Meeting Mercy Along the Camino
Letter from Katherine Purple
When I set out backpacking two years ago on the Camino de Santiago, I never thought that a story like this would be the kind that I most enjoy telling.
I was not sure what to expect from hiking for 30+ days, but I envisioned the glory. I looked forward to telling people, upon our return, how my four friends and I had traversed 500 miles of the Spanish countryside, and I could almost see myself, walking stick in hand, gazing over a winding path from a mountain I had climbed, maybe with a sunrise in the distance.
Those moments happened, and they were glorious. They were more beautiful than I could have envisioned, though with some additions, like sore shoulders from a tired backpack and blisters I was trying to ignore. Those moments were breathtaking, and some are still imprinted in my mind like a photograph. But those moments aren’t my favorites.
My favorites often begin like this one: twenty days into hiking and sick with the stomach bug.
The bug hit me sometime around the morning of day 20, and by the afternoon, our group had walked 19 kilometers. My friends were checking in with me and, since I was downing water, I thought I was okay. As we stopped for lunch, however, I quickly realized how weak I was. In that moment, the comforts of home seemed very far away, a feeling which was only accentuated by the café owner’s frustrated wave and signs all around which forbade us from using the outlets (a rare opportunity) or removing our shoes (since the odor underneath, to be real, probably added nothing to the café ambiance). From his impatience when we asked for the bathroom key and from some of the things that he said to his friends at the café bar, it seemed clear to me that he did not like pilgrims very much.
It also seemed clear to me that I couldn’t keep up with the liquids and calories that my body needed for the day’s final 9 kilometers. Frustrated and incredibly drained, I put my head down on the table. I started to pray, asking God for strength, trying to pull myself together, thinking about how God would want me to finish this. After all, that’s why I had walked today - to finish the walk, not to give up! Suddenly, I felt a quiet voice in my soul, nudging me, telling me to look at Him. I looked up at Jesus’ face (in my mind) and felt Him say in my heart, gently but firmly, “I have mercy on you.”
I clung to these words like air to breathe and repeated them again and again to myself, until I felt a firm hand on my left shoulder. I looked up into the concerned eyes of the formerly abrasive cafe owner. He asked how I was feeling, and when I responded that I was sick with the stomach bug, he took my water bottle, rinsed it, and filled it with cold, freshwater. Then he returned with a cold compress for my head. I was startled by his generosity.
“Gracias… gracias!” I kept repeating.
I would need to say it a few more times. The clearly kind-hearted owner returned again with a Gatorade-type drink and wrapped up my half-eaten sandwich so I could take it with me. Next thing I knew, he was helping me and my friends catch the approaching bus to the next town, guaranteeing that we could make it to our hostel for the night.
In a country where I knew no one, I felt so unexpectedly loved.
As we prepared to leave, the café owner pressed blessed Miraculous Medals into the palms of each pilgrim in the café, like his generosity could not be contained and had just overflowed. I clung to mine, totally overwhelmed by the goodness of this man. I had judged him so quickly, yet he had shown me such unexpected and undeserved love! He truly embodied God’s mercy for me in that moment. (Isn’t His mercy more than we can ask for or expect?)
Sisters, sometimes I forget that in order to experience the mercy of God, I have to experience some weakness. I fear weakness, and my first instinct when it comes my way is usually to protest: “God, why did you let this happen to me?” (In this case, it was, “God, why did you let me get sick?”) It’s a frustrating question, but I’ve learned that the only answer that ever really satisfies me is this: in my struggle, He shows up. He’s still there. In my weakest moments, in the moments when I experience most intensely the fallen-ness and hardships of life, He works all the more to shower me with His mercy, turning all the trials in my life into grace and beauty.
In a small café in the-middle-of-nowhere Spain, when I felt my weakness so acutely, He showed up in His mercy, and He showed up with a friend. I had judged this disgruntled man to be the most unlikely of people to help me, but I have learned that so often, God’s friends rarely have halos. They’re average blue-jeans-wearing people with good days and bad days, like me. When this café owner entered into my suffering, cold compress in hand, he may not have thought much of it, but to me, he was Christ, showing me concretely in that moment what God’s love looks like. His love sees me, and His love doesn’t let me walk alone. And I have to wonder if somehow, in my sweaty, helpless state, the suffering Christ shone through me to bless this man too, receiving his kindness as a gift and letting him experience the joy of giving to one who could give nothing back.
So often, sisters, I believe that in order to be a strong woman, I have to do it all. I have to walk every mile on my own strength. I have to hold it all together. I’m learning, though, that true strength is something different. It’s letting down my walls. It’s letting people into my struggles. It’s being willing to share my weakness, knowing that I’m already adored just as I am by my Father in Heaven. To be truly strong is to let myself be loved, without any fronts, just as I am. This kind of love can be hard to receive, but I’m realizing that when I do receive it, I experience the mercy of a God who always has more to give His little girl, and I’m fortified beyond words, in ways I could have never asked for or expected, in my deepest place.
We eventually finished the Camino de Santiago that summer and made it to the breathtaking view of the Cathedral with the bones of St. James inside. It was a beautiful and glorious moment. However, my favorite view on the Camino by far was that of looking up into the face of my heavenly Father as He bent down to pick up His tired girl and carry her, with the help of His friends far and wide, and with me clinging fiercely to His neck, refusing to let go. Those moments, moments which humbled me and invited me to be strong enough to say yes to my Father’s love… those moments got etched in my soul.
Stay strong in Him!
About the Writer: Katherine Purple
Katherine Purple is a daughter of God and a daughter of two faith-filled parents. Raised in Connecticut with her two siblings, she earned her master’s degree in Moral Theology & Ethics and her bachelor’s degree in English, both in Washington, DC at The Catholic University of America. She has taught high school theology for five years and loves facilitating youth and young adult retreats. After living in the Phoenix desert for three years, she is excited to be back in the hills of New England. Often, she can be found with a cup of coffee or tea, with her nose in a good Theology of the Body book or a classic novel. She enjoys traveling amongst the wonders of the world, spontaneously swing dancing, and having heartfelt and meaningful conversations.