A few days before leaving for the Camino I read a posting on the APOC FaceBook. The thread of the discussion was ‘Why do you walk the Camino?’. Various participants posted equally various answers but the one which caught my eye was (sorry, I couldn’t remember the name of this person): “I am walking the Camino to find out why I am walking the Camino”. I really didn’t know why I decided to walk the Camino again other than this faint suspicion that I am not quite done with it. I now think I know why and this person who posted this remark was right on the mark. I must be open to the idea that whatever needs to happen will happen and if I seek them, these experiences will teach me what I need to know. Our stay at the albergue Santa Clara in Bercianos del Real Camino was one of those things that I am confident to say that your Camino is somewhat incomplete until you experience the truly remarkable spirit of Maria Rosa, the owner and the hospitalera of the albergue Santa Clara. I also can’t possibly discount the equally loving and dedicated spirit of her husband, Santiago (yes, that is his name) who does an enormous amount of work alongside of her.
She lovingly grabbed my cheeks with both of her hands and asked me if I slept well. I thought “Is she kidding me?” I mean, how could I not sleep well when the first thing I noticed when I walked into her place yesterday afternoon was freshly laundered sheet (and pillow case) on my bunk bed! Not to mention the incredible lunch which soon was followed by an incredible dinner, drinks and lots of laughter. Indeed I slept well. Then she apologized to me that she didn’t have time to fold my laundry before I woke up. I kind of gave her a nod that things are better than okay and I can certainly fold my clothes without any difficulty. Then I watched her setting the table for breakfast as I was waiting for Andreas, a German pilgrim, to finish with the bathroom. She carefully placed napkins on the table so that the perfect diamond shape can form just outside the plates, all for just 5 pilgrims, the very lucky ones I might add. One by one she filled the table with her offerings; croissants, croissants with cream and chocolate, toasted bread, pound cakes, yogurts, cereals (not just one or two but 6 different kinds!), an array of tea, freshly brewed coffee, milk and the list goes on and on…. But, the best part, if you ask me is that she does these things with unending enthusiasm and a broad smile on her face. When I arrived yesterday, I looked around the house, the dormitory with 8 bunk beds was clean, and as I mentioned, all dressed with clean sheets, pillow cases, blankets, and towels (large ones). The only bathroom in the house (for everyone) is well ventilated (well, you’d know what I mean if you’ve been a pilgrim) and clean; the bookcases and shelves in the dining room and in the kitchen are well organized and not a speck of dust is found (I know, I notice these things. Can’t help it). And when she is in the kitchen to prepare food (or, anything and everything) she goes at full speed, producing everything with unending enthusiasm and with a broad smile on her face! I mean, nothing seems to be a chore or work to her. She approaches everything as though she has been waiting for this grand opportunity to serve someone! I have never seen such kindness, generosity, and love towards strangers.
As I was recalling (digesting, debriefing and trying to understand what this might mean to me, a pilgrim) this extraordinary stay at Santa Clara, a line from the psalm 23rd kept coming to me: “He spread the table before me in the sight of my enemy”. Maria Rosa has certainly impressed us the pilgrims with her loving kindness but what I think was the most extraordinary is that somehow I felt not only welcomed but also felt so right sitting at her table. She did it in a way that made me understand that her table doesn’t really mean much if I (pilgrims, strangers) were not there. It is as if her love for pilgrims and strangers alike is the purpose of her life. Her love and service for the pilgrims and by me witnessing it, I dare to say that I now understand the meaning of this line of the psalm 23rd. She showed me that there is no such thing as enemy and by her action she said to me, “I couldn’t bear seeing you in pain and in suffering. Come to my table. Taste my meat and drink my joy!”
Maria Rosa, a naturopathic doctor, was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. There was no treatment offered for the cancer had spread all over in her small body. She was told she had only two months to live. A friend who knew Maria Rosa suggested that she might consider walking the Camino. She thought she had nothing to lose, and decided to do It. But she was too weak to do it alone so her husband quit his job and carried her things along with many pain medications in a backpack and walked with her. When they were approaching the Cruz del Ferro (Iron Cross, located on the highest point of the Camino) she started to hemorrhage heavily. Her doctor on the other side of telephone urged her to get to the nearest hospital for she might die on the side of the road. She decided to walk to the Cruz del Ferro as she thought, ‘I am going to die anyway. I’d rather die here than in the hospital’. So they walked and reached the Cross and miraculously the hemorrhage stopped. Then they met an Italian pilgrim who happened to be there and told her about a doctor in Italy who has helped many cancer patients. She wound up going there for treatment by this doctor (she visits this doctor every year in June and stays in this Italian pilgrim’s home) and her cancer was cured. The hospital’s name is Santa Clara and the day she received the news that she had been cured on the Feast Day of St James, July 25th. She said to us, “a pilgrim saved my life. I am dedicating my life to serve pilgrims. I have no desire other than that”.
|Santiago, tending dinner|
Santiago was making a noise, spinning a shot glass on the table, a habit of his. From the opposite side of the table Maria Rosa promptly but gently frowning her face and called out his name, “Santi!”. Then she smiles at him (my gosh, that smile!). Santiago so willingly meets her gaze, and a childlike smile spreads across his face. I am witnessing a brief but profound exchange of love between these two people and my heart is warmed, so warm that I can almost feel it is smiling, too.
|Beef (not lamb) in the hearth|
|Santi, placing grilled meat on the table|
By the way, the albergue Santa Clara is donativo, meaning by donation only.