The season of giving is upon us. Well, it’s always the season of giving for followers of Jesus, but you know what I mean. According to the Gospel of St. Hallmark, “T’is the season!”
On the Camino de Santiago it’s always the season of giving: water, band-aids, shampoo, protein bars, wine, chocolate, flashlights. I was delighted when I had something I could share: Manchego cheese, roasted almonds, an apple or ibuprofen. These moments happened spontaneously and naturally. But some people walk the Camino and that is their mission: to be a Helper—with a capital “H.”
One of the Pilgrims I met we called Dr. Bob. He wasn’t a real doctor. But he said he wanted to be a “trail angel” and help other Pilgrims. He carried band-aids and duct tape and antibiotic cream. He carried electrolytes, three liters of water and fifty pair of earplugs. He carried a chair. Yes, a chair—a folding aluminum camp chair. His pack must have weighed fifty pounds.
He so badly wanted to help people. But no one needed those things. Almost every Pilgrim already had earplugs and band-aids and duct tape. Everyone carried their own water. And then there was the chair. Nobody wanted it. When people stopped to rest, they simply sat on the ground or a rock.
The things we carry! The gifts we want to give! Sometimes what we want to give is not what someone needs. And sometimes what people need is not what we have. So we do the best we can and that is when I had my “Little Drummer Boy” moment.
Moritz and I had started walking just before sunrise. It was a beautiful morning; we had both slept well, had our cafés con leche and were making good time. Just as the sun rose, we came upon a Pilgrim lying in a ditch just off the path. Her pack was on the ground and she was lying there moaning and clutching her stomach. We knew her! It was our friend Tamara.
We jumped down into the ditch with her. She had diarrhea and acute belly pain. Her face was white, her lips were blue and she shook violently. She kept saying, “I have so much pain and I’m cold. I’m so cold.”
Moritz unpacked his sleeping mat and we moved her onto it. He put his sleeping bag over her and we both put every piece of fleece we had on top of her and yet she was like ice.
Now I will tell you that I have had severe hot flashes for fourteen years—ever since chemo hurled me into menopause. But I was always hot and sweaty even as a child. I failed to make a coil pot in 2nd grade because my hot little hands kept drying out the clay. In high school my sister wouldn’t lend me her clothes because I sweated in them. And on the Camino, I left every morning in shorts and a very light shirt when other Pilgrims were wearing down jackets.
Our finest gifts we bring, to lay before the king. . .
So here was freezing and shivering Tamara. I really wanted to be a Helper–with a capital “H”–and diagnose, treat and heal her. But I didn’t possess those skills.
I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. . .
But what I could give her was my hot hands. So while we waited for the ambulance to arrive, I knelt beside her and held her frozen hands in mine. She kept saying, “Oh, my God. Your hands are so warm, so warm, so warm! Thank you so much.”
I played my drum for Him; I played my best for Him. . .
Okay, I can’t take this Little Drummer Boy thing too far. I wish I could say, Then she smiled at me, but the most she could do was a sort of grateful grimace.
As a hospital chaplain I’ve held hundreds of hands as people faced death, loss, uncertainty, overwhelming grief, but never have I held hands simply to warm them. I’d always considered my hot hands something of a drawback.
So we have to ask, what have we dismissed in ourselves that just might be our finest gift to bring? What are we trying to give that isn’t needed? And where was the trail angel when we needed him? Here’s the answer to that last question: we are all called to be trail angels because it’s not about being prepared for any and every emergency but being willing to give whatever we can whenever we can.
The ambulance took over an hour to find us. By the time they arrived her hands were warming up and she was shaking less violently. They hauled her off to the hospital and she was released a few hours later. They told her to rest and not walk that day—no definitive diagnosis.
She finished her Camino a few weeks later and when we had to say our final goodbye, the first thing I did was put my hands around her face. She said, “They’re still so warm!”
Then she smiled at me.
Pa rum pum pum-pum.