Buen camino, Spain
The Camino de Santiago is a footpath across northern Spain, a pilgrimage route to pay respects to the remains of St James. Or, for many, a pilgrimage route to something deep inside oneself, a place hard to find in the scuffle of everyday life. We come from all edges of the world, and we come year after year for searching, personal reasons.
Today I paused in a small town, set down my bag and had a drink of water. I reminded myself this wasn’t a race, that there was value in lingering. Just as I was thinking this, a small, gray-haired man approached me. He wore a brown sweater and had very few teeth. His Spanish was hard to understand, maybe because he didn’t have teeth, maybe because he was about three hundred years old. I gathered that he wanted me to come to his house, promising me a stamp. Pilgrims have a special passport that is stamped along the way, to document where you’ve been by the time you reach the end. He was so old that I felt confident he was harmless. Besides, I had been advised on my first day walking to take what the camino brings me. So I followed him.
We walked toward his house, and he recruited a few other pilgrims that were just arriving to town. I shrugged at them, and they shrugged back and we all followed down the cobblestone alley. The old man told us that his name was Pablito.
In the backyard of his small house Pablito showed us a round stone, high as my waist, which he had found buried in the ground while tilling his land. He told us to walk around it. He was beaming, awaiting our response. One side was carved the symbol from Santiago, the other side with the symbol of the Knights Templar.
Knights Templar? The scope of the history and importance of the camino crashed down on me for the first time. Pablito said that this holy and ancient discovery propelled him to immediately walk the camino, and now spend his days sharing it with pilgrims and wishing them well on their way.
He then took us around to a little shed behind his house. (What? Like a Pilgrim Shed?) He smiled and handed out scallop shells, the symbol of a person on pilgrimage, and walking sticks. He kissed each of us as he distributed his gifts. He seemed so proud and excited, like we were all his grandchildren. I felt anointed.
Someone asked a question I didn’t hear. He thought for a second, and said, Cosas hacen porque tienen que hacer. Things happen because they have to happen.
Back in his little house, I felt a tremendous new purpose and gratitude, journeying forward with his blessing. It seemed as though now someone was watching over me on this yellow-arrowed path. The ceilings in his home were low, nearly everything a shade of muted brown. The clutter and uneven floors gazed at each other in recognition. Pablito’s wife appeared on the periphery, in the kitchen sticking her finger into a steaming pan. Meanwhile, he rooted around a messy desk, finding his stamp for our books.
I handed him my Pilgrim’s Passport, and he took it carefully. He looked inside, examining it as if reading my fortune. There were stamps from where I’d been so far, dirt smudges and creases, and mostly empty space for the journey ahead. Most passports are fairly empty at this stage, yet he cocked his head like he could see something in the blank space. Then he nodded and smiled, affirming with a tremendous toothless authority that I would be okay.
I bid him goodbye, then walked very slowly back to the center of town.
I usually think of a “calling” as something huge—to be a priest or a doctor or a scientist curing some terrible disease. Yet this average man, doling out shells and encouragement to strangers everyday, had filled my heart with such light and gratitude that I felt he was changing the world more than anyone I’d ever met. Pablito was living proof that a life purpose can be simple and small, specific to the individual, yet still add unparalleled goodness to the world.
We talked about him the rest of the day. What did it really mean that cosas hacen porque tienen que hacer?