I returned to the presbytery from a hospital visit one night last week ready to lock-up and have some supper before bed. Shortly after I’d put a meal in the oven I heard the front door-bell ring and wondered who it could be at 9.30pm. Expecting perhaps someone the worse for wear I was surprised to find a young man with a huge rucksack, telling me that he was a pilgrim and wanted to pitch his tent in the front garden for the night. Tabernacle comes from the Hebrew word for tent, and Jesus literally ‘tabernacled’ himself among us when he took flesh and lived on earth.
Such events aren’t usual in Stamford, but as I invited him in (weary at first) and then began to listen to him, and share my supper with him, I heard a story of someone who wasn’t particularly religious and who had been orphaned in his mid-twenties. He had decided three years ago that his life of computer-programming wasn’t fulfilling, and since he didn’t have ties to home in Poland any longer, he’d leave his job and walk. He didn’t have a set path or a destination in mind, and would simply carry what he needed with him, seeking hospitality in a different place each night, and earning money when he could. He told me that he’d travelled through the Czech Republic and Austria to Italy, and there had decided to visit some of the shrines of Europe.
He’d seen Pope Francis in Rome, been to Turin, Lourdes, Fatima and Santiago de Compostella, as well as Sicily, Gibraltar and even Morocco. Throughout his travels he’d taken time to learn the local language and really to get to know people, listening to their experiences and absorbing some of their culture. He had gradually found himself drawn back to the Catholic Church of his childhood, albeit as an adult, and so, alongside visiting shrines and walking ancient pilgrim routes, he sought out presbytery gardens to camp in, and priests to talk to. And so he found himself in south Lincolnshire in late February, journeying through England on the Jurassic Way.
As he spoke I was taken by something he said an ancient and wise priest in Italy had told him: if you want to make someone feel happy, ask them to do you a favour. This seemed counter-intuitive at first, although when I pressed him it transpired that his English wasn’t letting him down, he really had been told that. He left me after supper, camped for the night (in the parish hall; it was very cold outside) and the next morning departed after breakfast and some prayers.
Reflecting on his words, I was struck by how positive I felt. Although my planned evening (early night, light supper) had been turned upside-down by his arrival, yet there was a great sense of being an instrument of the Lord in this encounter, of having been in the right place at the right time. And in this Year of Mercy, of having fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty and welcomed the stranger, all in one evening. He asked me for a favour, and as a result we had both benefitted, and for me, much more than I would have thought possible.
Maybe this is something that will happen often in Stamford: I’ve been here only a few months and so don’t really know the town yet. But I suspect not. Rather, I wonder whether this was an occasion of blessing from the Lord, of being like Abraham in the Book of Genesis, and of receiving angels unawares. Long may such pilgrims, such encounters, such blessings endure.
-Father Simon Gillespie, Parish Priest, St Mary & St Augustine, Stamford