Arrival in Chartres

Day 20 of Walking Out of the World, in which the last few kilometres from Le Boullay-Thierry across the plain of Beauce completes three weeks of walking from Worcester to this major mediaeval pilgrimage hub. There will be a two day stop here.

(Previous post: Day 19 Ivry-la-Bataille to Le Boullay-Thierry)

And there she is! Can you see her? Beyond the vast wheat fields of the plain of Beauce, as if nesting in the tree line to the right of the bourdon. The cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres with her distinctive asymmetric spires and the almost discernible green of the vast copper roof, laid over a forest of beams. She is still twenty kilometres from here, across the ‘bread basket of France’, this vast plain of wheat from where the faithful have looked up from their toils to see those distant spires, as to a mother waving across the fields.

It is a clear day with only the gentlest breeze rippling the early wheat and the footpàth is easy to follow: the red and white balisage of the Chemin des Anglais is clear at every junction or gate or post placed at a turn around a hedgerow. However, the main signage in my head remains the little pilgrim character from the welcoming B&B, Le Jardin du Presbytère.

When thanking Pat and leaving on my way, after a good breakfast of coffee and toast, and with a packed lunch of sandwiches and fruit, the metal pèlerin reminded me of something foolish.

I am closing on Our Lady of Chartres and my pace quickens. I watch her getting closer on this Chemin de la Folie. I say the Jesus Prayer more quickly, in time with my faster steps.

The Pilgrim Fool now walks alongside me. I had wondered what I was to do with myself after graduating with a new-found expertise in setting stained-glass to music. There was only one thing for it: to repeat the performance at postgraduate level, and a good ‘Vis Comms’ degree opened up a place at the Central School of Art.

I had the idea of going into Educational Technology – as it was grandly called then – and I pitched my idea of ‘Improved Visual Literacy for a Multimedia World‘ to the Central’s department of postgraduate studies. ‘Graphicacy’ had been proposed by two geographers, Ballchin & Coleman in an obscure journal article I had read. Their names sounded like two in that list of pseudo-academics from Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot, and my interlocutors at the Central School might have been Vladimir and Estragon waiting in a barren land for God to appear to them. And in the bored world of fallen men, I had at least turned up to spout something different, which was good enough for a five minute diversion.

The vast horizon of the plain of Beauce is like the meseta – the great high plain in Spain – says Jabba, commenting in this virtual pilgrimage yesterday, as we walked towards Chartres. It is exactly like that. I had not seen it that way before. The irrigation systems too. The tractor towing great coils of water tubing, kilometres long. Yes, this is just what the Camino Francés is like after Burgos, before you drop down to Hontanas to quench your thirst with a bottle of Galicia beer. But here we are only ten days walk from Westminster cathedral… and Worcester was a lifetime away.

The Pilgrim Fool now walks alongside me, but in his own landscape. He came down from the tin sign outside the B&B in Boullay-Thierry to walk with me. Is he walking with my soul?

I lost interest in my ‘graphicacy’ project after precisely two weeks. It was obscure – which was good – but not metaphysical enough. I needed more mystery. Teaching your students to recognize shapes on a map was something for driving instructors. Just get a copy of the highway code. Sorted. Not my business.

To improve my drawing skills I regularly attended the life class run by Cecil Collins in the Central School. The one-time surrealist and mystical painter was a legend and his life class was a complete immersion in a different dimension. We had to dance before he would allow us to draw. We had to become the model before we drew her. We had to do ink drawings in ten seconds and “Stop!” to pick up red chalk and draw for another ten seconds…

In those days Cecil Collins was a legendary presence around the school. In icy weather he would arrive with socks worn over his shoes, which he would continue to wear around the school all day and he never removed his overcoat, even at lunch in the small centrally-heated and overcrowded Central Club, where his nose still seemed blue with the cold wind that swept through the land of fools.

The world was a place that only fools could know, and Cecil Collins’ paintings and drawings of fools and angels were a door into a world of lost innocence roamed by sad Pierrots in Les Enfant du Paradis and wounded young romantics as pictured in the dreamy passages of Le Grand Meaulnes. My reading was now confined to anything that had a good Fool in it. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Erasmus In Praise of Folly, etc.

The result of all this was my MA dissertation, Towards a Foolish Design Theory, which my tutor Pat Musick predicted would either fail or be awarded a distinction. I can honestly say that it contained no more substance than the folly related in this conversation, as we walk across the plain. To this day I have no idea what my dissertation was about, but I was indeed awarded an MA with Distinction.

Meanwhile, I had exhausted the entire supply of the 20th century’s popular mysticism. I had finally spent all my pocket money collecting most of the Complete Works of my hermetical hero Carl Jung, in blue hardback volumes. I immersed myself entirely in the archetypes of the collective unconscious for about a year. This wonderfully improved my dreams: I began to get advertising breaks in them.

It all finished for me when I attended another weirdo’s public meeting in Bloomsbury. Someone called Benjamin Creme who said he was the messenger of the Maitreya, “The Avatar for the Aquarian Age.” After half an hour of this I stood up and said, “This is the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard in my life!” There was a hushed English silence, like when a loony gets on the tube train at Clapham Common. I walked out before the heavies at the door could expel me.

That was the end of the New Age. In retrospect, I was perhaps too harsh on Mr Creme’s spiritual powers: one of his many mystical predictions – direct from the Messiah for whose franchise he was the licensed voice in the wilderness – was that Margaret Thatcher would resign. Seven years later, she actually did. How uncanny was that?

Chartres: the end of Stage IV

I arrive in Chartres. The town with the cathedral where everything is solid and complete. Where no vandals and no reforms have touched the full programme of the craftsmen and masons. Where the whole story from the Creation to the Resurrection of the Dead begins again every day, in stone and coloured glass.

The nonsense fades away into the night, complete with its adverts. The Pilgrim Fool turns around without a word of goodbye to retrace his steps across the plain of Beauce to climb back on his tin sign at Le Jardin du Presbytère. He will await another soul to walk hand-in-hand on the meseta through the wheatfields to Our Lady of Chartres.

We shall stay here for two days. The pilgrim must not hurry forward on the Way of Saint James when he reaches a place of great Presence. Here we must learn again the lessons we learned before, but forgot.

The cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
(photo credit to our fellow pilgrim Simon)

4 thoughts on “Arrival in Chartres

  1. You are very welcome Saania, and especially a new pilgrim commenting on our journey. I am about to upload Day 21, a quiet day in Chartres cathedral and no more walking until Thursday!

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  2. I haven’t commented on this stage, in which I have likely been remiss …

    To my possible exculpation, the walk on foot pilgrimage into Chartres is so “magical”, to use a cliché, that it’s hard to describe with even a smidgeon of accuracy. The closest anyone has ever come to doing so IMO, and as a straightforward non foot pilgrim, is Orson Welles in his film F for Fake, in which he opposes the transcendent and almost mystical Truth in Presence of this great Cathedral to the shifting vagaries of modern art generally (no offence intended to your teacher, Gareth).

    The taller spire of the church meanwhile, as one approaches slowly on foot, does indeed rise quietly above the horizon of wheat fields as the mast of a ship can rise similarly above the horizon of the sea.

    And the walk in is amazingly peaceful, no matter if it’s trail or tarmac.

    Walking into Chartres itself (through the most traditional city gate for pilgrim purposes), and into the centre dominated by the incredible beauty of this building, inside the glorious Gothic darkness in the church in perfect counterpoint to the light streaming in through the gorgeous stained-glass windows, is less of a humbling experience as an awesome one.

    And on that day, I was not even a Christian !! (yet)

    I was welcomed most warmly by the priest in the Cathedral that afternoon, no real questions at all, but with a knowing look in his eye that led me for the first time to suspect that the priests who I had met thus far with hospitality and/or worldly nourishment had been telephoning ahead of me to a tune of — look lively, he doesn’t seem to be a Christian (yet), but there’s this Compostela foot pilgrim incoming !!

    I began in any case in Chartres to begin feeling some more serious gratitude towards these good priests who, sometimes cheerily sometimes grudgingly, were actively helping me along the Way, and were simultaneously completely changing my idea at the time of priests from the dubious to the positive and the appreciative.

    Those priests were lively workers in the Camino vineyard where God saw fit to give me my Conversion and my Faith.

    I slept in simple monastic cell -like quarters, the first “proper” pilgrim’s lodgings since the start in Paris and for many days to come ; though I did not realise at the time how unusual that was at the time on the Paris Way.

    There were not even such luxuries in that time as simple waymarks, but you made your Way DIY. No friendly members of any Pilgrim Associations, but just the Church, parish to parish, to perhaps help you along your Way.

    And if Chartres taught me one thing, it’s this : the Church is beautiful.

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    1. The spire as “mast of a ship” is a very good simile because that horizon is such a flat one, like an ocean. The topography of the urban landscape around Chartres cathedral is also crucial to the image it presents, as the rest of the town disappears into the area carved out of the plain while the cathedral sits on the level of the plain, as if surrounded by an invisible moat.

      The experience of Chartres as a place of conversion is something we have in common with so many others. Realising that conversion has happened, however, can be a delayed process. (I’m going to talk about this in today’s blog, Bonneval to Chateaudun.

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