Day 34 of Walking Out of the World
(Previous post Day 33 Walking with donkey to the river Vienne.)
The donkey walk continued down the old disused train line turned into a Voie Verte, a green route parallel to the river Vienne (see our route here) and it was two more days of walking at donkey rhythm, with another overnight stop at a camp site. We had a very bad thunderstorm and we also had two happy days of simply walking together along the flat route of the old railway line. There would be much to write about the wildflowers, the birdsong, the views across the Vienne to the châteaux on the opposite bank, and so on, if I was writing a travelogue.
But this was something of a more interior quality, a learning experience, and I was learning donkey. During our stops and longer breaks, I continued reading John Ruskin again and thinking about the way the mediaeval architects and craftsmen still communicate with us, if we choose to listen to them and accept their message. It takes a special effort to listen to the donkey and go at donkey’s rhythm; and in the same way it takes a little adjustment to go at the architects’ and craftsmen’s pace. Their message was artistic but also theological, and it was about Quality in life and eternity. You need to place yourself before this art and give it time to work on you.
For them as for me, and for all time, it is always the same question. What is the Good and the True? The question I talked about when walking through Oxford, a month ago now, on this same continuous walk. It already seems a year ago. The original question did not disappear simply because faith was discovered – when leaving Chartres – to be the answer. Other questions still remained: not least the balance of faith and reason. These were the very same questions that were at the centre of 12th and 13th century Oxford, Paris, Cologne and also the fresco painter’s travelling studio, set up in a crypt in Montmorillon to paint the theology onto the walls.
Walking at donkey rhythm helps the thinking process. Donkey is a good teacher. At the end of our journey we arrived in L’Isle-de-Jourdain at the bridge over the river Vienne which was the rendezvous point to meet the Jeep with the horsebox to take Dalie donkey home.
There was one of those combined Calvary and grotto arrangements you find in villages all over France, with poured concrete figures and a steel-reinforced concrete cross, probably mass-produced in the same cement works that made electricity pylons, but stacked in different sheds. I took out my copy of Ruskin and recalled the early words of his thesis: “All European architecture, bad and good, old and new, is derived from Greece through Rome, and coloured and perfected from the East.”
I climbed up the concrete steps – the only useful cement that had been poured on the day they erected this ensemble – and stared more closely at the scene in front of me, the cold figures disconnected from each other and looking in every direction. I wondered how much responsibility could be placed on the purveyors of bad religious art for the subsequent “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith?
The thought ocurred to me that the parish would serve the Christian mission better by selling off that little embankment for a tidy sum, for it was a prime plot for a house overlooking the river Vienne, and use the money to build a social care centre, and rid the Church of one more sign of its moribund artlessness while doing something humane in the name of the Gospel.
“Come on, Dalie donkey,” I said, turning my back on the offensive pile. “Let’s get some lunch before you go home to Antigny.”
We found a restaurant by the bridge and I ate the menu du jour while donkey polished off the flower bed. Barbara arrived with the horsebox in time to rescue me for the second time from heavy rain. So the last picture I had of that learning walk, was my teacher donkey huddled under her rain cover surrounded by the wet blooms of the flowers that remained uneaten.
“And did you go to Compostela again?” asked Rosie, happy to have her friend Dalie home again in the stable at Antigny.
“No,” said Dalie donkey, “We finished up at L’Isle-de-Jourdain looking at a 19th century Calvary of concrete figures with no artistic merit. But guess what? The pilgrim took out his copy of The Stones of Venice! He obviously knows nothing about art, but at least I taught him about walking with a donkey. He gets it.”