‘You meet angels, of course,’ someone said. Was it Marie-Noëlle at the Emaús house in Burgos? If so, we had met one only that day.
Even if not, we knew what she meant. We had met angels; ours carried umbrellas.
At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, two days into the pilgrimage, and with the forbidding snowy bulk of the Pyrenees looming ahead of us, the hospitalero came out, umbrella in hand, into the drizzle to point us the right way to cross them – away from the Route Napoleon, towards the gentler, safer way.
At Roncesvalles, a lifetime later and somehow still the same day, with night sweeping in along with the snow, we were frozen, soaked, lonely, exhausted; we had abandoned the waymarked Camino on the grounds that the road was a lot easier to follow – and as we struggled down the last few metres into the village, a monk emerged from the restaurant, his habit brushing the fallen snow and his umbrella raised aloft against what was still coming down. ‘Peregrinos? Vamos!‘ he said, and swept us into the monastery, to shelter, warmth, and a bed for the night.
At Logroño, leaving before daybreak, and already uncomfortably conscious of our propensity to get lost in cities, we missed our way. Grey sky, grey pavements gleaming under the street lights, and rain, and a man with an umbrella to point us back in the right direction.
At Burgos, a glorious, sun-soaked Easter Day, and another city to get lost in. And another angel with an umbrella to put us back on the right path, or, rather, since we had already planned on stopping, and knew where we wanted to spend the night, an angel to read our guidebook, ask the directions for which we were too tired to think up the Spanish, and walk with us until we were in the right quarter.
We met angels.
This is what I have learned about angels, and about their habit of carrying umbrellas:
They are, as is generally rumoured, messengers and guardians (sometimes this is the same thing, if the message is what keeps you safe).
They are quite obviously distinct from you, and your needs are different from theirs. (Even in everyday life I find using an umbrella irritating beyond belief, and it would be an impossible encumbrance for a walking pilgrim; but an angel might well use one, and so might any other normal person on the street.)
They provide you with what you need (and it is not something that they lose by sharing it with you).
They do not neglect their own needs in caring for others (and this, more than anything, is where I am still learning from them).