Reading in France

Dormitory, Abbey of Senanque.

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. . . If [the pilgrim] does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him.  

 – Simone Weil

I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking a river in France. Late summer blooms sway in the gentle breeze. The trees resound with birdsong. Back home, my country is in turmoil. What a week to be away! 

The stakes are high in the U.S., and I celebrate the rising of the women and the trembling of the patriarchy. But to be unplugged for a time need not be escape, but renewal. As the Dordogne rolls on placidly below me, I think of a line from William Stafford:

What the river says,
that is what I say.

Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac.

It’s a vacation. And yet, the book here on the table under the umbrella is Robert Coles’ Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. A reflection on the life and thought of the uncompromising French thinker and radical believer, whose posthumous influence has been so profound, is bound to put the placidity of a pleasant afternoon into question. What is one to do with a voice that says so matter-of-factly, “Salvation is consenting to die”?  

Crucifxion, Abbey of Saint Foy, Conques.

Weil’s life was rooted in renunciation, whether it was rejecting the career path of a brilliant thinker or refusing proper nourishment when she was dying in hospital. “For God to be born is renunciation,” she wrote. “The birth of Christ is already a sacrifice. Christmas ought to be as sad a day as Good Friday.”

That may not be a winning sentiment for church growth, but Weil insisted that the life of faith demands no less than everything. Her image of God waiting to eat us is certainly unsettling. Nevertheless, she believed, it’s all about surrender:

“We must give up everything which is not grace, and not even desire grace.”

Isaiah, priory church of Souillac (12th century)

I did bring some lighter reading as well on this journey, but Weil has been an insistent companion. She will not be ignored. Her rigorous ideas, not just conceived but inhabited, beg the question, “So what are you doing with your life? Are you holding anything back?”

As I’ve read Coles’ book, I’ve discovered that some of the places visited on this trip were associated with Weil: Auxerre and Le Puy, where she taught, the Ardeche region where she worked on a farm, and the garden at her college in Paris, where her fellow students, intimidated by her philosophical brilliance, called her “the Categorical Imperative in skirts.”

So I suppose I’m on a Weil pilgrimage by accident. We’ll see where it leads.

Chapel of St. Michel-d’Aiguille, Le Puy.

My itinerary also coincides with the Camino de Santiago, visiting three of the four starting points for the French portion of that great pilgrimage: Paris, Le Puy, and Arles (Vezelay is the fourth).

I walked a 70-mile segment of the French “Way of St. James” in 2010, and all 500 miles of the “Camino Frances” culminating in northwest Spain in 2014 (you can read about the latter here and here). 

Blessing of pilgrims on Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Cathedral of Le Puy

When I watched a band of joyful pilgrims set out last week from Le Puy after being blessed at the cathedral mass, I felt a little wistful to be only a tourist sightseeing by car. I felt a pull to join them. But then I remembered that for the desiring heart, the pilgrimage never ends.

Pilgrimage is the image Coles used for the all-to-brief life of Simone Weil, which ended at 34 in 1943, a bleak and violent year when, in Weil’s words, “it took a special person to be hopeful.” In our own dark and foolish time, Coles’ summation has particular resonance:

Hers was a modern pilgrimage; she entertained all our assumptions, presumptions, and anticipations – her journey is ours. She experienced, in the few years she knew among us, our buoyancy, our optimism, and soon enough, our terrible discouragement and melancholy. She saw Pandora’s box open, revealing its cheap tricks, its deceptions. She saw clear skies cloud up overnight. She saw all the castles we have built in the skies; she entered them, took their measure, and left with tears or anger, bitterness. In the end only one sight was left for her eyes; in the end, that modern pilgrimage so swiftly concluded, she looked upward, affirmed unflinchingly her last hope, the hope of heaven – and died, one suspects glad it last, glad to be hurrying home, to be with God…

Dordogne River, La Roque-Gageac.

 

All photos by Jim Friedrich

Footsteps and shadows: Inscribing our traces on the Camino

This spring I find my mind often returning to the Camino de Santiago. A year ago today I began my tenth day of walking: 140 miles down, 360 to go. But by then I had stopped counting. It was better – and less tiring – to be in the moment, to “cherish every step” as one pilgrim advised me early on.

When I run long distance, or backpack up a steep mountain pass, I try to apply the mindfulness of Zen walking. Don’t think about some other time, in the past or the future, when you are in a more comfortable state of rest. And stop wondering how far you have left to go. Simply be here now. Concentrate your attention on the physical act of lifting your foot, swinging it forward, setting it down. Take note of your breath. It’s not about forgetting the pain so much as accepting your present state of being-in-motion, not wishing you were doing something less strenuous or challenging.

When you walk ten to twenty miles day after day for over a month, this kind of attention becomes more automatic. Walking becomes what you do and who you are. As I wrote in one of my Camino posts, “Walking”:

The past week was spent traversing the immense agricultural plateau of the Meseta and Tierra de Campos. Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought; it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence.

I have noticed that I have fewer thoughts out here than I do at home when I run for an hour, or go on a week-long backpack. On the Camino, instead of a lot of thoughts, I simply have thought: not so much words or ideas as awareness. As Thich Nhat Hanh once put it to a walking companion who asked what he was thinking about: “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m aware of the sunlight.”

Macfarlane provides a memorable image of walking as a form of writing on the earth, with every traveler leaving his or her own imprint of dreams, stories and memories as they go. Centuries of pilgrims have been leaving such traces along the Camino, traces which now lie beneath our own feet every step of the Way.

The brief video clip records my shadow and footsteps leaving their faint traces: on the Meseta west of Burgos, on the 13th century bridge of Puente de Orbigo, and among the blooming shrubs of the Alto Predela, a high ridge west of Villafranca. I hope these few steps bring back happy memories for my fellow pilgrims. And for those who want to experience our cumulative act of walking in real time, just replay the 80-second video 11,000 times!

The end of the world

[Note to my readers: many thanks for joining me in this journey. I am so appreciative of all the good and supportive comments you have contributed along the way. I wish I could have made individual replies, but the nature of the Camino made necessary some limitation to my online time. And if you have enjoyed these posts, know that while my Camino has ended, the Religious Imagineer will continue, with reflections and provocations concerning theology and religion, the arts, liturgy, imagination, and the beauty of the world: wherever “the fire and the rose are one.” Stay tuned.]

How do I write an ending to the Camino? Certainly with no summary remarks, for such reductions would do disservice to the complex flavors of the journey. I feel like the pianist who was asked to explain the composition he had just played. Without a word, he sat down and played it again.

On Monday afternoon, I continued on from Santiago to Finisterre (“the end of the world”), an extension of the Camino that predates the Christian shrine at Santiago. For the ancient Celts, and many pilgrims since, the natural place to make an ending is where the land is swallowed by the sea and the sun disappears over the edge of the known. Some make this journey on foot (54 miles west from Santiago), but I, alas, took a bus, needing some rest for weary legs.

Finisterre is a high headland with a charming harbor town, wild hills and dramatic shoreline. I made the obligatory walk to the lighthouse at the southern tip, where the last Camino marker reads 0.00 K, and pilgrims can leave or even burn a symbolic offering (shirts, boots, and walking poles were among the abandoned items). But the souvenir stand and tourist buses were not contemplative aids, so I took the spectacular trail along the western side, high above the sea, bright with yellow flowers, descending finally to an isolated beach. In my own act of letting go, I wrote PEREGRINO (pilgrim) in the sand, and watched the tide erase it. Then I climbed to the rocks on the cape’s highest point to watch the edge of the world erase the sun.

I still had one more walk to do, from Finisterre north to Muxia: 18 miles of pine and eucalyptus woods, pastures and crop land, remote stone villages, flowered meadows, an estuary brimming with fish, and white sand beaches. I wanted to make this final trek not only to make intimate acquaintance with a remote corner of Galicia, but also to end my Camino just as I had begun it – on foot.

It was a hot and demanding day, but when I reached the fishing village of Muxia, I didn’t stop to shower or rest, but continued the final 800 meters to the furthest point, where massive stone slabs slide into the surf, and the Santuario da Virxe da Barca (Virgin of the Boat) faces the setting sun.

Here my Camino came to an end.

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Arrival

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
And even to anchor at the island
when you are old,
rich with all you have gained
on the way,
not expecting
that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you
the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never
set out on the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

– Constantine Cavafy

It was still dark Sunday morning when I first stepped into the Prazo Obradoiro – the wide plaza in front of Santiago cathedral. It was deserted but not silent. A taxi sat motionless in the far corner, idling its engine, waiting for what? After ten minutes it finally departed. The new day began to light the spectacular west facade, but one of its towers was hidden by scaffolding – had I walked 500 miles only to see its glory veiled?

I had told myself along the way to have no script for this moment, no expectations for my journey’s end. But this first glimpse of the cathedral, if not exactly disappointing, was at least bewildering. Where were the tears of joy, the flood of emotions? The cathedral’s great bell struck seven, deep and resonant like the voice of a god, but in a language dark and alien, not addressed to me.

Before the crowds arrived, I drifted around the quiet interior. I placed my hand in the Tree of Jesse, the carved central pillar of the Portico de Gloria, my fingers sinking into the deep handprint left in the stone by the caress of countless pilgrims. I descended to the crypt to kneel before the silver casket containing James’ bones. But I was granted little sense of arrival or completion.

Returning to the plaza, now bright with sunlight, I saw a large group of Portuguese pilgrims, singing, clapping and dancing in a great circle. “Resucito!” they sang. “Alleluia!” Many other pilgrims had joined this joyous perechoresis , and I did the same. My heart began to lift, as I remembered – just in time – that the Camino experience is not a possession to be grasped, but a communion to be danced. Lord, I want to be in that number!

But as the day went on, my Camino still seemed unfinished. I felt rather disoriented, no longer walking toward certain goals, no longer sure how even to spend the afternoon. I went to the crowded pilgrim mass at noon, saw the celebrated “Botafumeiro” (gigantic thurible) swing back and forth between the transepts, exchanged “well done!” with a few pilgrims I recognized from the road. But most of my Camino family had either already arrived and departed, or were still a few days back. I felt a bit lonely.

Late afternoon, I wandered over to the little visited San Martino Pinario, and walking inside felt like falling in love. Set amid its plain walls was the most breathtaking altar, a Churrigueresque ensemble of golden sculpture and ornamentation that worked emotionally in a way that so many baroque altarpieces do not. The declining sun streaming through it from behind intensified the effect. This was not mere showy theatricality, but an overwhelming physical presence that didn’t just symbolize belief. It created it.

Back outside the church, I spent some time making camera studies of the fantastically dynamic staircase that leads down to the entrance from the street (an evocative reversal of the more typical ascent to holy places – here you descend to go deeper). And I suddenly realized I was happy. I would even call it a state of grace. I didn’t earn it, seize it, discover it. It discovered me.

After that, it was enough to wander the old streets and plazas around the cathedral, noticing the pilgrim joy in the faces of strangers, enjoying the sense of celebration that is perpetual in this city of arrivals. I dined with some companions of the road before ending the day as I had begun it, in the darkness of the Prazo Obradoiro. But now the moon shone down upon the ancient stones, and strains of Galician singers filled the air. What more could I ask?

This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.”

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Songs to sing and tales to tell

And when my journey’s finally over,
when rest and peace upon me lie,
high o’er the roads
where we once traveled,
silently there my mind will fly.

– “Parting Friends”

This is one of the many shape note songs I sang along the Camino. I also sang hymns for Holy Week and Easter, made every tunnel and underpass echo with Kyries and Alleluias, and on a few evenings when a guitar got passed around in a hostel, taught choruses from Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” (“we’ll meet again on some bright highway, songs to sing and tales to tell”) and Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” (“I am the least of all your pilgrims here, but I am most in need of hope”). And several times a day I would break out with “Dum pater familias,” the medieval Latin song for St. James that rallied the spirits of the pilgrims who sang it as they walked. Prior to headphones, singing was an important part of the pilgrimage experience – shared voices imprinting the path with songlines.

On my penultimate day, the words of “Parting Friends” are especially apt. My mind indeed flies back over the roads I’ve traveled and the people I’ve met. Previous posts have mentioned some of these, but let me record three more who have embodied for me the spirit of the Camino.

The first is Janine, the hospitalera who welcomed me and six other pilgrims to a humble albergue in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, a village lost in the vast Meseta like a small boat adrift at sea. In a place forgotten by time and history, this grandmotherly woman provided the most exquisite hospitality, as if we were her own family. The next morning, she saw me off with a blessing. Pointing to her “corazon” and mine, she indicated that we were connected. Then she made a walking motion with her fingers and said, “Buen Camino.” She repeated this touching ritual with each of us. Like saints of old doing good in lonely outposts for no earthly reward, she simply existed to love the stranger.

Then there is Tomas, who has occupied a tiny abandoned village in the mountains near the Camino’s highest point and created, in an eclectic assemblage of flags, signs, sculptures and makeshift structures akin to outsider art, a haven for pilgrims seeking a tranquil respite by day, one of his 35 mattresses by night, or shelter from the storm anytime it’s needed. Whenever he sees a pilgrim approaching, he rings a temple bell to greet and bless them. If a cloud covers the mountain with fog and darkness, he rings the bell to guide lost pilgrims to his safe haven. This is his life: to live as a hermit in order to serve the pilgrim.

Finally, on a shady trail through a eucalyptus grove yesterday, I saw a young man kneeling in the dust to pray before a wayside cross. I don’t know his name or his story, but the evident depth of his devotion reminded me how serious a matter the Camino can be.

And now I am at the outer edge of Santiago, in a quiet albergue with very few occupants. Most pilgrims who get this far simply continue on to the great cathedral less than an hour’s walk from here. But I didn’t want to drag myself to the finish late in the day, wearied and worn by ten miles of walking. I want to arrive fresh and renewed, to finish my Camino in the light of the rising sun on the day of Resurrection. So like Jacob of old, who camped just short of his destination in order to collect himself for the morrow’s big encounter, I shall rest and reflect and – who knows? – maybe wrestle with angels till daybreak.

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Surrender

Yesterday morning, having walked a couple of hours as the rising sun burned away the fog, I stopped for breakfast in a serene cafe setting of lawn and trees. Soon David, an Irishman I bunked with a couple of weeks ago, came by, followed by an American (from Seattle!) who slammed his pack down and whined loudly, “Why did they make us take that pissy little trail when we could have stayed on the road?” He was referring to a steep shortcut that took pilgrims safely off a blind curve. It wasn’t long, but the footing was tricky.

David replied softly, “The Camino wants you to go its way, not your own.” And I chimed in, “The Camino is all about surrender.” The poor man had no reply. He was a newbie, one of the many who had only recently joined the trail to rack up the minimum 100 final kilometers required to earn a “Compostela” – the treasured certificate of completion. He hadn’t yet put in enough mileage to have the willfulness walked out of him.

But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …”

Speaking of which, I took a fall today. After a month without a mishap, now but a day’s walk from Santiago, I tripped on a root and did a spectacular face plant: bloody nose, minor nicks and scratches, and broken sunglasses. A French woman and an American student stopped to help, and walked with me to the next town, where I found a room and cleaned up. I am fine, but it was odd that this occurred only minutes after I had paused at a touching trailside memorial for Guillermo Watt, a man exactly my age who had died there in 1993, just one day short of completing his pilgrimage.

These final stretches of walking have been especially lovely, reminiscent of the English countryside of the Romantics – low stone walls dividing leaf-shaded paths from sunny green pastures, as wandering clouds drift lazily overhead. While the degree of my spiritual surrender to the Camino may be difficult to measure, I have wholly surrendered to its beauty.

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The movement of hearts and souls

“We were … like travelers pondering the road ahead who send their souls on while their bones delay.”
– Purgatorio ii:10-12

58 miles – nearly 100 kilometers – in three days, with a wearying amount of elevation gain and loss, have made this portion the most physically demanding portion of my Camino. But whenever my spirit slackened, or knees complained, I only had to look around me. What splendid countryside! What fortunate walking!

On the first long day, I began at sunrise in sight of snowy peaks, navigated (barely) a busy city, traversed a wide plain to the rolling wine country of El Bierzo, and finished in the picturesque river town of Villafranca. The next day took me up and down, then up again, steep-sided ridges of red and white flowering shrubs and the fresh spring green of chestnut groves. After the last hard climb, I lay down in a high meadow of buttercups and daisies to read Wordsworth’s lines about “the calm existence that is mine when I am worthy of myself.” A few more steps put me in the Celtic region of Galicia, land of stone houses, damp weather, and lingering traces of premodern spirituality and culture. I spent the night in the quaint mountaintop village of O’Cebreiro.

My third 20 mile day was a charming medley of rivers , woods and birdsong, until I reached the monastery of Samos, one of the oldest and largest in the western world. Situated in an isolated valley reminiscent of Shangri-La, the imposing collection of buildings, plain and austere on the outside, contains a magnificent Baroque church, an immense garden cloister in the classical style and, covering three long walls of an upper portico, a 1960 mural of obscure saintly miracles. Its wild, unsettling intensity seemed to contradict the ideal of monastic balance, as if the community’s shadow side had been somehow consigned to these painted walls, a la Dorian Gray. In any case, the monks, sans shadow, sang a lovely vespers to restore the body and soul of weary pilgrims.

And tonight, the third Tuesday of Easter, I am writing in a “casa rural,” a traditional stone farmhouse accommodation where I hung my laundry among grazing cows and am enjoying a spacious bedroom overlooking the chickens – a restful change from last night’s monastic dorm with 40 people. Over dinner with the other three guests in the house, all of them Americans who have worked for good in Third World countries, we immediately discovered a number of remarkable connections between us. With the rapport, even intimacy, of old friends, we spent the next three hours conversing about the meaning of our own Caminos. When I had trudged an extra two kilometers past the last town, up a steep hill in the middle of nowhere, hoping I could just find a bed at this place, I did not know I was being led to such a holy meeting, such a convergence of thoughtful and passionate souls. Grace happens.

Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” As far as I know, he is still on the Camino, along with his vision-impaired son, though they have fallen a few days behind me. May they find, as I have, that there may be more than one miracle along this Way. Tonight was one of them.

As I myself draw near the goal, now less than 100 kilometers from Santiago, my thoughts turn to those who were unable to complete their intended journey. I have seen many memorials on the Camino to pilgrims who died at a particular spot. These crosses, cairns and fading photographs have signified the precariousness of every journey, the preciousness of each day we are given to walk in beauty. I have also shared the path with pilgrims who had to drop out due to physical problems. In Dante’s expressive image, their hearts reached for Santiago, but their bones delayed.

One of these was Monty, a devout Catholic from Nebraska, who walked with severe foot pain every day for two weeks until he finally had to give up. He always started before dawn, while the rest of us slept, so he could match our progress at a slower pace. Monty is one of my Camino heroes, not only for his determination and grit, but for the way he valued the community he had fallen in with. He suffered in order to maintain the connection.

He was able to take a train to Santiago before flying home, where his doctor told him that continuing to walk would have been disastrous. Some might regard his journey as incomplete, but not Monty. Here’s what he wrote to what he called his “Camino family”:

“With sleep apnea, asthma, one artificial knee, and one arthritic knee, I knew from the beginning that my chances of walking the enire distance were slim. I could have started someplace else, but then I wouldn’t have met you. Each of you, in your own way, made my Camino special, and I am grateful. It was never about the paper, and if I finished by train I still walked about 200 miles.

“A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite priests said this: ‘A pilgrimage is not measured by the movement of the feet, but by the movement of hearts and souls.’ By that standard, I had an outstanding pilgrimage, and I walked long enough to find what I didn’t even know I was looking for.”

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