And I pray for the grace to be that walking testimony.
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."