Why would Jesus compare us as his followers to sheep? Contrary to popular belief, sheep are not dumb. They know their keeper’s voice, recognizing the voice of the one who feeds them, cares for them, protects them. While I’ve theoretically known this to be true, it was only when I was nearing the end of my second day on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 2014 that I experienced this reality first hand.
I had just crossed the Pyrenees from France to Spain with my two companions and we entered the small town of Roncesvalles. I was tired, aching, and questioning why I was even undertaking this pilgrimage. I wanted to hear God’s voice, I needed to hear God’s voice, but my fatigue and doubts overwhelmed me as we made the descent. “What am I even doing here,” a small voice asked in my head. “I can’t do this, and I should just go home.” I spotted an old stone bench and decided to just sit there before checking in at the Alberque. My companions went on ahead, and we made plans to reconnect at the pilgrims’ dinner to be served in a local restaurant.
Sheep are more numerous than people in the Pyrenees, but I had yet to see a shepherd until we approached the Alberque de Roncesvalles, dating from 1127. Even before I saw the shepherd, I took some comfort from sitting on the stone bench, recognizing that so many weary pilgrims had spent time on this same bench, and likely many of them felt as discouraged as I did. The shepherd moved gently among the sheep, calling to them, leading them toward the pasture. He did not do anything spectacular as best as I could tell. He was just present to them and he clearly knew them, and they, him.
The shepherd was not hurrying, and the sheep moved slowly as sheep will do. I was thinking about how much walking I still had to do to reach my destination, and I wondered if not hurrying, if paying attention to the beauty around me, and resting when necessary…might these things lessen my anxiety and doubts? Might I be able to hear the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, if I became as trusting of the shepherd as the sheep I was observing?
Reluctantly, I left the stone bench and snapped a few pictures of the sheep, but not their shepherd, as I knew the proud Basque shepherds were hesitant to be photographed. I found my friends, joined them for dinner, then went to the historic Church where Mass is celebrated each evening with the pilgrims who were staying the night in the Alberque. Loving old churches as I do, I wanted to get there before anyone else. I wanted to soak up the quiet, beauty, and scent of this place of prayer and pilgrimage. My prayer was simple…I asked God to help me be like those sheep I had watched earlier that day. I prayed to be able to hear, recognize, and respond to God’s voice.
The image of those sheep and their shepherd stayed with me throughout my entire pilgrimage, and it is an image I return to often in my mind’s eye. The tranquility, focus, and attentiveness of the shepherd and sheep continue to speak to me of God’s gentle love and care for us. May we all recognize anew that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, that his care for us, his love for us, is abundant and unending.
By Sister Kay Kramer, CDP
Sr. Kay Kramer CDP is a faculty member in the nursing department at Thomas More University, and a nurse-midwife/family nurse practitioner at St Elizabeth in Edgewood, KY. She spends way too much time thinking about when she can return to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.