He was sitting on the edge of the highway when I saw him. Cars sped by, but he was motionless. His heavy black robes fell like curtains over his folded knees and a single scallop shell hung from his neck. A wide brimmed hat hid most of his serene face. Must be from an ancient monastic order, I thought to myself, probably doesn’t speak English.
Sitting outside a pizzeria, the cloaked figure appeared again, walking briskly this time. My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to catch his attention. Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I dare to say words that he certainly won’t understand? He smiled and a hundred wrinkles creased his face. I smiled too, assuming that this was as far as our communication could go. He nodded and raised his hands to his chest, bowing briefly in a respectful namaste. My hands fumbled in confusion. Who is this smiling monk man? What religious order does he follow? What country does he come from? How many Caminos has he walked? In what God does he believe? His bare feet slapped the cobblestones as he strode away. Each sole marked with the colours of the earth.
At the garden gate, at the place were we would stay that night, I saw him again. He was kneeling in the grass, playing the part of a masseur for an aching pilgrim. I reached for my phone to capture the bizarre scene. He looked up and smiled. My hand retreated from my pocket, embarrassed to have even considered snapping a candid shot of someone so sacred.
“Five euros for a massage,” another pilgrim explained, “only five euros and he will take away all your aches and pains.” I watched from a distance, still unsure how to ask all the questions I wanted answered. To those who weren’t alarmed at the sight of a grinning monk, the deal was too good to refuse. So my husband laid down on the grass and took his chances on the monk massage. I heard him tell a bit about our life. He spoke quickly, like he would to someone who spoke English everyday. So I got up from my observer’s seat and pulled a lawn chair up close. Like a swim coach overseeing a meet, I leant over my knees and interrogated the masseur monk. He smiled from his place on the grass, his palms pressed into my husband’s shoulders.
“I’m from California,” he said, in a voice forty years younger than his face.
“What sort of monk are you,” I cut to the chase.
“I’m a joyful monk,” he explained, “if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘no.’ If someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘no.’ Still yet, if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘yes.’ And if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘yes.’” He laughed and looked up at my face expectantly. Clearly I wasn’t the first curious pilgrim to cross his path.
“Which religious texts have you read?” I pressed on, aiming for a straighter answer.
Without hesitation he rambled off an assortment of major religious texts. Pausing for a second he added, “none of the Jewish stuff though.”
I didn’t press that point, but I was curious why he had also omitted the primary Christian text.
“Have you read the Bible too?”
“Ya but it’s mostly crap,” he admitted with a laugh.
I raised my eyebrows. What sort of monk walks the camino and hates the Bible?
Noticing my surprise, he offered an explanation, “the only part of the Bible that’s any good is Jesus’ words. What people should do is just get one of them Bibles with Jesus’ words in red letters. Skip everything except the red letters.”
An eavesdropping pilgrim pulled out his smartphone. “Just the red letters? Where do you get one of those Bibles? I might actually read that.”
I smiled and tried the reconcile the scene before me with my own love for the Bible and my belief that it is (in it’s entirety) the word of God. In a way, I had to agree with the monk. If you were going to read just one part of the Bible and you couldn’t stomach the whole crazy story, then I guess the words of Jesus would be the right place to start. In a split-second, I made up my mind to agree.
“Yes, read the words of Jesus!” I nodded enthusiastically, “he was a pretty great guy.” I turned to the pilgrim who had entered our conversation. “You can find those Bibles everywhere. The Gideons give them away for free.”
The monk began singing a song about Gideons Bibles as he massaged my husband’s calves.
I laughed and launched into another question: “When did you decide to become a monk?”
The monk thought for a moment and then began to recount a story that most people would only tell their closest friends. His life was once much different. He was a band leader and a husband. He was married for twenty years before it all fell apart. His unique combination of aspergers, bipolar, and alchoholism meant that his fists sometimes had a mind of their own. He spent some time in jail before he realized he needed help. When he got out, he set out in search of God. He read everything he could find, and joined a variety of religious communities. He was given a new name and a new life.
“I am called ‘The Joyful,’” he explained with a grin, “With a personality like mine, there are only two things I could be in life: either an entertainer or a monk. So now I am an entertaining monk.” He bobbled his head, making his wide brimmed hat dance.
I laughed again.
“So why did you choose to do the camino?”
For that he had a quick answer. “Most people do this walk for themselves. They want to get away from something or find something. But I am doing this walk for everyone else.”
I nodded, noticing his particularly thorough massage work on my husband’s battered and dirty feet. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another man, who, 2000 years ago, showed love by kneeling on the ground and touching weary feet. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do it. It was easy enough to sit in my lawn chair and discuss religious texts. But would I kneel on the ground and put into action the words that I professed to follow?
It’s been more than a week since my encounter with “The Joyful” and I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it. Should I be sceptical of his story? Should I be ashamed to have agreed with a man who dismissed a large portion of the religious text I follow? Should I just take inspiration from his joyful and compassionate spirit? I don’t know. But I do know that I saw a glimpse of Jesus’ words in action. The red letters come to life. And that I will never forget.