Poitiers to Abbaye Saint-Martin, Ligugé

Day 37 of Walking Out of the World. Le PGV: Pelerin a Grande Vitesse. And the pilgrim encounters more “charity” from religious brethren of the kind with which we are sometimes sadly familiar.

The “Virtual Pilgrimage” blog will continue from Poitiers to the Pyrenees with commenting disabled. For my part, I am not interested in the blog viewing figures, but rather the occasional email from a reader who tells me they have discovered something useful here.

Those who speak of faith – in whatever way – will always find the very same opposing voices as spake in any age. And when you consider that even the tangible resurrection of the dead was never proof enough for these, it is time to simply shrug and move on. We speak of quieter assurances in little things, already aware that the bigger things are taken as read. This journey, this pilgrimage of three months on foot from Worcester to Compostela, is not designed to persuade anyone of the proof of faith, but simply to underline the foolishness of it, wherein lies its eternal strength.

It is sadly true that faith is never challenged as much by those with no faith, as by those who claim to be living the Christian life while it has little effect on their charity. Of this we are all guilty at times. When it turns into pure theatre, or simply Fawlty Towers grade bad manners it is at its most instructive. But let’s start with the usual practical hazards of the road, as encountered today.

At St Benoit, south of Poitiers, the pedestrian bridge over the river Vienne was closed for refurbishment. It would have been helpful if the Mairie in St Benoit (proud of their town’s connections with Cookham) could have put up an equally useful sign to warn walkers of this fact before they walk around the town to the bridge and find there is nowhere to cross the river! Luckily there was an alternative, but I would not recommend it to the faint-hearted but only the most adventurous and world-hardened pilgrim.

There were some hazards faced by medieval pilgrims that modern day travellers do not usually experience: plague, brigands, etc. But generally speaking, your average medieval pilgrim did not encounter TGV trains very often. Just south of St Benoit there is a TGV bridge across the river Vienne and the SNCF track workers have a handy little green iron gateway with steps down to a walkway across the river. Even luckier, the gate had been left unlocked, and there was no prohibition sign to tell the public they are not allowed to use it. Perfect. There was my legal excuse if I was caught and needed to protest my innocence!

I waited for a northbound TGV to go swishing past and a southbound one a few seconds later, then I timed the next trains. I calculated that I would have ten minutes between the great reptilian tin monsters and I made a dash for it across the railway bridge. This is perhaps not the recommended alternative route for the GR 655 footpath, but wouldn’t it be helpful if the Mairie were to put up a sign indicating what the expected alternative should be, until the footpath repairs are completed? For motorists, a road closure will always be accompanied by signs for alternative routes, but who cares about walkers?

I went through the open gate onto the maintenance gangway. This was the first time since leaving Worcester cathedral that I have run fast, carrying my rucsack and bourdon, and I sprinted a full kilometre on the steel maintenance walkway (looking around me for video surveillance cameras as I ran!) I dared not look down at the river Vienne below this narrow walkway, as I have no head for heights and was giddy enough already with accepting the challenge of this sprint. Le “PGV”: Pelerin a Grande Vitesse.

I reached the other side and as I expected, found the GR655 path, within seconds the next northbound TGV was flying past, heading across the railway bridge. That would have been an instant radio message to TGV regional HQ and a search patrol sent out! I had not crossed any tracks nor taken any life-threatening risks but I had certainly trespassed on the main TGV route! Heaven knows how many kilometres I would have walked – had I even found an alternative route – but I had solved it and was back on the pilgrim path.

At the end of the day I arrived at the Benedictine abbey in Ligugé which, according to the guide, “welcomes pilgrims”. What abbey does not welcome pilgrims?

My experience in France until now had been really great, as I have commented in this blog several times already. As an ex-monastic guestmaster myself, I believe I am in a good position to comment on religious hospitality and this poor example at Ligugé was extraordinary!

When I arrived at the porter’s lodge, tired and once again soaking wet from an earlier downpour, the porter – a monk in his sixties – peered over his glasses from the other side of the hatch.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I’d like to stay for the night please.”

“Would you indeed?” He went out without another word, then came back a minute later, sat down again and appeared to be getting on with some paperwork. I tapped on the window of the porter’s lodge again and he slid the window open, feigning surprise that I was still there.

“What do you want?”

“I am a pilgrim and I would like to stay the night. Could I speak to the Guestmaster?”

Without a word he picked up the phone and spoke to someone. There was a long pause. He put the phone down and disappeared again. He reappeared beside me from a doorway and just motioned to me to follow. We went across a courtyard, up some steps, into a corridor. He opened a door. There was a bed made up with sheets, a pillow with a nice white pillowcase, and a thick blanket.

“Thank you,” I said and I moved as if to enter.

“No!” He manoeuvred quickly to block my way!

He slammed the door shut and went to the next door and looked inside. There was a bed with a green plastic mattress cover but no bedding, not even a pillow.

“This is your bed,” he said.

“Thank you very much,” I said and went in. He turned and pulled the door shut like a jailer. I checked the cupboards and there was no bedding in the room. I unrolled my sleeping bag and laid it out on the bed. This, I decided, was the kind of punishing welcome that must be given to all pilgrims who trespass on a TGV line.

There are some brothers in religious communities who simply do not like the their traditional obligation to welcome strangers as if they are Christ. It was clear that he simply saw me as a tramp. But it goes a little deeper than that sometimes: a certain anger that you find within some people in religious communities that shows itself in remarkable displays of passive-aggressive behaviour, or sometimes verbal outpourings against life and love! There was an occasion at Hilfield Friary, years ago, one day at mid-morning coffee, when we took ten minutes break from our morning jobs. My job was sacristan at the time, looking after everything in the chapel including the altar linen. The brother who worked in the laundry brought out a basket with some laundry to deliver and he held up a brown woollen winter habit and asked me:

“Do you reckon this habit has shrunk in the wash?”

“Yes,” I replied. “You can tell by the texture. It’s definitely shrunk. Wrong temperature wash. Wool shouldn’t go in a machine wash at all. Wouldn’t fit a midget now! Whose is it?”

“Brother Patrick,” he said. Patrick was a frail octogenarian with a walking frame. It was only the brothers in their eighties and nineties who still had the old woollen habits, and they really treasured them. Nobody made woollen Franciscan habits any more. We younger brothers just had thin Terylene habits: you could wear one extra habit over the top of another in winter with just a single capuce, but that didn’t give the warmth of a woollen habit.

“Oh dear,” I said. “Brother Patrick won’t be pleased.”

And the laundry brother’s answer came back immediately, without any thought or hesitation, or even the slightest check from his conscience to cover his anger and his resentment at being the laundry brother.

“I’m not here to please people!” he blurted out. Other brothers and a couple of guests turned around from their coffee to look at him in astonishment.

At the Abbaye de Ligugé, resigned to having no bed linen, I now went in search of the showers – not having been shown the facilities nor the timetable – and I found a brother in blue overalls engaged in some plumbing work. He turned out to be the Guestmaster and was fixing a practical problem. I introduced myself. He told me what time Vespers would be and where to find supper in the refectory afterwards. He asked me about my pilgrimage and wanted to know how I could find three whole months to walk to Compostela. I explained about giving up my teaching job to continue exploring vocation in the Church and told him I was due to attend the Pontifical Beda College in Rome after I had finished walking to Compostela.

“After Vespers,” said the Guestmaster, “come to the sacristie and I’ll introduce you to the Abbot.”

As it happened, after Vespers the Abbot was standing talking to the brother porter who had ‘welcomed’ me and once again he looked hostile as this ‘tramp’ approached, looking clean, changed and refreshed. The Guestmaster introduced me to the Abbot: “Our English guest is walking to Compostela and studying in Rome in September: would you like him to sit at your table for supper?”

Brother porter’s face fell. His deep embarrassment was tangible. I smiled at him, and felt sorry because I knew what words he was recalling. “When did we see you hungry and not feed you, Lord?”

At supper the Abbot was keen to hear the details of my pilgrim route so far and then talk about the finer details of liturgical reform – having found I was keen on that subject – and then he said, without knowing why it could be at all ironic: “I expect you have had some wonderful experiences of Christian welcome on your journey?”

“Indeed,” I said, and I told him about the kind old couple in Vendome and the smiling lady at the campsite in Château-Renault who gave me the key to the gite-d’etape, “And sometimes there is even a welcome in religious houses.”

Abbaye de Ligugé seen from the guest quarters.