Day 17 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometer 86-day pilgrimage to Compostela on foot. Today walking out of Rouen through forests on the Chemin des Anglais to Chartres, we discover a pilgrim song to sing in the rain and we will consider a cat called Jeoffry.
(Previous post: Day 16 Rouen – Rest Day – Considering Pilgrimage & Cathedrals)
Such was the friendly welcome from les Amis de Saint-Jacques in Rouen, I felt that I was leaving home again as I took one last look at the great façade of the cathedral, painted so many times by Monet in different lights and hues, but not in pouring rain as it was today. I crossed the Seine for the first of three crossings over the meandering river today and entered the interminable straight road through the suburbs of Sotteville and Saint-Étienne. Then the route goes into a forest, still on a straight track, and still in the rain. La pluie du matin n’arrete pas le pèlerin.
After the forest, two more river crossings and at last I was crossing an important ‘frontier’, and on the far side of the Pont de l’Arche was the river Eure tributary. I would be walking alongside its shallow clear water and long yellowy-green waving weeds, through a valley between gentle rolling hills and villages, all the way to Chartres.
I needed no walking maps for this stage, for this was a route I knew well, the sure-pedalled summer holiday bicycle route to the great 13th century jewel that we had learned to call the cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. Rear bicycle panniers were packed with sketch-pads, lightweight drawing boards, pocket-sized watercolour boxes from Cornelissen in London and paperback copies of Viollet-le-Duc on gothic architecture and Emile Mâle on mediaeval French iconography. Aye, those were the days when holidays in France were proper gothic holidays. No pizza was eaten without sharing a sketch of a good gargoyle.
After crossing the Seine into Pont de l’Arche I managed to get my tampon at the Saint-Pierre des Deux Rives presbytery door, administered by the priest’s housemaid who said nothing at all as she stamped the church tampon on my credencial on a little hat-stand shelf inside the door. The door to the church was open. It was a splendid gothic pile with reputedly the highest ceiling vaults in Normandy, far too big for the town: like a cathedral towering over a modest settlement which only contained a small grocery shop and two cafés.
I sat down inside the church on an oak pew in the nave, near the Saint Francis of Assisi window: a modern window designed with obvious love of Saint Francis but little art. I liked it anyway. It spoke of the nineteenth century Franciscan revival and the joy of a warmer Umbrian spiritual tradition that seemed to revolve around soppy animals and celestial blessings. Less severe than the stuffy ascetic French Catholicism that the dark side-chapels of French cathedrals spoke of in whispered hail Marys and Sacred Hearts carved in misericords.
I took out some bread, apples, and Normandy camembert, bought from the nearby grocers and uncorked the cheap bottle of table wine. I said grace – which is a good precaution when eating in places where eating is forbidden – and ate with my old wood-handled pilgrim’s Opinel knife, and poured the wine into a light titanium mug. A pilgrim always remembers exactly where a knife or a mug was bought, which hardware shop, quincaillerie or ferreteria, on which street in Le Puy or Melide, and how far it was from Compostela. And yes, I’m eating in church. It’s what pilgrims do. God is not shocked.
I was in no hurry to return outside into the rain, so I opened my little booklet, Roads to Santiago, the spiritual companion published by the Confraternity of Saint James and given to me by Marion Marples with my pilgrim stamp at Westminster, just over a week ago. It contains short passages which can be used for reflection on the road and each is contributed by a different pilgrim member of CSJ, making a wide variety of material from scriptural passages to John Bunyan. Here in this vast cold church I opened a page with a short extract from an 18th century poem. Not my cup of tea really, but it seemed to go perfectly with the fluffy bunny Saint Francis window:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.Christopher Smart, ‘For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry’
For he is the servant of the Living God,
duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East
he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round
with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk,
which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
from Jubilate Agno (written circa 1758 -1763), later set to music by Benjamin Britten.
I don’t have a cat. I prefer equines with long ears, but that was something discovered later in this pilgrimage and we must wait for that moment. This pilgrimage is a journey in and out of time. For now, I was happy to consider His Cat Jeoffry. I considered other things too, like the change of today’s route I now intended: instead of following the wide loop of the river Eure on a flat contouring walk, I considered it sensible to walk in a straight line – up and down over a long hill in a forest and into Louviers to end this wet day sooner. I put the Roads to Santiago booklet back in my rucsack and stopped considering His Cat Jeoffry.
There were footsteps on a wooden staircase high above and behind me, a click of a switch, a rustle of papers, then a sound like a large vaccuum cleaner expiring after swallowing a boa constrictor. Two long deep notes on the organ followed, and a series of short high pitched notes like birdsong from an invisible flock high up in the crossed arches supporting the roof. The organist was practising in what he thought was an empty church.
I sat through two hymn tunes for next Sunday’s Mass, but he stopped abruptly – as if he found them tedious – then spent five minutes in an improvisation on the Marseillaise. The tune lent itself well to the vast cold space and acoustics of the church but did not quite match the gentle scene of the stained glass Brother Francis striking a holy pose on an Umbrian hillside. He was preaching to the birds, which in this interpretation included a large stork in the foreground who eclipsed the saint. This must have been the first ever ornithological bombing of a holy man in a stained-glass window. I left the church and walked out of Pont de l’Arche humming the Marsellaise.
Half an hour later – as the rain continued and thunder threatened worse to come – I paused while saying the Jesus Prayer on a steep uphill path through the Forêt Domaniale de Bord-Louviers. I changed to saying La pluie du matin n’arretez pas le pèlerin, as there seemd a need for less contrition and more sunshine. Fortified by the vin rouge – and in the happy knowledge that I still had half the bottle left in the side pocket of my rucsack – I found that God had given me the gift of a wonderful singing voice; and also the musical ear to remember perfectly the tune I had heard played on the organ in Pont de l’Arche.
Unlike Saint Francis, I did not attract an audience from my brothers the birds in the forest of Bord-Louviers, not even a stork looking for a starring role in a pilgrimage. I put this down to the weather and brother bird’s reluctance to get its plumage drenched. I finally arrived in Louviers and the Église Notre-Dame in the centre of the town, where I was delighted with this polychrome face on a statue of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.
The work had none of the finesse of the 13th century statuary and was clearly by a later and lesser mason, influenced by the elongated faces on figures in the south porch atChartres. My guess was 15th century – the time of my Worcester pilgrim – but there was no interpretation, no information to help the visitor. The statue was clearly placed there temporarily and was tied to a pier using a nylon strap with a metal clasp of the kind used to attach a surfboard to a car roof-rack. As the great legend has it, that the Apostle Saint James was miraculously washed up on a beach in north-west Spain, the extra-ordinary surfing reference here is not entirely out of place. This looks like a man who just rode a fifteen metre Atlantic wave onto a Galician beach to gain his place in the world of extreme apostling.
So, fellow pilgrims, we have arrived in Louviers, a place of otherwise no great interest apart from a cheap municipal camp site and there is no tampon to be found anywhere, so tomorrow it is an early start along the riverside route, the river Eure on the Chemin Anglais to Chartres.
If you did not like my singing but you did like Considering His Cat Jeoffry, you may prefer the following song. I don’t. I prefer singing in the rain.
For the curious reader/viewer it must be clear the rain song video is a later re-enactment of the pilgrim being given his musical gift by God in the Foret Domaniale de Bord-Louviers, which is why I am carrying a common-or-garden broomstick rather than a 15th century replica bourdon. The eagle-eyed among you will also notice that the terrain and the Mediterranean pine trees resemble the Costa Blanca more than Normandy. The hat, rucsack, and Orthodox prayer rope are authentic, but you spotted that already, and – having dismally failed to preach to the birds – I don’t want to teach the eagle-eyed to suck eggs.
Française: La pluie du matin n’arretez pas le pèlerin
Español: La lluvia de la mañana no detendrá al peregrino
English: We all get fed up when it’s raining and go home