On the Camino, a glimpse of heavenly hospitality

Christians are called to see Christ in the stranger, and welcome them wherever we meet them, whether on pilgrimage in Spain, or in our daily lives.
Our Faith

It is around noon on the Camino when we stop at a trailside café for lunch. There is an open table underneath a canopy where we set down our backpacks. Someone has left their backpack on one of the chairs, but since its owner is not around, we take over the table and head inside the café where the espresso machine hisses and milk for café con leche steams. Patrick, one from our group, orders pulpo. He orders it so much I have taken to calling him Patrick, Man of the Pulpo. Balancing my coffee, I follow him and his small plate of perfectly prepared trailside tentacles to where we settle in and let our feet be still after hours of hiking. We have been walking the Camino de Santiago for four days, beginning in Sarria, the tomb of St. James now less than 50 kilometers away. Our feet are blistered, but our spirits are strong and the atmosphere on the grapevine-covered patio is joyful.

A few sips into my drink, I see the owner of the backpack return. I am about to apologize for stealing his table when I realize it is Peter, a middle-aged man from Singapore who has been traveling along the Camino with us for several days. Peregrinos, the pilgrims walking the Camino, travel roughly the same distance from town to town so running into the same people again and again is part of the communal experience. Thus far on the route, Peter has caught me using the men’s bathroom and now stealing his table.

“Let us pray for women who keep stealing our spots,” Peter says jokingly. “In payment, you have to give me some of this.” Peter plucks a suction-legged bite of octopus from Patrick’s plate with his bare hand. “Delicious,” he says, popping it into his mouth. “And one for the road,” he says, snagging another and declaring, “Much better than hamburgers!” From his easy laughter and comfort grabbing from Patrick’s plate, it is clear Peter feels very much at home with us. While ease is part of his nature, it is more than that.

Since starting the Way of St. James, fellow pilgrims have redirected us when we have veered off the trail, taken photos for us, handed us a roll of toilet paper in the line leading to the bathroom, watched our bags, adjusted our straps, walked, prayed, cried, and kept us company after the simple greeting of “Buen Camino!” The intensity of the trail generates this hospitality in each other, but there’s also this: In six days of walking the Camino, not once did we need to step aside to let someone pass going the other way. For hundreds of kilometers, every person walking the Camino forms a river heading to Santiago. Peter may live on the other side of the world, but during our time on the Camino, our shared miseries and movement upstream made us home to each other. While I desire a community like this when I return home, I start to wonder if I will be capable of seeing Christ so easily in others when I am off the trail.


The call to hospitality, of being Christ to one another, is an ancient one. On the Camino, the tradition of hospitality began in the Middle Ages with the establishment of hospitals, which were not the medical facilities of today, but rather houses that offered food and shelter to pilgrims. A manuscript from the 12th century called the Codex Calixtinus offered historical information about St. James, provided detailed Camino routes, and advised pilgrims walking The Way through sermons, music, and liturgical texts. As far back as 1153, the Codex Calixtinus mimicked the words of the book of Matthew in saying: “Everyone should receive pilgrims, both rich and poor, who are returning or going to Santiago with charity and respect, for all who receive them and house them with care will not only have Santiago as a guest, but also the Lord himself.”

Hospital comes from the Latin root hospes, which translates broadly into host, stranger, immigrant, and a place to stay. The biblical imperative to hospitality found in both Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware” and in Matthew 25:35 and 40, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these my brethren, you did it to me” is wholly present on the Camino.

Many of the original hospitals still stand though most function as hotels, hostels, or albergues now. Even without these formal institutions, the spirit of hospitality, of being home for a stranger and of entertaining the Christ in others, is very much alive on the Camino, which is how Peter knew our food was his food, and how I knew we could sit at a table that someone already occupied. On day five, we stopped at an old Benedictine hospital where we took up with a fellow pilgrim who was lonely. We walked with her for many kilometers because, stripped down as we were on the Camino, it was easy to see her need and how we could meet it.

On day six of our walk along the Frances route, we reached the last stretch of the Camino, an uphill climb through the winnowing streets of Santiago. Fingers looped in our backpack straps, we walked the hot, bright white sidewalks, and adjusted to the urban environment after days of passing only eucalyptus trees and cows. We were exhausted but excited to arrive at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.


“I might cry,” said Brother Bosco, the Benedictine monk leading our trip. His face was full of fatigue, but his eyes danced. In him, it is easy to see echoes of the Benedictine monks who first offered hospitality along the Camino—those men who gave both spiritual and physical aid to pilgrims in need. After what seemed like an hour, Bosco and I and the rest of our group heard music swelling, the piercing wail of a bagpipe announcing our final approach. We passed under the arched steps where my ears were so overwhelmed by the music echoing through the stairwell chamber that I had to press a finger to one ear. We walked toward the sunlit square and turned left to take in the Cathedral. It was so large we had to walk deeper into the swirling eddy of pilgrims to take it all in.

Stumbling numbly around the square, we watched as streams of pilgrims arrived. Fellow peregrinos made themselves at home, leaning against stacked backpacks and airing bare and blistered feet on the cool cobblestone. We stretched our arms out victoriously in front of the cathedral, took pictures, and hugged each other’s sweaty, smelly bodies. Though we ached, we eagerly leapt up to help arriving pilgrims out of their backpacks so they could rest and take in the beauty around them. We heard the refrain, “You made it! You made it!” in many languages, the joy of those words transcending language barriers.

Missy, a young woman from our group, turned to Brother Bosco and me with a look of both awe and peace on her face. Under the cacophony of bagpipes and celebration, she quietly observed, “This is what heaven is going to be like.”

Her vision of heaven struck me like a thunderclap. Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought of heaven as a real, tangible place. I can’t explain why I hadn’t since I certainly believed in pursuing an afterlife with God. But heaven as a real place, as a home,had eluded me. In front of me now and all along the Camino, not only was a vision of heaven starting to materialize, I started to understand how I might get there.


What we can learn from the tradition of hospitality both historical and present day on the Camino is that being a home to the Christ in each other is how we get to heaven. But to get there, we can’t be strangers to him. We have to feed him even when he doesn’t feel as familiar as Peter. We have to be home for him even when he isn’t as easy to recognize as he is in a joyful monk like Brother Bosco or in a quietly spiritual woman like Missy. The tradition of hospitality cannot remain in the 12th century if we want to go to heaven, nor can it only exist on a trail in Spain.

If we want to go to heaven, we must entertain Christ in all His distressing disguises as St. Theresa of Calcutta called it. The question we must ask ourselves is this: How can I be home to you in all your distressing disguises? When you are a stranger? When you look like my enemy? How can I be home to you when we vote differently and eat differently and look like we are going in entirely different directions? While the Camino strips down all these differences, our shared humanity is no less true off the trail. We are dependent on each other to know and love Christ as perfectly as we can. If we can look past everything getting in our way and serve the Christ in each other in the ways we are called to, God will welcome us home. He will rush toward us, relieve us of the burdens we have been carrying on our long journey, and joyfully shout, “You made it!” This, my fellow pilgrims, is the greatest hospitality of all.

Image: Flickr/teclasorg (CC BY-SA 2.0)


About the author

Molly Jo Rose

Molly Jo Rose is a writer living in Indiana with her husband and three children.

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