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Learning to be a Guest

We could hear the hospitality crew a quarter mile before they came into view. The thumping bass of dance music cut through the dust of the trail and the haze of the Castilian sun. There hadn’t been a water pump for seven miles this hot day. We hoped a local teenager might be selling some bottles of water off the back of his truck along this oddly isolated stretch of the Camino de Santiago.

We were soon greeted by a great laughing man, swaying to the music with a big watermelon perched on his belly and a machete in his right hand. “Buen Camino!” he called out, as he slashed off slices of the juicy fruit. More fruit was piled on the table behind him, alongside packets of chips and bottles of water.

We sat in the shade for a few minutes, chatting with a French couple with backpacks of their own and a student pilgrim from Munich. We closed our eyes and listened to the music. It was all free, a work of mercy for the pilgrims, offered for the simple love of giving.

My family and I encountered generous hospitality of some kind every day of the six weeks we spent last August and September walking the medieval pilgrimage road from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago (relying on the generous support of colleagues at TLC and St. Francis Church who granted me the gift of a sabbatical). A farmer stopped his tractor to give us an armload of tomatoes. A pile of apples sat on a stump at the edge of an orchard, the hand-lettered sign reading “Por Los Peregrinos” (for the pilgrims). Friendly people often stepped forward to give us directions. A road-crew worker noticed our younger son in tears over losing his MP3 player and promised to scour the route and call us back if he saw anything.

The hospitality was part of the infrastructure along the way. We filled our canteens at fountains inscribed with centuries-old notices of pious bequests and rested in the shade of massive medieval church porches, designed as overflow shelters for poor pilgrims who couldn’t afford rooms in the inn.

We spent joyful hours in houses of hospitality that are famous in the lore of modern pilgrims, where abundant food and drink are laid on for free. One was in a dirt-floored barn, where we sat on dusty couches drinking coffee and eating day-old cake, as a student fiddled with an ancient guitar. Lingering and striking up conversations came naturally in such places, and we formed many friendships in those gracious haunts.

When we paid a pittance to stay in a private hostel, the hospitaleros often lived right alongside, sharing their humble kitchens and living rooms with a constantly rotating series of one-night guests. Our boys read storybooks to the three-year old daughter of one host, who found calling them her “little brothers” hilarious.

The grace we were shown along the way changed things. Indeed, many hospitaleros framed their own pilgrim credentials from journeys past, and viewed their role as a vocation, a way of “giving back to the Camino,” which had transformed their own life. One host tacked up a tattered engraving of the corporal works of mercy on his dining room wall. There it was, “helping the pilgrims” — right alongside feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burying the dead.

Helping the pilgrims” doesn’t find its way onto most modern lists of mercy, but pilgrims in their broad-brimmed hats, with staffs and water gourds, can often be spotted on Renaissance and Baroque depictions of these evangelical duties. The medieval ideal was that pilgrims went, like the apostles, with “neither purse nor scrip” (Luke 10:4), begging their bread along the way. The famed chickens housed within the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada lived on such bread, and would supposedly, like proper pilgrims, refuse morsels bought with coin. When the pilgrims were sparse, the cathedral chapter sent a child around town to collect for their feed.

The Camino’s two great saints, Domingo de la Calzada and Juan de la Ortega, were deeply involved in the practicalities of welcoming pilgrims, and could well be classed as founders of the hospitality industry. Domingo “of the causeway” healed sick pilgrims and built a road and several bridges (he’s the patron of civil engineers). Juan “of the thistle” founded a monastery to shelter pilgrims in one of the Camino’s most treacherous sections (his epithet gestures both at the severity of the landscape and the rapacity of the local bandits). Deep traditions of hospitality were formed over the centuries, sustained by thousands of pious benefactions by local believers and pilgrims who wished to give thanks for the graces they had received.

In one sense, the generous hospitality we experienced, alongside so many other contemporary pilgrims, is in continuity with that honorable heritage. But after 19th-century confiscations closed nearly all of Spain’s monasteries and reappropriated most of its ecclesiastical endowments, the tradition had to be reconstructed from scratch in the past 40 years, in a world where consumerist paradigms govern everything, including mass tourism.

How does the Camino manage to sustain the old culture of hospitality? What makes the Camino different?

Modern pilgrims, as a rule, make their way with both purse and scrip. Tourism boards play a role in popularizing the Camino, and residents in these communities (which would otherwise be entirely off the tourist routes) rightly see them as an essential part of their economic futures. That said, I once lived and ministered in a tourist town (Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame), where we regarded our summer visitors as a necessary evil. I occasionally offered advice to a bewildered stranger on the sidewalk, but I never asked one into my home or stood on a street corner slicing off chunks of watermelon.

The difference in this case is that the pilgrim knows himself to be a guest, in a way that is unusual for a modern Western person. Despite all the advantages of smartphones, finding your way, a place to sleep, and something to eat can be surprisingly difficult in the rural areas along the pilgrim road. My family and I were surprisingly vulnerable, depending on the grace extended by strangers in ways we seldom need at home. The hospitality extended with no strings attached, as a genuine free lunch, continually fostered joy and real relationship.

Similarly, the Camino evinces a rare homeliness on the landscape of what is now called the hospitality industry. Our own, more familiar cultural norms distance us in all sorts of ways from the people who prepare our meals and provide us with places to sleep. It’s easy to view these experiences as mere transactions, fully under the control of the one paying the bill. It’s undeniably different when your host is hanging your laundry alongside her own or snoring unusually loudly in the next room, and when her child is romping with yours in the back garden.

We were truly grateful to be treated with such kindness and warmth at the end of a tiring day’s journey. Disappointingly few of our hosts were visibly Christian (the “House of the Goddesses” laid on the most generous free meals), but we recalled the elaborate kindness in the Bible’s accounts of lavish welcome: Abraham’s feast for the three visitors, Mephibosheth in David’s hall, the master who “will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them” (Luke 12:37).

Perhaps the bread could have been fresher, the Internet less spotty, the hallways recently swept, but who could be hard-hearted enough to complain?

Like many pilgrims, I tried to keep my smartphone off as much as possible along the trail, but I occasionally listened to podcasts on lonely stretches. I could still taste the free coffee from a makeshift hospitality stand in an olive orchard when I listened to a sobering episode of This American Life about the pandemic experience of essential workers.

In one of the show’s segments, “The $25 Tip,” a former hospitality worker, Shelly Ortiz, told what it had been like waiting tables at a pricey Asian fusion place in Phoenix during the height of the pandemic. A restaurant worker since the age of 15, Ortiz had always been upbeat and confident, good at her job.

But it hadn’t been easy. Like most restaurant workers, she was used to dealing with rude customers and shrugged off crude sexual comments thrown at her. She developed methods of “dissociating,” separating her identity as a person from the role she was called upon to play at work. Commenting on an abrupt brunch customer, Ortiz said she thought, “I am not a human to her. I have never been a human to her…. I would think, ‘this is not me. This is just a person who’s serving, and you’re going to take home the money.’”

The fear that Ortiz felt about going back to work in May 2020 made that dissociation harder to sustain: “I would have people say, ‘pull down your mask, I want to see how much I should tip you.’ They would want to see how pretty I was before they tipped me. … I would have comments before, but when the pandemic came, it hit harder, because they wanted me to risk my safety to see if I was cute.”

An exchange with a couple who were trying to be kind pushed her over the edge. They left a comment card for her, with a smiley face. “Thanks for making things feel normal,” it said.

“I was livid,” Ortiz remembered. “I was like, ‘Things are not normal. … Thousands of people are dying down the road at the hospital, and I’m here serving you a margarita, because I have to, because I have to live. It was such an intense moment for me, a realization that I’m here to create a fantasy, that things really aren’t as bad as they are.

“I saw a lack of kindness and courtesy, and it was constant. I definitely saw my job differently with my COVID goggles. That was what made it really ugly for me.”

The day after a coworker tested positive for COVID, Ortiz walked out of her job and never came back. She says she’ll never work in the restaurant industry again.

Ortiz is, of course, not the only service-sector worker who looked at her job through COVID goggles and decided it just wasn’t worthwhile anymore. 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November 2021, the highest number on record since the Labor Department started tracking figures two decades ago. Low-wage service sector employees, like Ortiz, account for the largest share.

It’s time for us to think seriously about our culture’s surprising unfamiliarity with genuine hospitality. Higher wages and rules ensuring safer working conditions will only do so much to address the problem.

Quite simply, we have forgotten how to be guests. Customers and service providers alike presume a transactional bottom line, and we all get what we pay for.

My experience as a guest on the Camino helped me to see a different way of relating to those who feed us and provide us with a place to sleep. Servers like Ortiz are taking genuine risks to do their work. Why wouldn’t we share a few words of kindness in return and aim a little higher on the tipping scale?

If we were but a little more attentive, we might find unexpected graces extended. We might discover real interest from a waiter eager to connect and encourage. We might notice the love and care of cooks and cleaners, who take pride in making, restoring, and sharing beautiful things.

God’s economy is anchored in gift. Like the generous father in Jesus’ most beloved parable, God throws his arms around us and drapes our shoulders with the robe of righteousness. He feeds us with the very best, though we dare not “presume to gather the crumbs from under his table.” For love of us, he takes the form of a servant, and becomes obedient even unto the death of the cross.

From such generosity, like the bashful one in Herbert’s great poem, our souls draw back. We are “guilty of dust and sin,” to be sure, but also self-possessed, wary of what must be surrendered to accept the invitation and the profound dependence it implies. Like those invited first to the wedding banquet in Jesus’ parable, we often reach for excuses that subtly reinforce our self-importance.

But God is a wise host, insistent in calling us to conversion, earnest in his longing that his house be filled.

 “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                                 Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                                   Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                                   My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

                                   So I did sit and eat.  (Love III)

If we have, as a people, forgotten to be guests, there’s no better school than Love’s table.



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