Saint-Jean d’Angely to Saintes

Day 43 of Walking Out of the World in the Jacobean Holy Year of 2021. It the time to return to that question about vocation, now helped by meeting the Worcester Pilgrim. Then suddenly I am walking alongside another pilgrim companion and the conversation changes again.

(Previous post: Day 42, The Holy Year 2021 Met the Holy Year 1423 in Saint-Jean d’Angely.)

A life-changing event drove Robert Sutton the Worcester Pilgrim onto the road in 1423. He was thirty-three and a successful merchant: one of the good burghers of Worcester. He was a dyer and he employed other people, so he was recognised around the city and was a contributor to its economy and a donor to its churches. All is recorded and documented. This was not the kind of man who suddenly goes off to do something different on a whim, through some mad idea he read about in a book, or through boredom with a life devoid of purpose. This was a typical member of the Catholic faithful of England, a century before a corrupt ruler and an opportunist ruling class would rip the heart out of the solid faith community of Worcester, and every city and town in the land.

“Hello? Yes, I am the bishop and I demand you open this Holy Door right now!”

As I left the camp site on a short-cut of my own out of Saint-John d’Angely, reading the map to cut off a three-kilometre loop and rejoin the Via Turonensis by the ruined château at Beaufief, I recalled his words when I met him yesterday here, in that empty ruin of the abbey. I had been shocked by his stated departure from his former life. “I have no history,” he had said. “Until I return. If God wills that this sinner return alive from Compostela to Worcester and in good health, then my history may start afresh.” This was radical pilgrimage.

As I walked I began the Jesus Prayer cycle on my prayer rope and fell into the rhythm easily in this gentle countryside. There comes a point, when the prayer works automatically, and you can also engage a different part of your brain in a thinking process of sorts, so you are simultanously praying and thinking. Not thinking on one level, either, but two. The conversation with the retired garage man in Lusignan and the conversation with Robert Sutton in Saint-Jean d’Angely now replayed together as if on two separate tracks, with the Jesus Prayer running as a third track.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God…”
“If something is good you do not walk away from it.”
“If God wills… then my history may start afresh.”
“….have mercy on me a sinner.”
“If something is good you stay.”
“I had left my teaching job to resume my life as a Franciscan friar.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God…”
“What was wrong with being a teacher?”
“I have no history until I return.”
“….have mercy on me a sinner.”
“Do well and have well, and God will receive your soul.”
“My poor wife asked me to pray for our dear lost child.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

For me, a three month pilgrimage to Compostela was a choice. But was it a calling? Or was it simply that it seemed like a good idea at the time? And leaving my teaching job to rejoin religious life: calling, or a good idea at the time? Leaving the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic: calling, or a good idea at the time?

Santiago de Compostela (Xacobeo 2021)

Nothing had quite worked out in the way I could understand or… control. But the diocesan vocations director was sending me to Rome to train for the Catholic priesthood. Calling, or a good idea at the time? I cannot even be honest with myself and answer that question, can I? I am halfway to Compostela on the ‘pilgrimage of a lifetime’ and I don’t even know how to face up to my own questions, let alone stand before the Holy Apostle in Compostela and tell him what a good chap I am for coming all this way to see him.

And now compare pilgrim Robert Sutton. English Catholic and man of deeply held faith. Something had happened to him. A child had died. Robert had no doubt of the pattern cause and effect. He is a true man of faith. When bad things happen to him they are because of his sins. So, when bad things happen he must atone for his sins. He must recognize his sin and confront it. “I have no history,” said Robert Sutton, and this was why. He had made his full confession before setting out from Worcester. This was atonement. If he returned to Worcester unscathed from this journey of penance, his history would begin once more.

This was the reason he did not sail from Bristol to El Ferrol in Spain and simply walk safely down the Camino Inglés, a five day route to the shrine of Saint James. He could have afforded the fare: he was not a poor man. But he came down this dangerous route, filled with outbreaks of war, risks of plague, murderous thieves and brigands, and all manner of physical hardship along the way. It wasn’t just that his child had died. He did not undertake such a life-changing journey out of mere sorrow. He had identified exactly what was his sin that brought about the child’s death. That sin was forgiven and Robert Sutton’s pilgrimage was the penance for that forgiveneness. God forgives freely, so why does this penance need to be such a heavy burden? Because human beings are such weak creatures that even God’s forgiveness cannot be accepted unless we feel we have paid a big enough price.

I am walking in the footsteps of Robert Sutton, carrying the replica of his bourdon, and today he is ahead of me on this route from Saint-Jean d’Angely to Saintes – maybe just a kilometre ahead of me – and he is a real pilgrim. I am just play-acting the Catholic pilgrimage in comparison. For he is called to it and I have not even begun to understand my journey or my calling or my faith. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I pause at the the foot of the hill below a vineyard and rewind the green woollen prayer rope back on the bourdon. And there is a magnificent Romanesque church doorway. Then seconds later there is Valerie.

“Do you want me to take your picture here at the door,” she said. I turned to see a girl with a rucsack and walking stick – so, a pilgrim – and then, taking in the secondary details, I noted she had a nice smile and no hat. She had braided pigtails. And a French accent but excellent English. “The door suits you very well!”

So, she took the photograph and she passed me her phone to take her photograph by the door, and we introduced each other. Since the Belgian after Tours and the Dutch pony-trap pilgrim, it was the first time I had met another pilgrim walking on the Way of Saint James. We packed away our phone-cameras and continued towards Saintes. Valerie had walked from Paris. I told her I had walked from Worcester. I thought I walked fast, but she walked very energetically and I had to adjust my pace to keep up. It was the first thing I commented on. Her father was a high-ranking military officer. She walked at the pace she had to learn – from an early age – on walks with her father in the forest paths around Paris in order to keep up with him.

We spent an hour exchanging stories about our experiences on the way, as pilgrims do when they meet for the first time. Later, when pilgrims spend several days in each others’ company comes the sharing of life stories, faith, reasons for doing the pilgrimage to Compostela, and sometimes – in a good conversation – the sharing of doubt. Valerie actually began with the doubt. “I have no idea why I am doing this and my father said I should not, on any account, walk on my own.”

“Will you go to Compostela?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. She was slightly ahead of me on a section of narrow path where we were in single file, and she turned, smiling. “He will send a car to drive and collect me when I have had enough! I’ll show him how far I can get!”

“How many other pilgrims have you met?” I asked. It turned out as she went through her list that she had met a few more than me, but she had lingered a while in Orléans and Tours and other pilgrim centres, as the younger pilgrims sometimes do, enjoying the sights and making friends with strangers.

“My father said on no account walk with a stranger in open country!” said Valerie, with a dismissive air.

“OK, but you trust me?” I said.

“I don’t need to trust you,” she smiled, with the quiet reassurance of the daughter of a senior French military officer. “I take care of myself.”

So began several days of walking with Valerie, a situation which was – yet again – the new and unexpected experience that just happens on the Way of Saint James. Pilgrims often meet along the road and walk a while together, simply because they are walking at the same pace towards the same place, sharing the same pilgrim accommodation. Then the random nature of the Way of Saint James separates them. Sometimes they meet up again in great joy in front of the Obradoiro in Compostela, the great cathedral square. More often they never see each other again.

Within ten kilometres we had become quite good friends and it was clear that she sought male conversation – with her father referenced frequently – and I was also pleased to have female conversation for a change, which was always an enjoyable change from my own male nonsense.

Yesterday, I was forming a closer bond with the ghost of the Worcester Pilgrim (who was still somewhere ahead of us), a man who had instantly educated me in the nature of vocation. Today I had a lively companion of few fixed ideas and dare not even begin to mention the Catholic faith, just yet, but maybe there would be a time as we walked on. For the moment, it was simply good to listen to all the outflowing of spiritual ideas from my companion. The chemin would teach you everything and every tree was full of mystery. The true wisdom of spiritualité came from the east, and all the stuffiness of French Catholic religion would crumble into dust within a few years. Including all her father’s hypocritical nonsense! How could you be spiritual and command a regiment of armoured cars? Had I read Herman Hesse? Steppenwolf?

“Probably his most dangerous novel,” I said. “Put it behind you.”

I talked about Narcissus and Goldmund for three kilometres. She had not read it. If you want to understand the way through the door from unbelief into Christianity, you can do worse than start with this. The young boy Goldmund – together with his only friend, his horse – is left by his father at the door of a mediaeval monastery, to be educated, or in effect to be abandoned.

He is befriended by Narziss the tutor, a rising star of theology and monastic scholasticism who will one day become abbot. Goldmund leaves the monastery and goes in search of adventure and romance. He finds love and the female principle is awakened within him, and he is moved to be an artist! He eventually becomes apprenticed to a sculptor. He returns to the monastery in old age, broken and sad having lost in life and love, but enlightened – in the way Hesse understands enlightenment – which is close to the true path, but still not quite there. Goldmund produces a masterwork, a sculpture of Saint John the Divine which becomes the anonymous work by which later ages will know him. It is a powerful introduction to the life of the spirit and the differences in our calling.

“That’s beautiful,” said Valerie. We had stopped, sitting on a mossy wall. Already we were not very far from Saintes. The miles go by very quickly when you have company and are engaged in earnest conversation. “This is a Catholicism I have not known before.”

“I haven’t mentioned Catholicism yet,” I said, slowly. “You did. I merely started with your Herman Hesse and talked about a better book than the one you have read. We will continue another time, but come on: we need to get to Saintes before the pilgrim hostel is full. I know one pilgrim is ahead of us now: a man called Robert who also set out from Worcester.”

“At the same time as you?” asked Valerie.

“No,” I said. “He set out in 1423.”

“Sometimes you make sense,” she said. “But a fifteenth century pilgrim walking ahead of us? That must be in your head?”

We slid off the mossy wall and continued on the road to Saintes. I honestly did not know if it was ‘in my head’. On this pilgrimage that does not matter very much. The more important question is simply, is it real? Like Christmas. We had the experience and now we just ask, was it real?

The pilgrim hostal in Saintes, attached to Basilique Saint Eutrope

Valerie and I arrived to take the last two photographs among the flowers outside the door and the last two berths in the six-bed pilgrim refuge: me on the top bunk and her on the lower. In the top bunk opposite me I could see that the Worcester Pilgrim, Robert Sutton had already arrived and left his bourdon on the bunk. This was once a mediaeval pilgrim stop-over so he was coinciding with our time again and we would stay in the same place for the first time, Robert Sutton and I, since leaving Worcester. Maybe he was in the basilica at prayer. Should I go in search of him or cook some pasta with Valerie? Yes, you knew the answer to that, didn’t you? The pasta was the only thing I saw in Saintes.

Saint Eutrope above the ancient ruins, Saintes.