Ligugé Abbey to Lusignan

Day 38 of Walking Out of the World starts with some practical route guide stuff for the serious pilgrim on the GR655 and then we get really serious. Pilgrimage is not a walk in the park.

I missed breakfast at the Abbaye de Ligugé as it was after Mass and I wanted to get moving immediately after receiving communion. I also missed putting in half the suggested prix de participation of twenty euros. I left a ten euro note in the envelope together with a handwritten message: “Je présume que le prix suggéré comprend des draps, une couverture et au moins un oreiller ainsi qu’un sourire de bienvenue du porteur. En l’absence de ces petits détails, je pense que dix euros sont une généreuse récompense.” (See yesterday’s post for explanation, if you did not read it.)

The main practical information I want to offer on today’s section is the short-cut you must take if you want to avoid the unnecessary double distance if you were to simply follow the GR655. (See map.) The long-distance walker who is crossing whole countries on the Way of Saint James is neither obliged to stick to the ‘official’ route nor is this a historically accurate route anyway. There are many weekend walkers on the GR655 who will be quite happy to take a long and meandering route through pleasant countryside, but the pilgrim covering 30 or 40 kilometres a day doesn’t need an extra 10-15 km added to the day’s walking stage!

From (64) to (68) here (above), I have marked a red-dotted line on the route that I took after Ligugé – returning to the GR655 to continue to Coulombiers (tampon in the mairie: the usual boring town hall stamp!) – and onwards to Lusignan.

Again in the last approach to Lusignan, in the GR655 guide, the choice of a snaking loop that doubles the distance, or simply walking down the main road on a direct route – especially in the pouring rain! – is a decision for the individual pilgrim. The point needs to be made that these route maps are designed for people who want to do weekend walks on quiet footpaths. If you are doing a walking pilgrimage of several thousand kilometres, an occasional short stint of walking down the hard shoulder of a main road (in order to not pile on unnecessary kilometres) is a sensible option, so take it!

The pilgrim on the Camino Francés in Spain walks various sections of the route (e.g. before and after León) along straight stretches of main road and we do not think it odd: in fact the mediaeval pilgrim would mostly have walked on main commercial routes.

Lusignan has a municipal campsite and here it is on a wet day, yes raining again. Freshly cut grass on a wet day is the camper’s nightmare. The grass is everywhere: in the tent, in the sleeping bag, in the food box. Oh the sweet smell of wet freshly cut grass! Everywhere.

I amuse myself in my wet tent thinking of the Israelites complaining yet again:

“Yes, Moses, you have brought us to a land of green pastures – taking at least ten kilometres off the GR655 suggested route – but look at the mess the lawnmower has made! We have grass in our socks, Brother Moses!”

I went to visit the church of Notre Dame & Saint Junien de Lusignan – another Romanesque church – but it was just closing (I managed to at least get the tampon in time) and there was not much of it to be seen from the narrow streets around it.

What I found instead was La Sainte Catherine bar-pizzeria-restaurant. Since all my pilgrim symbols of Compostela and my bourdon were now safely parked in the tent at the campsite – protected by heaps of freshly cut wet grass – I arrived at the restaurant as simply another wet tourist during the wettest month on record.

The owner apologised for the weather as soon as I entered the restaurant, which I thought was a very decent gesture. “Je suis désolé, monsieur.”

I had already learned the correct response to this from the policemen I met in Tours.

“Ne te dérange pas,” I said. Do not be deranged. And I asked for the menu. I put my wet tweed hat on the back of the chair to dry, and the fireplace was behind me so I would be sure to leave with a dry hat. It was still early to order an evening meal but everything was ready in the kitchen so I was assured that I could eat whatever was on the menu. I had the route guide to the GR655 with me and I looked at the next day’s walk.

“So, peregrino,” came a voice behind me. “You are going to Compostela?”

I turned, half expecting to see my Guardia ángel Coronel Pablo Pedalo – who I had not seen since Sainte Catherine-de-Fierbois – but it was a man sitting at the other side of the fireplace. He had no clerical collar but a plain grey jacket of the sort worn by priests these days. The brass scallop shell on my hat had been a quiet symbol to him in the semi-darkness of the place.

“Yes I am going to Compostela,” I said. I turned my chair around. He had a small glass of vin rouge sitting on the hearth of the fireplace. “Walking.”

“And then what will you do?” he asked.

“I’ll go to Rome,” I said. I explained how I had left my teaching job the previous year to resume my life as a Franciscan friar but that had not worked out, so I was now being sent to Rome by the Archdiocese of Southwark.

“What was wrong with being a teacher?” he asked.

I said nothing was wrong with being a teacher but it was not my calling. It was not my vocation. I felt awkward, half turned back in my chair, so I turned my chair around to face him. He looked as if he was seventy, perhaps. Thin, intellectual, a black beret on the empty chair next to him of the kind worn by priests.

“I was an Anglican Franciscan,” I told him, “and I felt it was the best kind of life I had found. I did parish missions, I worked in the city areas in poor places, and I sometimes spent time in solitude. It was very good.”

“But you left it? Why?” He asked the question in a way that strongly suggested he knew the answer. “If something is good you stay.”

The restauranteur returned with some bread and wine and I asked if we could move the table nearer the fire. We moved it and I sat facing the stranger, and eventually he joined me at the table. “Would you like to eat?” I asked, and he shrugged and said he would keep me company and maybe have some soup.

“Pourquoi?” So, he was not going to let the question drop easily. “If it was good…”

So, it was very straightforward, I explained. And he should be the first to understand, if he was a Catholic, because I had come to the conclusion that the entire farce of pretending to be an Anglican Franciscan religious brother was full of contradictions! The first loyalty of Saint Francis was to the Pope, Innocent III and it was before him that he sought permission to live his life of poverty. The question for me became simply that: how can you be a Franciscan and not a Catholic? I thought for a moment that I had not made myself clear because he sat for a few moments without responding. Then it was clear he had understood more than I had said.

“For some people that would have been the correct decision,” he said. There was a long pause. “But for you it was not, was it?”

Looking at the dark eyes deep in the sockets of his very pale face, with short-cropped grey hair and neatly shaved thin jaw, I experienced a moment of very real panic. My spiritual directors had always been kind to me: they had never asked any awkward questions. My heart returned to its normal pace. The soup arrived and I asked for an extra bowl and some more bread.

“I was received into the Catholic Church in the Abbaye Blanche in Mortain in Normandy, by the Bishop of Coutances,” I said. “A fellow Anglican Franciscan brother came across the Channel to see me enter the Catholic Church and bring the good wishes of my former community.”

“So you joined the Communauté des Béatitudes?” he slowly dipped some bread in the soup. There were two questions on my mind: why can you never find proper soup spoons outside of England, and why was this interlocutor always one-step ahead of me? He looked at me and waited for the answer.

“Yes, it was an easy mistake,” I said. “Nobody knew then. It was just a lively charismatic Catholic community. Saint Francis was one of the patron saints of the community, so it seemed right… And anyway, so many French bishops supported that community… It was rejuvenating the Church in France!”

“So you joined a sect.” He seemed to manage soup with a dessert spoon, so why was I spilling it onto the tablecloth? Maybe my hand was unsteady.

“Look, I know all that was a mistake now. I had a terrible time in the Pyrenees. The mountaintop abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou… I ended up escaping from there. I went back to England. I became a teacher. I left it all behind me…”

“Until now.” He finished his soup and mopped up the last of it with some bread. “Now you go to Compostela, then you go to Rome. You think you will be a priest?”

“Yes!” I broke out of the corner I had been forced into. “It’s called vocation! It’s a journey. A search. When God calls, you follow!”

“What was wrong with being a teacher?” he repeated, quite calmly. “How do you know you were not called to that?”

“Because I wanted…” I stopped even as I said it. There was no point in finishing the sentence.

“Thank you for the soup,” he said. “I must go now.”

I did not ask his name. He did not ask mine, though I had an uncanny feeling he knew it already. He put on his beret and shook hands.

“You have what? Two more months to Compostela? You have to think a great deal. You must pray all the way, peregrino. Good Christian soul. Pray all the way. And pray for me.”

I said I would pray for him, and I also would pay for his wine. He said goodbye to the restaurant owner and went out. I could see it was raining again outside. For a moment I felt as if I had no appetite. I sat there as the restauranteur brought the chicken casserole I had ordered. Now I had an appetite. I had a lot to think about on my walk tomorrow. Sometimes the priests in these country places in France inherited the tradition of the Curé d’Ars and saw right through to your very soul!

“Who was that man I was talking to?” I asked.

“He’s a good man!” said the owner of the Sainte Catherine pizza-bar-restaurant. “He’s retired now but he used to have the Citroen garage on the main road in Lusignan.”