I began my journey from St Jean Pied de Port – a small French town at the foot of a pass over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. Pilgrims would have converged at this town during the Middle Ages from all over France and northern Europe. They met here because this is one of the easiest ways to cross the mountains on their way into Spain as they headed to Santiago. It has become perhaps the best known starting point for the ‘Camino de Santiago’ pilgrimage. If people ever asked me ‘did you do the whole thing?’ – what they meant is ‘did you start from St Jean Pied De Port?’
But, before I could start from St Jean, I had to get there. I left Paoli on Sunday afternoon on Easter Day after our glorious Easter worship that Sunday. Easter afternoon is often a good time for a clergy nap. For me, it was the start of a long journey to St Jean. I flew into Madrid, and needed to get from my 7am flight arrival onto a 9:30am train. The plan was that this would take me (via one change) to Pamplona, where I would arrive at 2pm, and then get to St Jean by taxi – arriving at about 3:30pm. I would then start walking straight away for about two and a half hours half way up the Pyrennes at Orisson. Dinner was at 6:30pm – so I had half an hour to spare!
When my 7am arrival was delayed and became an 8am arrival I was worried. And the slow passport inspection at the airport led to me hailing a taxi barely half an hour before my train departure. I got to the train station about two minutes too late. Tired and knowing precious few words of Spanish.
I managed to book new train tickets, but this delayed me by two hours. So I arrived at St Jean at 5:30pm – an hour before dinner and 8km and a couple of thousand feet of elevation to go. I walked fast. I got to Orisson in a little less than two hours. I was hoping to be able to at least beg for a little water and some bread – I knew dinner would be done. I was also a little anxious because of the long journey, lack of sleep and time change. And all the unknowns – I was travelling on my own in a strange place.
When I walked into the hostel, there were still pilgrims at the table, enjoying a glass of wine and the end of their dessert. But the hostel owners made me welcome, did not fuss about the hour, and fetched leftovers of dinner from the kitchen to feed me. I was made welcome, and so my pilgrimage began with the cozy feeling generated by great hospitality and a warm welcome.
After I sat down, the hostel owner asked us to go around the table and share our reasons for being on the pilgrimage. So welcome turned into a real and genuine welcome as I was invited into a series of relationships – many of which would develop over the coming weeks.
I felt relaxed, at ease and at home. I slept, eagerly awaiting the gift of the new day. It could have been very different.
When Jesus sent his disciples off into the villages with nothing and directing them to look for hospitality in the villages, he said ‘whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ and again, that if they did not receive a welcome they should ‘shake the dust from your feet’. Welcome mattered in Jesus’ culture a great deal. As it should.
When we seek as a church and as individuals to be welcoming and hospitable, we engage in something that is much greater than simply good manners or customs. We transform the lives of those we welcome, just as surely as we create rifts in relationships with those to whom we do not extend a welcome. ‘Be sure to welcome strangers into your home’, says Hebrews. ‘By doing this, some of you have entertained angels unawares’. And our church ‘home’ is just the same.