By: Ken Bagstad
The church doors opened at 1 p.m. for Easter Mass in the town of Castrojeriz. I set my pack down in the back, stretched my weary shoulders and sat down in a pew, saying hello to the parishioners near me in the few words of Spanish I could now rattle off easily. I would have been self-conscious of what I was wearing in church that day—hiking boots, zip-off pants, moisture-wicking shirt, all covered in a fair share of mud and sweat—if I weren’t one of the hundreds of pilgrims passing through this small town along the Camino de Santiago each day.
But there was another reason I didn’t quite fit into this Easter morning scene: I was not Catholic. I was the Jewish equivalent of a Christmas-and-Easter Christian—services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, lighting candles at Hanukkah, breaking matzah and drinking wine at the Passover Seder. At age 13, after my Bar Mitzvah, I decided that if I wanted to be a scientist someday I needed to embrace rational thought, and that meant letting go of things I could not see, feel or touch.
One year earlier, in 2013, I had walked my first 100 miles on the Camino. Then, I had no thoughts of God or faith, just a desire to stretch my legs after two weeks cooped up indoors teaching a course in environmental economics. But after my eight days on the trail, I was hooked.
"While not all of my fellow pilgrims were spiritual, much less Catholic, everyone there seemed to be looking for something."
It was not just the beautiful scenery and delicious food in each new village that drew me in. It was the way people just looked out for each other on the trail. I would end the day with a blister and just happen to meet a doctor or nurse who could care for me that night. A friend would break a boot lace and meet someone who just happened to have an extra in their pack. Priests, nuns and villagers were always there with a smile, a blessing, a greeting of “Buen camino.” While not all of my fellow pilgrims were spiritual, much less Catholic, everyone there seemed to be looking for something. So I returned in the spring of 2014 to walk another two weeks, the next 230 miles on the Way of St. James.
The Mass started to a joyous Spanish rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as we got up and processed through the entire church and adjoining courtyard. My thoughts wandered through the readings. As parishioners stood and filed up to take Communion, I sat in the pew, gazing up at Christ hanging on a very large crucifix above the altar.
Like most non-Catholics, growing up I had trouble understanding the idea of consuming the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. As a Jew, the links to the Passover Seder were obvious, and I could understand the beauty and significance of religious rituals. But I never believed in miracles and certainly never expected to draw meaning from this sacrament.
"I had met Christ out on the trail, I was sure of that."
Yet, I had met Christ out on the trail, I was sure of that. I had received a kind smile or word of encouragement whenever I was tired, frustrated and ready to quit. And maybe, to someone else, I had even been Christ out on the trail. My thoughts wandered to a fellow pilgrim, an Austrian woman who chain-smoked and swore her entire time on the Camino but was as determined to finish as anyone I had met out there. One afternoon, her knee was so sore she could not walk any further, and we were still half a mile from town. She fought back tears as I carried her backpack over one shoulder and mine over the other, while two other friends took her arms over their shoulders, helping her limp along. In a moment when the possible end of her pilgrimage brought fear and disappointment, had she seen Christ in any of our faces?
So much care for the stranger, and so little care for the few physical possessions we carried on our backs. Earlier on the trail, a nun had handed me a written blessing saying “blessed are you, pilgrim, when your pack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang so many emotions.”
Looking up at Christ on the cross as the faithful filed up to take Communion that Easter morning, the meaning of the sacrament became immediately clear to me. I felt my heart opening, encompassing all the people in this small church. I felt it move through the walls of the church, spilling out into the countryside where it met every person it encountered with love. I felt it expand beyond humanity to the trees and the wheat fields, the birds overhead, the other animals of God’s creation. And I understood the incredible gift of the Eucharist: each of us physically taking Christ into our bodies, committing ourselves and our community to live—as best as we can, given our human frailty—as he did.
"So much care for the stranger, and so little care for the few physical possessions we carried on our backs."
When I returned home to Denver after finishing my Camino journey in 2014, my heart was raw to the pain of the world. I saw homeless people living under bridges, and tears would come to my eyes. After weeks on pilgrimage, where all we did was care for each other, I couldn’t understand how society could be so uncaring to our own brothers and sisters. I started going to Mass, and that same transcendent feeling was there each time during the celebration of the Eucharist—where I first sat in the pews then later learned to walk up, cross my arms and receive the priest’s blessing.
I was baptized at the Easter vigil in 2015 at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Denver. Weeks later, I walked the Camino’s final 170 miles to Santiago de Compostela, where the experience of the pilgrim’s Mass— joined together with walkers from dozens of nations—remains fresh in my heart and mind.
God meets each of us where we are, when we can quiet our minds enough to let him draw near. God walked with me, mostly silent, for over 20 years after my Bar Mitzvah before I was ready to walk with God into the faith of my adult life. I never expected to become a Catholic. But then again, I could never have imagined how God would first prepare my mind to understand miracles, then to receive one.
Your fellow pilgrim, Mary Maddox