Hospitalero (Tosantos)  


                                           The Camino Pilgrim Becomes a Hospitalero

                                             The Dancing Pilgrim September 20, 2013


  After leaving Sofia in Portugal I head over to Tosantos, a small town of about a dozen houses. It is close to the city of Burgos and was the halfway mark of my Camino. For 20 days I am going to be a hospitalero there for pilgrims on the Way to Santiago. Even though in my diary I’ve written more about my time in Tosantos than I did about the entire Camino, I will write only one blog about my time there. I’m doing that partly to catch up and because being in the same place for 20 days, there were not many pictures to make an interesting series of blog posts. I will also leave out stories, as the length of this post would become unbearable.


  Hospital for Pilgrims: The philosophy and spirituality of the house

The albergue in Tosantos is not technically an albergue. It is a “Hospital for Pilgrims”, and it runs in the same tradition as the albergues of 1000 years ago. The word hospital is used in the following two senses: first regarding hospitality, and also as a hospital where people are cared for. The house embraces a Franciscan spirituality and Jose Luis, the responsible one for the house, is a 3rd order Franciscan. St. Francis of a Assisi is probably the most wellknown and beloved of all saints, even by many who are not Christians. It has been argued that no one in history has been as dedicated as St. Francis to the imitation and work of Christ, in Christ’s own way. Which is why he has been called by some as “The Other Christ”.


  Here are some of the characteristics of our house:

- The primary concern is for the person as we follow the Rule of St. Benedict:

- “In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.”

- Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware. (Hebrews 13:2)

- No one is rejected, regardless of whether they are on pilgrimage or not.

- There is a minimal set of rules and the environment inside the house should make pilgrims feel at home.

- We offer a place to sleep, dinner, and prayer to rejuvenate the pilgrim physically and spiritually.

--There is no charge for anything we offer. A pilgrim is told where they can leave a voluntary and anonymous donation which is used to pay bills and buy food. At the end of the year all the money in excess is donated to Caritas, a Christian confederation that works for Social Justice.

- We consider sleep to be sacred which is why one of the rules is that no one can wake up or make any noise before 6am. Also, the pilgrim can sleep as long as they need.

- Those who serve and work, the hospitaleros, are volunteers.

- Jose Luis saves the best beds for last because we like people who arrive late, which is usually a sign that the person is enjoying the Camino for the Camino’s sake and has no rush to get to the albergues.


  How I Spent My Time: Daily routine and practicalities of the service

  If there is one thing I can say, is that being a hospitalero is more tiring than being a pilgrim who walks everyday 25 km or so with a heavy backpack. As a hospitalero you are the first one to get up and the last one to go to sleep. A pilgrim has the choice to sleep longer or take an easy day, walk less and rest the afternoon. For a hospitalero it doesn’t matter how tired we are, we have to attend whatever number of pilgrims we get, whether it is 4 or 40.


  Here are my basic everyday duties:

- Wake up at 6am to prepare breakfast

- Say goodbye to the pilgrims

- Start cleaning the house (floors, kitchen, dining area, bedrooms, bathrooms)

- Go to Belorado, a 5 km walk, to buy supplies and attend daily mass

- Come back home and finish cleaning (total cleaning time would be 2 to 3 hours)

- Welcome new pilgrims in the afternoon. I would explain how the house works, the schedule, stamp their credential, make them feel at home

- Care for any pilgrims with injuries or problems

- Start preparing dinner along with pilgrims who would help

- Serve dinner

- Assist and/or lead the evening prayer experience

- Setup table for breakfast

- Make sure everybody is inside the house and ready for bed by 11pm


  The People We Get: Hosting with a spirit of abundance

  Welcoming and hosting people I realized how picky I was as a pilgrim. As a pilgrim I would always have my litany of questions: “Do you have WiFi? Is there a store to buy food? Do you have a washing machine? What do you serve for breakfast?” Etc… Sometimes I would ask even when I wouldn’t be using those services. It was purely ridiculous on my part. As a hospitalero it would be rare for me to receive people who would act like I did after the house orientation. Most would just be thankful that they have a place to stay. The number of people varied by the day. One day we got 4 (two seminarians, 1 pilgrim, and a man dressed like Santa Claus), the next day we got 40 (with people sleeping in the halls and the living room). The average we received was about 25 per day.


  We work with a spirit of abundance. In the house there is no set number of spaces allocated for pilgrims, Jose Luis told me that everyone who stops by this house is because they had something to receive. Because of that we would never say no to anybody. We would always find a place for them to stay. It is difficult to explain this because the logical mind tells you that there is a limit to everything that is finite. When I arrived and he told me that, I thought to myself “That it is a nice thought, but I know there is a limit.” I then tried to look for that limit while in the house, and in all honesty I never found it, it was almost magical how there would always be space for everybody who came. Food also came abundantly. Pilgrims could repeat as much as they wanted for dinner. It was the multiplication of the loaves story becoming real.


  Here are some of the more colorful visitors we got:

- A spanish father and daughter on horses

- A french family on a donkey

- An italian loner on a motorcycle

- A korean man walking barefoot for Jesus

- A woman who was a hospitalera in another albergue when I was a pilgrim (and now the roles were reversed)

- One Puerto Rican

- A group of Camino fanatics doing the whole thing in 13 days in order to follow the 13 stages in the Codex Calixtus, which was written over 1000 years ago (what is considered to be the original Camino guidebook)

- A man dressed like Santa Claus walking the Camino in the opposite direction

- More than a few eccentrics with a loose screw in their heads

- A few esoterics who consider themselves wizards

- Pepe, the character who lives in the Camino and likes to dress up like the pilgrims of 1000 years ago


  And then… the violence began…

  During dinner preparation Jose Luis would usually start finding those who can sing. They would start singing Taize songs together while the others cooked. Singing was one of the signature characteristics of our house. One day we received a french group that could sing the Taize songs in 3 voices. It was one of the most beautiful gifts I received in my time there. Preparing dinner was a good time for people to fraternize in good Camino spirit. Dinner would begin after all were gathered together. We would begin with a prayer to give thanks. Sometimes we would celebrate birthdays of pilgrims, and we would sing popular songs.


  It was during dinner preparation that John raised his fist at the spanish woman. When this happened, Jorge charged into John and forced him to the floor. He starts to choke him and drag him down the hallway. A few other men keep the violence from turning into murder as he is thrown outside the house. John got up and started to open up his backpack to get his knife. Jorge pushes him hard to the ground. John gets up and raises his fist. Jorge punches him in the nose and blood starts dripping on the ground as John stays shocked in the ground. The pilgrims are terrified.


  Later the police, and an ambulance would show up and John, who was mentally unstable and drunk, is escorted somewhere else. During dinner I strongly recommended that those involved in the violence would come up for the prayer and that day the majority of pilgrims did. One of the first parts of the prayer experience is a time of silence and reconciliation with God. The tears were many that evening.


  Prayer: Awakening to the Camino

  In the upper room begins the climax of the experience for the pilgrim. We would get about 75% attendance. The experience would last about an hour. The most difficult part being the tradition of the notes. It was a daily occurrence to have several of the people crying by the end. Some find it difficult to leave the prayer room after it is done as they are trying to process what has just happened inside them.


  After a few days into my time there Jose Luis would delegate more and more of the prayer time for me to lead, to the point that I did it all by myself and he sat with the pilgrims, sometimes with his eyes closed. It was a responsibility that I took very seriously. It is interesting to think how a month earlier I had my Camino changed by this experience and here I am now being the one leading this for the pilgrims of the day.

The Camino Pilgrim Becomes a Hospitalero | The Dancing Pilgrim Page 9 sur 16


  Morning Goodbyes: The hardest moment for the hospitalero

  Being responsible for the pilgrims, I am the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up. Every morning I would fumble out of bed to start preparing breakfast for the pilgrims. I would also turn on some relaxing music so the pilgrims have a good mood to begin the day. They would come down in different waves. Some would leave quickly. Others, especially those who were moved by the experience of the house, would have difficulty in leaving and would wander around or extend their breakfast with more conversation. This is when one of the hardest moments would begin; saying goodbye.


  Some pilgrims would leave gifts with me, some would say goodbye with a big hug and tears on their face. Many would express their immense gratitude for it all. I also had a gift I shared with some. It was a small yellow arrow, a symbol of the divine guide that we can all follow in life and that we sometimes wished was as clear and explicit as the yellow arrows pointing the Way to Santiago. A day I won’t forget is when a Korean woman went to say goodbye to Jose Luis. As he started giving her the Franciscan blessing on her forehead, she froze in place as she started to cry. She was unable to move for 5 minutes. He had that effect on her even though they didn’t even share a common language to communicate in.


  In The Confessional

  On my last days, I went to confession with Segis the priest, where I would learn something that would stay with me.


  Here were the situations I was dealing with:

- As a hospitalero I would get irritated if pilgrims wouldn’t help with the cooking or washing the dishes. Segis pointed out that those who don’t know love, service and the life of the spirit need our selfgiving witness to it. It is a step in opening their eyes to the way.

- I would also get irritated with the thought that the pilgrims did not give an appropriate donation. We counted the money every morning and sometimes we got less than 3 euros per person. Come on people! In this house pilgrims are getting a place to sleep, a hot shower, dinner, breakfast and even spiritual nourishment. But seeing how detached Jose Luis was from this was an inspiration. He trusts God would take care of Him and I never saw him complain during the days we received so little. He emphasized how the donation is voluntary and anonymous and how we are not here to put up the theater of asking for a donation but implying that they leave something considerable. Even beyond that, when he perceived pilgrims who were poor he emphasized how they did not have to leave anything. He also welcomed them to eat lunch with us.

- I would also judge other pilgrims if the first impression they gave me was not favorable. I would even act out of a spirit of rejection and hint at them as not being welcomed in the house. I remember one man I had an eye on because I thought he was odd, would be trouble for other pilgrims and had a hint of being disrespectful. The next morning he waited for everyone to leave so he could talk with me. This man shared his internal faith conflict and poured out his heart to me. He was raised Catholic, but found happiness after becoming a Buddhist several years ago. He honestly wanted to understand my experience of following Christ. He was overjoyed and moved by the conversation. We both share a love of Mother Teresa, and he explains the work for kids he does in Southeast Asia and Africa. But there is one more thing I have to do. Last night I judged this man. I tell this man what I thought of him and asked forgiveness for judging him. It was an emotional moment for both of us. He shares how I will be part of his next book and asks permission to use what I shared. In this experience I betrayed the very words Jose Luis had spoken the previous day during the prayer on judging others. How Jose Luis welcomes anybody regardless of first impressions was inspiring. To him it didn’t matter if they came without a pilgrim credential, with a horrible stench, or if they came in a BMW.

- In addition to me and Jose Luis there would usually be a 3rd hospitalero. I would also get bothered if the other hospitalero wouldn’t be doing as much work as I was. Yet, Jose Luis, who is 70 years old, would not regard his position as reason to direct others and take it easy on himself, even though he has all the right to do so. He would work and serve all the time if he had to, doing the lowest of chores. He would never complain if I wasn’t helping, he would just keep doing his work. Sometimes he would even suggest that I rest for a while. There is a scene from a documentary I saw on Mother Teresa that has stayed with me ever since. It is a scene where she is shown cleaning the bed posts for the sick with a rag. Here is a woman who started a religious order that opened hundreds of houses during her lifetime throughout the world, she inspired millions of people from all walks of life, won the Nobel peace prize, has been on stage with the Pope, and here she is doing the most basic of works as if it were her main job. Jose Luis would remind me of that scene.


  In summary the lesson received from this confessional experience: The Love of a Christian is the love without condition and judgement. That is our testimony to the world, of Jesus’ message and the power of God’s Spirit in us.


  God is Above All Things

  Another important lesson I received is that a Christian believes God is above all things. In the Camino, the pilgrim has many stops during his pilgrimage, and I had to humbly realize that we are just one stop in their journey. We have our role to play, and we can’t pretend to be the entire Camino for people. We trust that God is greater than ourselves and religion. In the Camino of life God’s work is done through the hands of many people. We are to be sensitive to where others are spiritually and sometimes our role in bringing others closer to God can be as basic as loving and serving them and nothing more; and for those who are responsive our role can as simple as opening up their mind to the concept of faith and of a God that can be known and loved and nothing more.


  The day for a hospitalero starts at noon…

  That is the first thing Jose Luis told me when I arrived in Tosantos. Around noon is when everything related to the pilgrims who spent the previous night has been cleared and cleaned away. It is when we have 30 minutes to an hour of mental rest. It is when we transition from the beautiful personal moments shared with other pilgrims (some of them sharing the deepest hurts in their lives), the laughter, the crying, the tension, and we reset our minds so we can start again, fully present, for the new pilgrims who are arriving. Even though the setting was the same, everyday an entire new chapter in a story would be born, with its new set of characters, joy, sadness, and conflict.


  What Remains…

  I will dearly remember the daily singing and how it would always turn the room into a peaceful and holy place. I will cherish the simple joy of laughter. The degree of silly situations me and Jose Luis got ourselves into would lead to uncontrollable laughter at times. Jose Luis was like a wise grandfather to me. Out of everyone I’ve ever met in my life there are only two people I can say I regard as saints living on earth, and he is one of them. Through his presence, actions, and words I could see Jesus himself. The effect this man had on pilgrims would also be as powerful as it wouldn’t be uncommon to see those who spent some time with Jose Luis be moved to tears. Jose Luis has that ability to grasp another person’s soul and shine light where it needs it most. The greatest joy during my time in Tosantos was that of witnessing hearts being changed and eyes being opened. Jose Luis bestowed upon me a responsibility over those pilgrims and their wellbeing so that I could be, if only in a small way, an instrument for God’s purposes.


  Leaving the European Continent

There would also be a lesson for my journey ahead. Between travel experiences I would also need the time to let go, to transition so I could become fully present for what is to come. After Tosantos I would go to the most exotic place I’ve visited so far. I would go to a country in the continent of Africa, where the Sahara desert resides, a Muslim country. It would be my first “vacation” in this journey.



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