Final thoughts on gyrovagues on the ‘Rue de la folie’ to Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine

Day 29c: Saint Joseph Benedict Labre is considered in some final thoughts on the phenomenon of the ‘gyrovague,’ prompted by fellow virtual pilgrims Annie and Simon. This episode of Walking Out of the World sees the pilgrim complete the 29th day’s walk to Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine by misreading the map three times.

(Previous post: Sainte-Jeanne-d’Árc )

The route guide to the GR655 Via Turonensis is so well produced, with clear maps and point-by-point written instructions, that only a fool could go wrong. Having delighted in taking a selfie next to the roadsign for the Rue de la Folie at Sorigny, this fool went wrong before he had even left Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois; then continued to go wrong twice more within a six kilometre section of the route, but in the end probably took a shorter route to Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, where there was a campsite. This might be a good opportunity to say something about the guide book, Sentiers Vers Saint Jacques de Compostelle (link to up-to-date copy).

At point (16) on the instructions I read “la petite route à gauche en direction de la N10” and set off down the white road (I’ve marked this route I actually took in pink marker pen: it shows up as a very light pink on this scan.) The obvious thing I should have done is look to see where the red route goes! But I just read the instructions without even looking at the map. Learning point: this kind of guide is fool proof only when the fool looks at both the verbal and the visual information. The second mistake was to decide next step very clear in my head before putting the guide away in the side pocket of my rucksack: at the end of (16) it says, “et tourner à gauche (Sud),” and so, after the first kilometre, turning left, I ended up walking at the side of the N10 main road, without even thinking that was curious…

Saint Joseph Benedict Labre
(photo credit Dr Simon Cotton)

I first learned about Saint Joseph Benedict Labre when I visited the Colosseum in Rome in a student group, but this was not tourism: it was Early Church History and our guide was the formidable Franciscan scholar, Sister Assumpta Williams FMDM who lectured in Rome in dogmatic theology, patristics and Ecclesiastical Latin, among other expertise, including a scholarly understanding of Charles Darwin and the philosophical foundations for his evolutionary theory.

After a tour of this site of Roman barbarism in the hot sun and learning the bloody details of the early Christian persecutions, we were all feeling queasy when we returned to the shade of the lower levels of the Colosseum. Sister Assumpta paused on the way out and told us about the down-and-out-saint of the 18th century who once lived here caring for the many poor homeless people of Rome who lived in the ruins in those times.

When we returned from the Metro station at Basilica S. Paolo, I went straight to the college library with my morning’s notes; not to diligently draft my essay on the distinct phases of Early Church persecutions for Sister Assumpta, but to find out more about Saint Labre.

I realised I had gone wrong when I arrived at the river bridge on the N10. I took out the guide and looked at it properly, which I should have done before leaving Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois! Where’s your fascist guardia ángel when you need him, eh? Probably sulking now because I didn’t like his heroic tales of Charles Martel and the Camino moorslayers… All was not lost, however. The map showed I might even have found a shorter route to my destination along a pretty walk beside a river! I turned off the main road and followed the river route. Who needs a guardia ángel when you have a half-decent map?

If you are looking for a patron saint of gyrovagues, Saint Labre must be your man! Annie is right to suggest him and Simon gives us exactly the image of our saint that evokes the gyrovague: gaunt, tattered, driven, and condemned to walk forever without settling down, then perhaps when he has taken one risk too many, to die in a ditch. It is all here in the visage of the man in the statue, and it is a different kind of holiness than the Church usually likes to hold up as a model for its middle class faithful at Sunday Mass. No, young Freddy, this is not the kind of saint you should be like. He is a rude sort of saint of a type we don’t quite understand, even though the Church apparently canonised him.

Instead of spending 24 euros on a pilgrim bed for the night in the Benedictine sisters’ refuge in Tours, you would find Saint Labre curled up asleep in the back of this abandoned farmer’s van, in a corner of a field between Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois and Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. The only similarity in the pilgrim accommodation is that sheets are not provided. This was the life of Saint Joseph Benedict Labre, one of many whom the Catholic Church rejected for formation as a religious brother, despite being filled with faith, . He became the best example of a holy gyrovague and perhaps made gyrovagueness almost respectable?

His absorbing thought at this time was still to become a religious at La Trappe, and his parents fearing that further opposition would be resistance to the will of God fell in with his proposal to enter the cloister. It was suggested, however, by his maternal uncle, the Abbé Vincent, that application be made to the Carthusians at Val-Sainte-Aldegonde rather than to La Trappe. Benedict’s petition at Val-Sainte-Aldegonde was unsuccessful but he was directed to another monastery of the same order at Neuville. There he was told that as he was not yet twenty there was no hurry, and that he must first learn plain-chant and logic.

During the next two years he applied twice unsuccessfully to be received at La Trappe and was for six weeks as a postulant with the Carthusians at Neuville, he finally sought and obtained admission to the Cistercian Abbey of Sept-Fonts in November, 1769. After a short stay at Sept-Fonts during which his exactness in religious observance and humility endeared him to the whole community, his health gave way, and it was decided that his vocation lay elsewhere. In accordance with a resolve formed during his convalescence he then set out for Rome. From Chieri in Piedmont he wrote to his parents a letter which proved to be the last they would ever receive from him. In it he informed them of his design to enter some one of the many monasteries in Italy noted for their special rigor of life.

A short time, however, after the letter was dispatched he seems to have had an internal illumination which set at rest forever any doubts he might have as to what his method of living was to be. He then understood “that it was God’s will that like St. Alexis he should abandon his country, his parents, and whatever is flattering in the world to lead a new sort of life, a life most painful, most penitential, not in a wilderness nor in a cloister, but in the midst of the world, devoutly visiting as a pilgrim the famous places of Christian devotion”.

He repeatedly submitted this extraordinary inspiration to the judgment of experienced confessors and was told he might safely conform to it. Through the years that followed he never wavered in the conviction that this was the path appointed for him by God. He set forward on his life’s journey clad in an old coat, a rosary about his neck, another between his fingers, his arms folded over a crucifix which lay upon his breast. In a small wallet he carried a Testament, a breviary, which it was his wont to recite daily, a copy of the “Imitation of Christ”, and some other pious books. Clothing other than that which covered his person he had none. He slept on the ground and for the most part in the open air. For food he was satisfied with a piece of bread or some herbs, frequently taken but once a day, and either provided by charity or gotten from some refuse heap. He never asked for alms and was anxious to give away to the poor whatever he received in excess of his scanty wants. The first seven of the thirteen remaining years of his life were spent in pilgrimages to the more famous shrines of Europe. 

New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia, on the vocation of Saint Joseph Benedict Labre

This is the true gyrovague, whose example probably inspires very few to imitation, though we could not possibly deny the extraordinary sanctity of his spiritual search. It was recognised by the highest Church authority and he was canonised in 1881 following many reports of miracles due to his intervention. He had been made famous due to recognition by the faithful poor during those final six years living among them in Rome, where he left only once a year for a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto. Those who knew him clamoured for him to be made a saint as soon as they heard of his death. He died literally worn out by the sufferings and austerities of the permanent gyrovague.

Now I can see very well why Annie might recommend Saint Joseph Benedict Labre as a patron saint. Just looking at the list of religious communities he had tried might be enough to persuade me of the parallel. I recognise all too well pain of abrupt dismissal and the occasional realisation that the life was too physically rigorous (Carthusians), too intellectually challenging (philosophy in seminary), or simply too dangerously unhinged (Communauté des Béatitudes)! And yet, the argument for not choosing Saint Labre as a patron saint is that my pilgrim intuitions here strongly acknowledge the trap of the gyrovague spelt out by Saint Benedict in his Rule:

The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues. These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such it is better to be silent than to speak.

Saint Benedict of Norcia, the Rule (6th century)

Don’t be too worried about the Sarabaites! Catholic sources say the precise meaning of the term in Benedict’s Rule is now difficult to determine, but designates in a general way, degenerate monks. At the moment I am still more concerned about the possibility of degenerate guardian angels, on this particular pilgrimage, but we will save those reservations for a more opportune moment.

At this point I made my third navigation error of the day, completely crossing over the GR655 Via Turonensis without seeing it, and heading off for an extra two kilometre dog-leg route into Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. Would a gyrovague make such a mistake? No. A gyrovague would not have a map in the first place, so would not misread it.

Off the GR655 lost somewhere near Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine

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