Day 23 of Walking Out of the World. The second rest day in Chartres was a silent day, followed by a return to the road, holding onto the silence again during the day. Now I’m continuing via Bonneval, Chateaudun and Vendôme to Tours which I will reach in six days. As I walk out of Chartres, once more along the shallow river Eure with its fish gliding through the waving green river weed, I consider the various strands of this pilgrimage. A silent day on the road brings its own hazards.
Chartres cathedral is oriented forty-two degrees off the East-West axis, which is unusual. It was built on an ancient site and re-orienting it would have been impractical, so the “West” facade with the great rose window really faces South-West. The direction in which the English pilgrim arrives from Dieppe on the Chemin des Anglais is from the north, in the line of the bell tower in the picture (the one on the left.) As we continue south we can look back again for thirty kilometres at the cathedral spires receding once more across the plain of Beauce.
There is much to catch up with from yesterday’s time of silence in Chartres so I intend holding onto silence for a full day to Bonneval. I’ll say more about that later, but I want to stay with yesterday and just go through it step by step as I walk away from the campsite and out of Chartres along the river Eure footpath. While waiting half an hour for Mass in the side chapel of the Black Madonna of the pillar the silence was rich and all-enveloping. A dozen people sat silently before the black wooden statue of Our Lady of Chartres with the child Jesus. The only sound was a sacristan removing yesterday’s candlewax with a metal scraper from the iron votive candle pricket.
Mentally, I did some scraping too: looking what remained in my mind from the pilgrimage so far, after the light of those first twenty-one days had gone out. Not analysing at the experience too directly – remember William Lethaby’s point about the sidelong glance at the linnet on her nest – but just being aware of what had passed. I considered there are a number of different parallel strands to the pilgrimage, which is the ‘virtual pilgrimage’ that you are also sharing here. There are five distinct strands: I am almost tempted to call it a ‘polygrimage’. (I will not, because that sounds like a stodgy breakfast for Flaubert’s parrot.)
The five strands of the pilgrimage
In three weeks, from Worcester to Chartres, the first strand has been the concrete physical journey. The experience of people and places I passed through: the bluebell woods; a haunted forest; truanting Year 9 kids in an old abbey garden; the Whizz-Kidz people at Westminster; White Van Man; the interminable rain; the welcoming hosts; the town hall and mairie invitations to “Leave the big stick outside.” Everything remains very clear in the memory: maybe it is because the physical pilgrimage is a linear sequence, so the prompt “and what happened next” brings each part easily to mind.
The second strand has been considering the thought and writings of other people; those whose ideas have influenced me or have seemed for a time to be worth looking at. In the journey I have reflected on them from time to time, and shared them with the virtual pilgrims walking with me. This is what you do on a pilgrimage, in normal walking conversations with strangers that you meet and walk with for a while. Third, and connected with that, there is some reflection on putting those thoughts and writings into practice in life. The struggle we all have to find some coherent set of ideas that work as a way to live. When it goes beyond merely moral precepts we can call this a metaphysical search (if you want a big word for it.) Those reflections brings painful or embarrassing memories at times. Did I really go to meetings of ‘Knights Templar’ and Rosicrucians in the Euston Road? Was that really me who stood up in a hired meeting room in Bloomsbury to insult Benjamin Creme, herald of ‘Maitreya’ the New Age messiah? (Oh please, it would be better to keep quiet about these things…!) I look back at roads not taken or dismissed as dead ends, even as I stride forward towards Compostela.
Thirdly, I’m travelling in an earlier layer of time: the Worcester Pilgrim’s 15th century time, somehow triggered by carrying the replica of his bourdon. The two kilos of tall bourdonsome walking staff is an inescapable reminder that each step it taken partly in his time. If this replica 15th century bourdon had not been offered by Katherine Lack, I would have walked this pilgrimage in the 21st century but I’m now caught in two time zones. Or maybe more… The words of Shakespeare’s mystical Fool intrude incongruously as I walk with the bourdon. “This prophesy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time,” (King Lear Act III, Sc. ii.) The Year 9 kids in Reading had asked me, “Are you a wizard?” The question must have unleashed my inner wizard and I begin to suspect 5th century Syrian hermits will also come into it before we reach Finisterre.
Connected with time, and quite often with past time, the fourth strand has been visual communications: art and architecture; stained glass and sculpture. As I reflect on this strand of the pilgrimage, appropriately sitting here in front of the Black Madonna in Chartres, I’m conscious of the great divide between the Image and the Word which seemed to trace its roots to the Reformation. It also connects with the Victor Hugo idea I was referencing in Rouen: the dominance of architecture being challenged by the Gutenberg printing press. I’m looking at the Black Madonna while waiting for Mass, and I look around at the others sitting here waiting, also intently gazing at the Black Madonna. Crickey! are we all over sixty? And we’re not just baby boomers: we are the pre-Gutenbergs!
The fifth strand of the virtual pilgrimage has not been given much attention yet, possibly because I feel some responsibility to get it right, and also because that announcement will normally lose half the audience. But we’re not here to count the likes. It was here I first began to think I was a Christian. Half a lifetime ago. Finding faith was closely connected with this cathedral, Notre Dame de Chartres. Was it possible to recapture that moment and understand it more? It was, after all, pretty mad. No, I’ll reflect on it when I’m making my way out of Chartres, on the road, for that’s where it really happened, not here in the cathedral.
So those seemed to be the five strands of the virtual pilgrimage, yesterday, as I reflected on it there in front of the Black Madonna. Until a sixth strand of the pilgrimage emerged today when my guardian angel joined me for lunch in a small village restaurant on the plain of Beauce and the angelic dimension invaded the pitch. But that can wait a little.
The priest came out to the prepared altar in front of the statue of Our Lady of Chartres, bringing the chalice and the patten with him as there was no altar server. We stood for the beginning of Mass and made the sign of the cross.
“Au nom du Père, et du Fils, et du Saint Esprit…”
I like the sound of the Mass in French. Clearly most French people don’t. There were twelve of us there. But, chin up. He started with twelve in Galilee, so let’s not worry about the numbers.
Once again, after Mass, I went around the cathedral and looked at some of my favourite windows, from all those years ago. Malcolm Miller the English guide lecturer gathered his little flock around him at 11 o’clock – his customary time for forty years – and did the morning guided lecture on one window and associated statues outside on the south porch. At the end, he was surrounded by eager tourists asking questions. “Are you still doing winter lecture tours in the USA?” For a moment I wanted to tell him how much he had given me all those years ago, by opening my eyes. Then I thought it was too personal: I did not want to say that to him in front of the crowd. Maybe I would write to him one day, I thought. Do you write letters to guardian angels? “I will be here until Judgment Day,” he always says. I went to look at the Christ and other figures at the Portail Royale: this is the side of the cathedral I would see when looking back from the walk south, up to thirty kilometres away.
Over lunch of sandwiches and a beer in the bishop’s garden, at the other end of the cathedral looking north, back towards Rouen, Dieppe, and London, I reckoned I was a quarter of the way to Compostela. Three weeks into a three month walk. I took out my copy of Roads to Santiago again, the little Confraternity of Saint James booklet that Marion Marples had given me when I left Westminster cathedral. I opened it to the page showing the routes to Compostela. Yes, it looked as if I was a quarter of the way there.
On the opposite page, titled simply “Angels” there was a short piece by former Chair of CSJ, William Griffiths. I read it before finishing my lunch and returning to the stained glass inside the cathedral.
Coming from Calais, I was walking down the Roman road that connects Amiens with Paris. I entered a town that takes its name from that road, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, and it was lunchtime. In a crowded restaurant, I ate, drank and called for my bill. “It’s already paid, monsieur. Someone has paid for you.”
The Roman road became a farmtrack. The first buildings of Greater Paris were ahead. A plump moustachioed man leaned against his car and addressed me: “Have you met him?” “Who?” “Jesus.” “Not yet.” “But you will?” “Oh, I hope so! First St James, then Jesus.”
Two angels to watch over me. The second was plump and moustachioed, but I never saw what the first looked like.William Griffiths, Roads to Santiago (CSJ and Redemptorist Publications, 2008.)
Back on the road
Navigating the exit from Chartres during a silent day on the road presented its first challenge: not asking people for directions. As always with long-distance walks, the entry and exit from large urban centres needs the closest attention. I have made a mapy.cz map showing the exit from Chartres following the descriptif and map provided by the Chartres pilgrim association: it is a very reliable guide. The map link here is just an example, as it is not the intention to turn this into a route guide. It is a live virtual pilgrimage!
I leave the river Eure when it meanders off to the west and I soon climb up onto the flat plain of Beauce again. Looking back I see the cathedral clearly for thirty kilometres, and for the first ten kilometres I can still hear the distant booming chime of the bourdon, which is the name for the great bell as well as the name for a pilgrim’s walking staff. Bourdon signals to bourdon: the cathedrals are like navigation beacons for the long-distance pilgrim to Compostela, spaced out regularly across France and Spain.
“A silent day on the road?” you ask. “What’s that all about?” A silent day on the road cannot be a strict silence but it needs some guidelines. I adapt the monastic principle of the ‘simple silence’. In Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery, I delivered meals in my role of porter, through the wooden hatches to the hermitages, spaced at intervals around the Great Cloister. The Carthusian life is a life of silence, but minimal communication is necessary for some communal daily work. The ‘simple silence’ example I give here is verbal instruction from a kitchen brother to the meal porter when loading the trolley: “No cider this week for hermitage N.” I nod to register the message about the change of diet for hatch N. In a strictly silent regime, this may be the only conversation you have all day. (There would have been sign language at one time – likewise in other orders like Cistercian Trappists – but the sign language is deemed today to be more distracting than simple silence!)
Once in the countryside, the balisage is clear and can be followed without difficulty. The morning’s walk finished at a lunch stop with a good menu, halfway to Bonneval, about another twenty kilometres. This brought another challenge of a silent day on the road, as the lunchtime customers wanted to know if I am going all the way to Compostela. The ‘simple silence’ must remain polite, so I answer all their questions. The restaurant was small and was quite busy. There were several tractor drivers, their vehicles parked outside and they seemed to drink a lot of red wine with lunch; but they would be driving on fields around the village not on roads.
Also there was a man who looked like a travelling salesman in a suit. I thought about William Griffiths’ story of the guardian angels. After I had eaten, I wondered if the travelling salesman had already secretly paid for my lunch. While I had been looking around, someone appeared opposite me, seated at my table. A Spanish Civil Guard in full uniform, with the old style tricorn hat.
“Buenos dias,” he said casually, as if it was normal for a Civil Guard to materialise in a French village lunch stop 800 kilometres north of the Pyrenees.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Coronel Pablo Pedalo.” He saluted across the table. “Your angel de la guarda.”
“My what? Guardian angel?”
“Don’t preoccupy, señor. Is free service for large-distance peregrinos.” He sipped slowly from his black coffee.
“I was rather expecting…”
“The Spanish Inquisition?”
“No,” I said. “I was reading William Griffiths’ story. His guardian angel paid for lunch.”
“I will saying you one thing about your William, señor peregrino: his helping ángel must win much better salary than one poor ángel de la guarda español.”
I looked more closely at Colonel Pedalo and I remembered the day of the send off from London. I had first gone to the Spanish Embassy in Belgravia to get my pilgrim stamp. There had been a uniformed Civil Guard at the embassy door.
“You were in London.”
“I put the sello in your credencial,” he said.
“Have you been following me all the way?” I asked. “Yesterday in Chartres, were you behind me in the Mass?”
“Mas o menos,” he replied. “We ángeles de la guarda is always turn up when you is least expecting. Just like trafico patrols.”
“So you didn’t follow me all the way from Worcester?”
“No, señor peregrino. The servicio de ángeles de la guarda only comes into operation after you get your first Spanish sello in your credencial, so I was given my orders from the comandancia ángelica to follow you from Belgravia.”
“And is this service provided by the Spanish government?”
“Oh dear, señor peregrino, your question suggest me one grand ignorance of the menace of los politicos. Dios mio, no! Our santo patrón is Santiago Matamoros. We would have problems with the Equalities Ministry if we had anything to do with the government Spanish. No, we are sent by God, but we do have an office in the Embassy.”
“OK, but Saint James ‘the Moorslayer’ is not exactly the nuanced spiritual approach to veneration of the Apostle that I was hoping for. We’ll discuss that later. Just to assure me you are real: what are the names of my hosts in Bonneval, where I am staying tonight? The couple who the Chartres Association telephoned for me?”
“Very lovely people,” said Coronel Pablo Pedalo my new guardian angel and Civil Guard. “Pierre and Monique. Muy simpatico. They will take you to Mass in Notre-Dame de Bonneval tomorrow before you leave.”
I turned to catch the eye of the waiter. It was time to get back on the road. A long lunch stop was not going to get me to Bonneval and my hosts expected me for supper. The waiter approached and I pulled out my wallet. I was going to pay for my guardian angel’s coffee, but when I turned back he had vanished. So had the cup.
“Has anyone secretly paid for my lunch?” I asked the waiter, trying to make it appear like a joke, but also to jog his memory in case someone had.
“No, monsieur,” he replied. “Around here, that only happens after funerals.”
There was no further appearance by my new guardian angel and I arrived safely in Bonneval to be welcomed by my hosts. They asked if I had met anyone interesting on the way from Chartres. I thought that was a bit of an odd question and they might also be guardian angels, just dropping a hint. But no, I was probably tired and imagining things, so I did not mention Colonel Pedalo. At least my silent walk had been successful.