During my latest trip to a blessed spot I had a most extraordinary "Christmassy" encounter - well in season. Walking up de rue de la Grotte from the Gave river to the town center, I saw and heard some people from our pilgrimage talking and babbling excitedly in Westflemish, a terrible language for non initiated people. They cluttered around "the presence" of a very tall, very impressive and quite dirty man with a back pack and a big stick.

He was a solitary pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain and had been walking for two and a half months starting on the Belgian coast, and now prepared himself to cross the Pyrenees, all alone, in mid winter.

The guy was about 40 years old, had a social "greenish" job from which he had taken a sabbatical year. He had paid his flat on the Belgian coast for a year in advance and just left. He was separated or divorced and had a 10 year old kid. While travelling, he lived on 6 euros a week (not a cent more) and in the two and a half months he was underway he hadn't used his minuscule tent even once. Every single night he had found shelter and food.

His shoes were in a terrible state and he said they were his second pair already.
A Franciscan who was with us and who had walked from Leuven to Assisi in three months a number of years ago said he did it with one pair of shoes, which he used for several years afterwards. He did the trip to Assisi with a friend ; he said the solitude might have overcome him had he done it alone.

But back to our brave pilgrim. We all stood in awe for this guy who was so clearly in search of himself on the roads of Belgium, France and Spain. If I understood him correctly, he was not even a church goer or a very religious man.

In Lourdes he was almost half way and he intended, after his visit to Santiago, to return on foot to Belgium. He was planning to cross Spain and to come back by the East, longing the Meditterranean coast and the Rhône valley : he planned to be home again at the end of the summer of 2010.

A giant among man. We met him on Boxing day, a Saturday, and he still had slightly over 3 euro to eat until Monday. That's what we spend on a single drink in Lourdes ! For him, it was enough for a couple of loaves of bread, nothing more.

But the Christmas spirit kicked in and we all delved out our wallets. He was utterly moved by the gesture, and ashamed to accept, but I am sure he has a small reserve for unforseeables for a couple of weeks now.

That day he had to have his papers stamped at the grotto in Lourdes (to my knowledge not a real stop on the way to Santiago) and then travel another 15 km to Bettharam abbey.

God knows where he is right now, but all who met him wish him God's speed on all his ways. A real remarkable man, a modern Magi maybe, following his own guiding star ?

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