Day 29a of Walking out of the World. We consider the pony and we meet the mayor of Sorigny. The walking pace is the same but the mental pace needs to be kept in check. You cannot be a month on the road as a pilgrim and be spiritually self-contained. Angelic and demonic realities are both present: you need discernment. Some kind of spiritual direction is necessary. Recollections of 1965 on the Camino and we arrive at the village where Joan of Arc discovered her sword.
It is a clear day when I shower and pack up the tent in the campsite next to the Indre river bridge at Veigné.
Martin Breukers is still here with his pony and the little blue cart. I couldn’t do that: drive all the way to Compostela and give away the pony to a children’s charity, then catch the plane home. Martin clearly has a close relationship with the little pony, who he keeps patting on the head as we talk and feeding her treats. I had a pet hare when I was twelve but it disappeared one day. Many years later I was told that the neighbour’s dog had it for lunch.
I avoided having any more pets. The pony seems to be saying something to me as I pat her. I don’t know what. I have never touched an equine before, as far as I can remember. Martin and I compare the stamps in our pilgrim passports and he likes my Saint-Martin tampons but he could get nowhere near the city centre with his pony and cart. We say goodbye and Martin sets off – over the bridge at Veigne – and I follow two hundred metres behind him.
Within five minutes I am talking to Martin again. There is a market on the other side of the bridge in Veigné. We stop to buy cheese and bread. The shoppers are fussing over the pony. It must be good to travel with an equine! You make friends with everyone who stops to admire the animal. Finally, turning off to the right after the market, I see the back of the big man and his very small horse. I am alone again on the road to Compostela. I’d like to travel on the Way of Saint James with a horse of some kind, I fleetingly think, but a moment later the thought is gone. Too many random thoughts. Time to focus.
Thoughts from the past have been running too freely these past few days. It is not a bad thing, and in fact it is what you expect on a long-distance walking pilgrimage, and it was one of the strands I talked about in Chartres. It has to be kept within limits. Not suppressed entirely, but channeled. You cannot be a month on the road without spiritual direction, let alone three months. Unless perhaps you are one of these self-reliant New Age pilgrims one bumps into from time to time, merrily guided by cristals and ley lines or Tarot cards, and having oh! so much more fun than the humble Catholic burdened with his reflective journey in time but out of time. And in that ‘intersection of the timeless with time’ as T.S.Eliot put it, the angelic and demonic realities are both present, so beware! Like a growing tension in a geological fault line. To recognise the need for spiritual direction on the road is obvious when you have learned from early mistakes; but finding direction in unfamiliar territory is more challenging.
The balisage on the Via Turonensis south of Tours is very good, including frequent blue and yellow Compostela shell signage often seen on roadsign posts, placed there by pilgrim associations. The route corresponds exactly to the GR655 guidebook, Sentiers vers St-Jacques-de-Compostelle (see yesterday.) But it is raining again.
As I sit on a roadside park bench in Sorigny, putting on the dry socks I have just purchased at the supermarket on the edge of the town, who should come along but madame la Maire. She is just going across town to her office in the Mairie and stops to chat and invites me to drop in at the town hall for coffee and croissants, “When you have finished arranging your socks!”
After sorting out my socks and putting away lunch shopping in my rucsack, I find the mairie and join the mayor in her office ten minutes later. The coffee and croissants are already on the desk.
In a recent town council meeting they had discussed provision of pilgrim accommodation in Sorigny, as the number of walkers on the Chemin Saint-Jacques was steady, and could benefit the economy of the town if more stayed overnight. After putting the mairie stamp in my pilgrim passport, she asks me what kind of accommodation I have found on the way. I explain to her that pilgrim accommodation needs to be affordable, citing the Château-Renault gite (7.70) in contrast with the Benedictine sisters’ lodgings in Tours (24.00) and I also demonstrate the reality using her map of France on the office wall.
“It will take me five or possibly six weeks to cross France: look I came from here (pointing at Dieppe) and down here, and this is where where I am now. It would cost at least thirty Euros a night for commercial lodging. By now I would have spent 420 euros and I am not yet halfway through France. I’m going all the way down here (pointing out Bordeaux) and on to the Pyrenees. That is why I carry a tent, but this is extra weight.” The mayor seems very keen to pursue this point: she brings in her secretary and asks me to repeat the main points about walking pilgrims’ needs, while the secretary takes notes. The mayor is convinced it would be good for local businesses if more pilgrims saw Sorigny as a good place for an overnight stop. There is a reasonably priced restaurant on the main road, there are some shops, and….
“Stables?” I ask. She looks puzzled. Through the window behind her, I see Martin Breukers passing us in his blue pony cart. He must have stopped here for coffee. She turns to watch him and I explain, “He’s going all the way to Compostelle like that.”
She thanks me for my time and I thank her for the coffee and croissants. “Where do I find the Chemin Saint-Jacques out of Sorigny?” I ask.
“Rue de la Folie,” she says.
“Oh, so perfect!” I reply.
The phenomenon of the gyrovague that I talked about before Tours is something I want to continue with today. For some people the pilgrim road becomes a sort of spiritual fool’s gold, a sparkling discovery that brightens the seeker’s life and seems to hold out the certainty of eternal truths. The Compostela road itself becomes the Milky Way, the starry goal, the only taste of heaven that the pilgrim knows. And it is a very attractive position for some. This is made an even more dangerous trap because of a deeper symbolism: Jesus is called The Way. Being always on the Way of Saint James to Compostela might come to seem like remaining in the presence of The Way.
I walked the Camino in the Holy Year 1965 with OJE (the Spanish Youth Organisation) in a group that went from our school in Ibiza, organised by our history teacher, a Civil War veteran Capitán Nuñez. It is important to distinguish OJE from the Falange youth, as it was a Catholic organisation and tried to be simply a Spanish scouting movement. The crossover with the serious Falange was inevitable and the local Falange would use the facilities of the OJE sports hall in the Vara de Rey in Ibiza. Table football cost 5 pesetas in the slot, which we could afford by contributing 2 or 3 pesetas each, but the bigger barrier than pocket money expense was the Falange, who always commandeered the table. And they were the señorios who brought their .22 rifles along to the target practice on Saturday mornings, at the remote beach, Es Codolar near to the small Ibiza airport with a few tourist planes parked on the hard-standing, well away from the Heinkel 111 bombers that still served for training bomb-aimers in the Spanish air force. And we would fire our rifles into the sea to repel a communist invasion, expected any time soon.
In summer 1965 we took a break from stopping the communist invasion of Ibiza and marched to Compostela on the Camino de Santiago. We didn’t walk all the way: we were the younger troops, the fourteen and fifteen year olds and we went from Sarria, a hundred kilometres from Compostela. The big boys went all the way from Roncesvalles. But the timing was worked out so we all arrived together for the Fiesta de Santiago on 25 July. It was impressive.
What I will never forget is the sight of such poverty in the villages we passed through. Local people, seeing blue-shirts passing through the village singing the old songs, turned their backs on us and faced the other way. The Civil War was yesterday, just twenty-six years ago then. Capitan Nuñez was in his element. In the march to Compostela he was conquering Spain again. Those old Heinkel 111s were bombing Republican towns again, ahead of us on the Camino, and we’d march in bringing the conquering Catholic Crusade.
So I walked the Camino in 1965, then in 1968 I cycled part of it. In the 1980s I walked along it in Franciscan habit, staying with parish priests and seeing how a new pilgrim wave was just flowing through. Everyone was talking about reviving “España vacia” in the Rioja, León and Galicia, the empty rural Spain that was dying. I cycled it again in the new millennium and I walked the Chemin Saint-Jacques from Le Puy in France. Now I’m walking from Worcester to Compostela carrying a 15th century replica bourdon and I’m beginning to wonder today, why am I doing this? Have I now become the gyrovague that Saint Benedict warned his more stable monks about?
The restless soul who cannot settle down and play his proper part in the Catholic community, but seeks the fleeting vision of spiritual experience on the road, without any given mission to spread the Gospel, or any obvious goal, unless you count a few thousand pounds raised for Whizz-Kidz children’s mobility charity (a worthy cause but a charity parachute jump might have been equally productive.) The question must be, what is the reason for my repeated walks down this same road to Compostela? My Worcester pilgrim would have walked it just once. His one and only pilgrimage to Compostela was so central to his life experience that he was buried in his pilgrim boots, with his pilgrim bourdon, and his pilgrim shell. Why am I repeating the experience so many times?
Gyrovagues “are always on the move; they never settle to put down the roots of stability; it is their own wills that they serve as they seek the satisfaction of their own gross appetites” (Chap. 1, Rule of St. Benedict). In an age of broken families and great mobility, it seems as if St. Benedict is describing the average 21st century citizen when he gives us his description of the gyrovague. In light of our unprecedented mobility and access to up-to-the-minute information and communication with people across the country and around the world through social media, a life of stability is as countercultural as the practice of silence.Colin O’Brien, on Catholic website https://aleteia.org
The road from Sorigny to Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois zig-zags through farm land, skirting the edges of fields, and the rain has disappeared again, giving way to a hot late morning and early afternoon. I am approaching the place where Saint Joan of Arc discovered her sword. I like the shadow I am forming here. Very 15th century. I take a photograph. Who am I? One of the troops who stood alongside her for France? Or an English bystander at her burning in Rouen?
I stop to take a drink and eat some bread and cheese, sitting on a wall in the middle of flat open fields. My guardia ángel appears.
“So, you too were in Compostela in 1965?” he says.
“Coronel Pedalo, are you going to tell me you were among those who walked all the way from Roncesvalles?” I said. “The big boys who sang the Cara al Sol when you marched into the Plaza del Obradoiro?”
“Our song was reprimanded!” said my guardia ángel. “The church was a nest of serpientes comunistas in 1965. The only prensa allowed to critica Franco were Catholic magazines and you are see them in all churches. Vatican II was the comunistas revenge to us. Yes! They say us to shut-up with the old songs in Compostela. A deacon he come running out the Holy Door and he saying us, ‘The world press is here! What you idiot fascists singing you demonio songs for? Franco won’t salva Spain: he nearly dead anyhows. Turismo es nuestro futuro!‘ At that momento I know we losed the Crusade.”
I sit on the wall, gazing at the village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois two kilometres away. So this is where Saint Joan of Arc discovered her sword? There are some things I like about Catholic military history. The battle of Lepanto. Philip II of Spain reorganised the British Navy. At the moment, however, I seem to have a guardian angel whose patron is Saint James the Moorslayer and, as I suspected, an unreformed fascist. It could be worse. It has at least stopped raining for now.
“Coronel Pedalo, how did I get you as a guardian angel?”
“You coming into one Spanish embassy in Belgravia to get one sello in you credencial, and is no my fault,” he says, apologetically. “I very experienced guardia ángel. You will see.”
“Pablo, would you call yourself a gyrovague?”
He doesn’t reply. We both look south to the village of Saint Joan of Arc’s sword.