1. St-Jacques in Chatellerault: July 2010

10 Years of the Blog 2010 – 2020. This blog post is from the old Brother Lapin’s Pilgrimage blog, ten years ago. Each week I will republish two or three old posts: this is the first.


When I wrote this blog post ten years ago, I was travelling on a bicycle from Canterbury to Antigny to stay for a few weeks with my friends Barbara and Chris. The experience of the previous few months had been a low point in my life and it was good to be on the road – that familiar road of the Via Turonensis which is the western route through France to Compostela, and I had started on the Route des Anglais from Dieppe to Chartres and then picking up the Paris-Tours route. The sight of the Saint Jacques statue in the church in Chatellerault reminded me of the time I had stopped here while walking from Worcester to Compostela in 2008.

After taking this photograph of the statue, I went for lunch in a brasserie in the main square and I connected to the Internet with wi-fi to write the following blog post. Re-reading it today I’m quite surprised by the reminder that I had already begun writing about the theme of “pilgrimage as tourism”. I thought that was a theme I developed a few years later, so it was interesting to be reminded that it began here. (I was already persona-non-grata in the Pilgrim Forum, as mentioned here.) My views on this subject have not changed at all, as can be seen in my blog from earlier this year, writing to chastise the Australian “pilgrim” Margaret.

I have not compromised my Catholic view of pilgrimage – despite it being controversial enough to earn my banning from the (commercially inspired) Pilgrim Forum. I believe it is a consistent and authentic position. People can do what they like, enjoying pilgrim routes as tourism, but a pilgrimage is an activity which implies a definition set apart from mere tourism, as explained here. I like this post and in retrospect, I give it 3 stars *** (out of five). What would you give it?

The wooden statue of Saint-Jacques in the church of the same name in Chatellerault is one of the most beautiful images on this Catholic pilgrimage route.  It is relatively modern, made in the 17th century, and bears witness to this pilgrim route’s popularity at the height of the reformation.  While Christian Europe was in theological and ecclesiastical conflict, pilgrims carried on walking down this Catholic pilgrim route, the Via Turonensis, heading for Compostela.

It has been my view, and it remains my view, that there are only Catholic pilgrims on the roads to Santiago de Compostela.  From time to time, on the well-populated Compostela pilgrim forums, I have put forward the view that ‘pilgrimage’ is a term with a specific meaning: it is walking (or cycling or travelling on horseback) with a particular devotion as the focus of the journey, and the hope of a certain grace to be obtained from God at the end of it.

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is not a journey undertaken for touristic motives, nor a journey pursued for sporting prowess. The biggest forum for Compostela pilgrims is http://www.caminodesantiago.me  which is a ‘pilgrim forum’ subtly run as part of the commercial interests of the site’s owner.  Pilgrimage is always a money-spinner!  I have now been excluded from that site – mainly for consistently advocating a Catholic view of pilgrimage since 2008; a view which I have since been told is too ‘controversial’ to air on a ‘pilgrim’ forum…  That’s fine by me, so I’ll put my cards on the table now and cease trying to be diplomatic and accommodating.  There is pilgrimage and there is tourism.  There pilgrimage and there is having a nice long walk.  There is pilgrimage and there is racing by bicycle across Europe for fun with a popular destination in mind.  Pilgrimage is a particular way of doing a journey: it revolves around prayer and devotion; it has a focus other than on myself; it has a God-centred intention and is not a branch of the leisure industry.  Pilgrimage, if it is to retain any meaning at all, must be recovered before it becomes meaningless and the activity simply seen as a fun journey along a route where you meet like-minded people who are travelling similarly aimlessly.

The devil is watching and waiting for all pilgrims on the road, ready to distract them from listening to God on the journey, and he does not need to try very hard.  Large numbers of pilgrims – as many as a couple of thousand every day arriving in Compostela in this Holy Year – have very little knowledge of the Catholic pilgrimage tradition in which they become aimless participants.  Often, if the subject of the church arises in conversation on the road, many pilgrims will shrug and say, “I don’t believe in organised religion.”  Never let that go unchallenged!  What dim and stubborn ignorance is this?  Who provided the infrastructure for the pilgrim routes, if not ‘organised religion’!

I met a German cyclist two days ago in the pilgrim accommodation in Chateau Renault.  I had taken three days to reach there from Chartres but he had left Chartres that same morning.

“Did you go to the cathedral?” I asked.

“No, there was not time.  I arrived late last night and was on the road again early today.  I must get to Santiago for my flight home in two weeks.”

As he hurried around in the pilgrim hostel on early on Sunday morning, I said “Good morning!  Happy feast!”

He looked bewildered, so I explained: “Today is the Feast of Saint James!  Saint-Jacques!  Santiago de Compostela!  It is the 25th of July, in the Holy Year when the feast falls on a Sunday.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” my German ‘pilgrim’ friend said, before packing the last of his lightweight cycling gear into the small pannier bags and speeding off down the main road to Tours.  This is the sporting ‘pilgrim’.

The day before that, I met two Australians who had set out from Chartres that morning, having taken the train from Paris to begin riding the pilgrim route through France.

“Did you see the cathedral?” I asked.  No, they had ‘not had time’ to visit the cathedral, and they asked whether it was a ‘good’ cathedral.  These are the tourist ‘pilgrims’, who have not got time to see anything as they quickly ride their bicycles from A to B, with no regard for A and only seeing B as the place to get the flight home again.

Pilgrimage is not doing a journey along an ancient pilgrim route.  Pilgrimage is the activity of being on pilgrimage.  In this Holy Year when the feast of St James falls on a Sunday, thousands of ‘pilgrims’ are on the road to Santiago de Compostela.  How many of them know anything about St James or have any sense of religious pilgrimage would be interesting to know.

(This post was originally published on 27th July 2010.)

4 thoughts on “1. St-Jacques in Chatellerault: July 2010

  1. Hi Gareth, Enjoyed the read very much; very sad that the spiritual significance and the original ‘point’ of a pilgrimage has now been eroded by commercialism and totally missed by the ‘wholesome’ holiday-makers. My friend Debbie and I decided we’d like to do the route across the top of Spain for our 60th birthdays, but I realised that my knees are not what they were and climbing steps or even upward gradients can be very difficult for me. That and having to ditch all my 60th celebration plans to go and look after my father means that I have still not had that celebration, and I’m now 62! Rant and rave, keep on your path, and do your best to enlighten willing ears if you will, but I wouldn’t want you to allow the ‘Great Unaware’ to sap your spiritual energy; a good number will possibly neither know nor care about the true origins and meaning of the pilgrimage they are on, beyond some of its potted history. Social distancing will have a huge effect this year on groups of unfamiliarised people walking together anyway.  Don’t really know what I’m blethering on about, so I’m just going for a spin in the Crococart to go and queue up for some pilchards and custard.  M xx

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  2. It is a shame you had to abandon your plans for the Camino de Santiago, but as you say, the physical challenges of the route are quite formidable. The other problem has been the overcrowding of the Camino Francés in Spain in recent years. All of that is now perhaps irrelevant for a very long time to come.

    There is no way that the Camino de Santiago can be open to pilgrims (or tourists) for at least the next year, and possibly longer. Pilgrim refuges are entirely unsuitable in times of infection. Even in “normal” times the bed bug problem had got completely out of control due to the numbers of visitors as the Camino became a popular destination for Americans, Japanese, Koreans…

    Even a certain pilgrim from the Côte d’Azur wearing size 12 army boots may find he must wait a year or two before carrying on with his plans…? The most sensible thing I could suggest is this: when it opens again – with whatever new restrictions to match the “new normal” age, the best thing would be to walk it in winter. Climbing over O Cebreiro in the snow to enter Galicia is sublime! And you only meet six other pilgrims all day.


  3. To not even bother to visit the jaw-droppingly beautiful and spiritually intense Cathedral at Chartres is just about as contrary to the Pilgrimage as it’s possible to be.

    But FWIW I converted to Christianity (not yet Catholicism) on my foot pilgrimage from Paris in 1994, so I do, sorry, disagree that all Pilgrims per se on the Way are Catholics … some of us have become Catholics from having been Pilgrims of the Way of Saint James.

    This is however a very luvvly blogue …

    As to the army boots, it’s not size 12 — it’s size 14½ … (you’re not misremembering BTW, the feet are now even huger than they used to be)

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  4. Well, a Catholic pilgrim route can certainly be trodden by anybody, and there are probably countless people who have come to faith while experiencing a walk in contact with Catholic places, images of the faith and observing some tentative Catholic devotions. I first went on a Marian pilgrimage (to places like Chartres, Rocamadour, Lourdes, etc.) as an Anglican wielding a rosary but saying the Orthodox Jesus Prayer with it! My devotion was genuine, but it did not for a moment fail to recognize that these places were Catholic, not simply Christian. And what Catholic pilgrim visiting Mount Athos would experience the same spiritual benefit given to the devout Orthodox pilgrim? As a Christian from another tradition, you might enjoy the sense of place and find the liturgy a glorious mystery, but the rest remains just out of reach because you are not Orthodox.

    Having said that, the numinous may break through at any moment (or typically the briefest of moments!) and in the end there is only one Christian spirituality – as one former director kept rightly insisting when I stubbornly clung to my idols of ‘Franciscan spirituality’ – but you cannot be a genuine reformed Christian and walk the Way of Saint James in quite the same way as a Catholic when your tradition has been born out of the destruction of Catholic images, the forbidding of Catholic devotions and the bonfire of the faithful.

    I write the above with conviction now: there is no ecumenical pantomime in a hermitage. But neither have I ever rejoiced in the power of conversion of pictorial representations of reformation Catholic martyrs. I don’t personally find them an aid to faith. I remember standing with the novice master in the Chapter Room of Parkminster monastery looking at the wall-to-wall bloody frescoes of the tortures of the Carthusians of London, and thinking, “If I take vows and remain this place I will have to look at that every week in the community chapter until I die…” and it was an unpleasant prospect.

    But on the other hand, I have to see that any protestant who stands before the shrine of Saint James cannot forget for a moment they belong in a tradition that would have taken a sledgehammer to it. (Perhaps with good reason – the emphasis being on reason – as the actual “history” is very dubious!) In that realization, a protestant might walk the Way of Saint James as a genuine pilgrim, in an act of reparation and sorrow. That would indeed be a very Catholic way to do it! As long as the protestant ended up a Catholic.

    I do not fear upsetting anyone outside these gates with my unpopular non-ecumenical views. I am finding my way slowly here as a solitary: I do not need to be popular. I can also understand that there are people I know who are Anglicans and pilgrims (members of the Confraternity of Saint James, for example) who are always angered by such views. I am sorry but that is not my problem. That is a mere consequence of having a confused denominational position. (Wanting your cake and eating it, as monsieur Michel Barnier might say, in a different context!)

    I can hold such “anti-ecumenical” views quite happily at the same time as giving thanks for the “ecumenical” experience of Taizé because that place has been a Catholic project from the outset. There is only one reason for engaging in ecumenical activity, and it is to understand it as Catholic mission. That was very clear to Brother Roger in the past twenty years of his life as Prior (he expressed that view privately to me in 1991) and I suspect it had existed as a seed all the way from 1940 when he founded that community. I was reflecting on this recently while re-reading a retreat diary of 2006 that I wrote in deepest winter in the silent house in the village of Taizé, and I was quite astonished by the clarity of what I had written fourteen years ago: in fact, so amazed that the journal was actually mine that I had to keep stopping to remind myself that I did not have any books with me at that time that I might be paraphrasing, but was only reading the Bible and listening to my retreat director’s words on the Gospel of the day, then writing with very remarkable confidence on spiritual matters which do not come easily to me, being of a non-philosophical mind. A bear of little brain.

    Oh dear. That was serious… So, never mind size 14 1/2. How big are your feet in metres? I think we deserve a proper European explanation…

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