Château-Renault to Tours

Day 27: “I sure hope the road don’t come to own me.” The phenomenon of the gyrovague begins to trouble me: an introduction to a well recognised hazard of the pilgrim and seeker after truth. The last day on the Chemin des Anglais, with more rain and Dutch cycling pilgrims. Then the river Loire and the walk over the bridge into Tours.

(Previous post: Day 26b Vendôme to Château-Renault, Part 2)

Since I had not seen Château-Renault – due to the weather the previous evening – I have no mental picture of the town apart from thinking of a Renault car, parked in the courtyard of a chateau, maybe for a holiday advert for gites. On the way out of town I passed by the railway station which was next to the main balisage for leaving the town on the route Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. The only memories I have of Château-Renault are a friendly face at a campsite, a key to a gite for just 7.70 euros, roaring log fire to dry my clothes, and a guardian angel flaked out on a mattress in his Guardia Civil uniform snoring and reeking of Pastis. I remember it as a good visit to a town of which I saw nothing. (Map of town on PDF file and location of gite.)

Today is going to be another ‘end-of-stage day’, Chartres to Tours stage. The walk takes me out of the Chemin des Anglais on this pilgrimage and briefly along the Loire riverbank, as I finally meet the main branch of the Via Turonensis from Paris, and at the end of the day I shall be walking across the bridge into Tours. The weather is dry at the start of today.

I walk out of the gite and take a photo at the door to remember a happy moment of welcome and pilgrim shelter, and will share it with other pilgrims who may plan to come down this route. Handing my key back to the lady in the campsite office, I admit that I have burned all the logs in the gite in order to warm up and also to dry my clothes and tent. She smiles and assures me that is exactly what the logs were put there for and it’s all in the price. She gives me a town plan to find my way back to the Way of Saint James, out of town. I now see that yesterday, with my head down in the rain, I crossed the whole town and I am on the wrong side of Château-Renault for the exit south.

I pass by the SNCF railway station building, which is unchanged in a century like nearly all French rural stations and some in larger urban centres (see postcard). In a moment I calculate the days walking from Dieppe to here and I have been walking for ten days across France so far (rest days and ‘quiet days’ excluded.) A train journey here from Dieppe via Paris would have brought me into Château-Renault in time for a late lunch. My morning in Dieppe waiting for the church of Saint-Jacques to open for Mass and the first French tampon in my credencial is a distant memory. This is one way in which pilgrimage is “walking out of the world” – even before we think of the spiritual journey. The timescale involved in walking across entire countries serves the useful purpose of alienation, removing the pilgrim gradually from his normal existence.

Today on the Virtual Pilgrimage to Compostela – in real time – we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, 8 December. For the mediaeval pilgrim such as the Worcester Pilgrim whose bourdon I am carrying in replica, there was no feast on this day in 1423. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was only promulgated by the Church in fairly recent times, with one of the most tightly argued dogmatic and theological statements in Catholic history. All along the Way of Saint James, pilgrims would visit holy places and visit churches, like Chartres cathedral to venerate the miraculously saved relic of Our Lady saved from a great cathedral fire in 1194, and a feast day like today – if it had existed in mediaeval times – would have been one of the second rank of great feasts after Christmas and Easter, along with the Assumption of Mary in August and the feast of the Holy Cross.

“Do you want to be received into the Catholic Church?” asked the Bishop of Coutances in Normandy on this feast day, on 8 December twenty eight years ago. Spoiler alert: I said, “Yes, go on then,” or whatever the words translated, from the French on the card I had been given to learn earlier. It is a special day for me on this virtual pilgrimage.

This was in the Abbaye Blanche at Mortain in Normandy but I had already been a Christian and a Franciscan friar for seven years when I knelt before the bishop in this old Cistercian abbey and received his blessing, together with the holy chrism oil, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, confirming me as a Catholic.

The Anglican journey can wait for other days’ reflections, later on the road: for today I’m simply marking my Catholic anniversay and giving thanks for that. Chronological order is of no use to a pilgrim.

After my reception into the Church there was a wonderful meal in the Communauté des Béatitudes refectory in Mortain that evening. Sister Claire-Agnès made a point of sitting next to me at the long community meal table, laid out with all the food and jugs of wine that only came out on Sundays and for feasts. “Did you feel the flames of the Holy Spirit at that moment in the abbey church?” Her face was alight with expectation. She was very beautiful and I would have been instantly in love if I was not a celibate brother seeking to know God better than Sister Claire-Agnès. I said, no actually: it was really cold in there, which is why I wore two thick pullovers and the buckle of my left sandal was digging into my foot and I could feel the cold from the stone slabs of the abbey seeping into my knees through the thin carpet in that interminable moment with the bishop.

Had I any designs on the lovely Claire-Agnès, with her immaculate cheekbones and her virginal white habit, they would have been entirely ruined that day because she never spoke to me again. I was clearly a heretic and later in the meal I compounded my error and the heinous slight against the Holy Spirit, by accidentally spilling red wine over her neatly ironed white habit sleeve as we sang the Israeli folk songs of the Lion of Judah. I did not receive the gift of tongues that day, nor did I pretend to have received them by singing some made-up nonsense during prayers in future. Years later, after I had moved on and was studying in Rome, it emerged that various consecrated sisters of the Communauté de Béatitudes in about half a dozen community houses in France had been seduced by the founder in what was clearly an abuse of power. It was a well publicised scandal that shocked the Catholic charismatic movement in France.

So, on my pilgrimage on this day, yes, it would be good to have holy thoughts about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and I’m wishing I could remember this holy feast differently. But hey, guys! We live in a fallen world. It is often less than immaculate.

There will be another time to speak properly about the Communauté des Béatitúdes* and the charismatic movement, on the high altitude section of the Way of Saint James in the Pyrenees, when I get to that part of France on this pilgrimage.

Shortly after leaving Château-Renault on a narrow departmental road the rain starts again and I return to my rain song to keep my spirits up. “La pluie de le matin, n’arretez pas le pelèrin… La pluie, la pluie, la pluie de le matin…! N’arretez PAS! Le PELÈRIN!!! And once again…! La pluie de le matin…”

That was exhausting, wasn’t it? But necessary. Now let’s do ten more kilometres on the Jesus prayer, the green wool of the prayer rope once again working slowly, soggily through my cold wet fingers. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ…”

It is the village of Villedomer and the rain is wheelbarrowing down. (I must return to that one when I have a moment.)

“Are we downhearted? Yes! NO! There’s a café…!”

Outside the café, leaning against a sturdy pair of flower tubs filled with bright red geraniums was a bright shiny and wet tandem bicycle, with heavily laden pannier bags on the front and back, plus camping equipment rolled up and tied to the rear rack. The flashing red safety light had not been turned off when the riders had hurried inside from the rain. The two tandem-cycle pilgrims were sitting in the café. Easily identified as they were wearing cycling Lycra. And the only customers. A young couple with good English, as most Dutch people have. They said I was the first pilgrim they had seen walking since they left Holland a week ago. They had come from Châteadun today. They had been in Chartres the day before “by the river,” so camping at the same place I had stayed . They had followed my route, but not on the walking paths: straight down the tarmac departmental roads. They showed me their Dutch cyclists’ Compostela route guide. Each page a half hour section. Race down it, turn over the page, change gear and get up speed again. Bicycle pilgrims move fast. They hoped to be in Compostela in another three weeks.

“What did you think of the cathedral?” I asked.

They looked at each other and again at me, with a shrug.

“Chartres cathedral.”

“Oh that one,” said the young man, “It was a long way from the campsite, up on a hill in town. We didn’t have time. There was a good pizza restaurant by the river bridge, just before you go into town. You know the one? All the Dutch cyclists go there. Look, it’s in the guide.”

“Great pizza!” smiled his partner. They wished me well and left, racing off down the road in the driving rain. I had a croissant and a pain-au-chocolat and a big steaming bowl of coffee. I was happy now. And the café behind me I am glad to be in the rain, walking to Compostela, not doing fast cycling trips and missing everything that the road could teach me. I resumed my walk, giving thanks for the time I have to walk the whole route, unhurried and in a more reflective way. I think about the different kinds of pilgrims you meet. All going to the same place. On foot. By bicycle. Sometimes with donkeys or a pony cart.

In the modern period since its revival in the 1980s there have been countless stories (and a whole new shelf of travel books!) of Compostela pilgrims who have walked the Way of Saint James and never returned to the world they knew beforehand. In my view, that theme is well explored in two classic full-length feature films about the Camino Francés in Spain: Lawrence Boulting’s fine documentary Within the Way Without (2004, made with Confraternity of Saint James involvement, I believe); and Emilio Estevez’ film The Way (2010, a feature film starring his father Martin Sheen, which should give credit the Boulting film from which it clearly lifted several key scenes!)

Both films capture the spirit of the Camino de Santiago and diversity of the people who walk it, but the theme of returning pilgrims is covered best by the Boulting film, which was made in the millennial year 2000. It follows – in different seasons of winter spring and summer – the Brazilian Milena Salgado, the Japanese poet Madona Mayurzumi, and a Dutch pilgrim Rob Jorritsma, with whom I identified most, being an older Catholic man seeking deeper meaning in his faith. At the end of the film (spoiler alert) Jorritsma returns to Holland and sells his home and possessions, buys a camper van and goes off to begin a new life on the road. He seems vague about where that will take him. For me, the alarm bells began to ring at that point. Had pilgrim Rob become a gyrovague?

In this “virtual pilgrimage” I want to give some consideration to the way pilgrimage can take us from one stage in life to another. I’m not one of those “permanent pilgrims” who walks or cycles the Camino de Santiago then spends the rest of their life just talking about the Camino or repeatedly returning to the Camino because they have not found a way to escape it! This happens quite commonly and is a theme I have discussed with a number of priests and religious. We will consider it as a recognized Camino trap: the religious phenomenon of the “gyrovague.”

It also happens in the religious life and is a recognized condition: the life of the gyrovague. Carole King sang of the unease of our hypermodern world: “So far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?… I sure hope the road don’t come to own me.” Yes: that’s the song of the gyrovague: the one who becomes overtaken by the road. Owned by the road. The road becomes an end in itself. Even Saint Benedict warned about this in the 6th century. Hence the vow of stability that Benedictine monks take.

Saint Benedict

In the first chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict lists four types of monks: the cenobites, who live in community under a rule or an abbot; the hermits or anchorites, who have lived in the monastery for a long time and are now sufficiently strong to live a life of solitude in the desert; the sarabaites, self-willed monks who followed their own inclinations instead of living according to a monastic rule; and the gyrovagues, who are constantly on the move, drifting from one monastery to another and never settling down in one place.

Jordan Aumann, O. P., Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (1985)

It frightens me when I think about it. Am I a gyrovague? Or becoming one? At least I should consider the problem. I will continue this theme tomorrow. But I want to celebrate now. I’ve reached the Via Turonensis and I’m going into Tours now. I will stay with the Benedictine sisters by the Basilique Saint-Martin.

I reach the river Loire at Rochecorbon. I hope to find my way more easily now as I head south. I plan to get the GR655 walkers’ handbook in a bookshop in Tours. It’s heavy: there was no point in buying it in Stanfords in London and carrying it all this way: an extra half kilo possibly! Already I see the clear balisage for the GR655 as soon as I join the footpath alongside the river Loire.

In the convent attached to the Basilique Saint-Martin, the sister in charge of the guest house tells me twenty-four Euros is the “prix de participation” (as she put it) for a one-night stop. Unlike the gite there were no sheets included in this, but a plain pilgrim bed to use your own sleeping bag. At supper time I follow the sound of noisy chatter and come to a refectory full of French retreatants who seem not to regard silence as a part of their retreat but are wildly talking over each other. I am quickly ushered out into a separate room where I eat my pilgrim bread and soup alone. Thanks be to God.

The fourth century Saint Martin of Tours is remembered for his charity and the sisters keep vigil at his tomb in the basilica. The singing at Compline is beautiful and the guest sister does at least understand when I say I will leave early so I will pay for my stay now, but just fifteen euros not twenty-four, as that is a more affordable price for pilgrim accommodation. I explain that I have a budget of twenty euros a day for my forty days walking across the whole of France. She says, somewhat severely, that she will pray for me. I thank her.

“Lord we pray for all gyrovagues and their eccentric economic vagaries…”

*The parts of my narrative concerning the Communauté des Béatitudes – both here and in a longer reflection on this ‘sect within the Church’, planned for the Pyrenees section of this journey – must take into account current and ongoing legal investigations in France and I must take care not to identify individuals (apart from the founder of the sect.) The sister named here is given a pseudonym: she is named after the correspondence I wrote about once on this blog, between Saint Clare and Agnes of Prague; but she was a real and very lovely person. In recalling the Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou near Perpignan, in three weeks time on this journey. I shall give an account which comes the closest in my experience to the scary abbey in Eco’s The Name of the Rose.


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