Saintes to Pons

Day 44 of Walking Out of the World: walking the last stages of the Via Turonensis with 15th and 21st century company. Pons is exactly half way from Worcester to Compostela on this route.

(Previous post: Day 43 Saint-Jean d’Angely to Saintes.)

Saint-Eutrope, Saintes

In the pilgrim refuge at Saintes, I awoke early to find that the Worcester Pilgrim had already left.  His bourdon which had been on top of the next bunk when we arrived at the refuge had gone.  I couldn’t remember seeing him come in during the previous night, and I figured I must have fallen asleep quite early.  Perhaps more tired than usual after a day of conversation on the road. Had I imagined seeing his bourdon on the top of the bunk the previous night?

The French pilgrim Valerie who I had walked with from Saint-Jean d’Angely was already drinking coffee and studying the Via Turonensis handbook. There were just two more walking days to Mirambeau, which was the end of this GR655 waymarked section of the Chemin Saint-Jacques route.

“Didn’t the hospitalier say that we took the last two remaining beds when we arrived?” I asked.  “There were no empty beds. That bunk next to us: there was a pilgrim on the top bed?  Did you see him leave?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “He went very early and he had a long walking stick just like yours, with the two round wooden apples, or whatever you call them. He had a broad-brimmed hat.  If you are thinking he was your 15th century ghost you talked about, he wasn’t!  He stepped on the pilgrim in the lower bunk as he climbed down and woke him!”

“I didn’t say he was a ghost, Valerie. The 15th century pilgrim I met in Saint-Jean d’Angely was a real person.”

“Maybe that pilgrim’s name can be seen in the book,” she said.  “Go and see.”

I went to the desk in the lobby where the hospitalier had welcomed us the previous day, and after taking our six euros for the overnight stop, she had put our names and the date in the large hard-covered record book. 

“The book is not here and the drawer is locked,” I said.

“The hospitalier said the last pilgrims to leave should make sure the door is shut behind us on the Yale lock,” said Valerie, “because she will not return until four o’clock to open again for pilgrims today. Are you ready? Come on, let’s go.”

But I was lost in thought. “So, I didn’t imagine it: you also saw an identical bourdon.” The Worcester Pilgrim was out there, on the road to Pons.

The waymarked walking route ran alongside a gently sloping hill parallel to the N137 main road and it was a fairly featureless landscape for the twenty kilometres to Pons, so it was good to continue with some company. In fact that became the conversation for a while: how did we normally spend the day when walking alone? Valerie had spent much of the journey from Paris thinking about her life. Replaying scenes from it. Working through some difficulties. Thinking about the future. Wondering if this journey could provide some anchor, some certainty, some clarity. She said she was quite happy to have some company but she had also begun to enjoy the silence.

Pilgrim group, Pons

“Let’s walk in silence then!” I suggested. “Just for a while. Let’s say, from the next village… Préguillac to Berneuil, three kilometres.”

“OK,” she said. “And then coffee in Berneuil and do the next three kilometres to Saint-Léger in silence?”

So, as agreed, after Préguillac, we walked the full three kilometres without saying a word. Leaving the village, I unwound my green woollen prayer rope and in the silence I was repeating the Jesus Prayer, thinking this might be my only opportunity today.

At Berneuil we found the café open and went in, leaving our rucsacks and walking sticks outside and did not speak until we ordered coffee.

“That was good!” said my companion. “I’ve never done that before. I don’t mean just silence: obviously I have been walking in silence for most days since Paris. But I mean choosing to walk in silence with someone… It’s different. Usually a long silence is after an argument. A bad silence. That was a good silence because we agreed to it. It’s as good as talking. I notice more about you when we are silent, like the way you walk, the way you look up at the country around us, and the way you think.”

“How do you know what I think…?”

“When you were in front on that narrow path and there were some – you know – water…”

“Puddles,” I suggested.

“Puddles? Yes, and you hesitate and then use your bourdon in a new way and you smile.”

“You’re right!” I hadn’t registered at the time, but I suddenly saw another way that a two-metre walking staff works when negotiating multiple puddles and ruts in the track: it had been another small revelation of the bourdon. I responded in like manner: “And you going up a steep rise in the path alongside that field with the cows in it. You sighed for a moment as if the effort was too much and then you straightened your shoulders as if not wanting to show any sign of weakness.”

“Ah…” she smiled. “From walks with my father. No signs of weakness allowed! And your woollen rosary? Is that for praying to the Virgin Mary?”

“Her Son,” I said, and I explained the Jesus Prayer to Valerie. How each recitation of the prayer went with one of the century of woollen knots, so the prayer is repeated a hundred times before your fingers returned to the cross and you recalled your redemption. I also explained how the prayer went with the rhythm of walking and breathing.

“Can I do this?” Valerie asked. “In the silence from here to the next village. Can I use the prayer rope?”

(On the Devotions page of this pilgrimage blog there was a link to a video of an Orthodox priest explaining the Jesus Prayer. A reader sent me an alternative Jesus Prayer video by a lively Australian called Matt and I really like this, so I’ve replaced my original video.)

Pilgrim group, Pons

I went over the words of the prayer with her a few more times after finishing the croissants and coffee. Then we set off again in silence. I had bought that prayer rope at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Kensington, and I figured out it was 1985. This was the first time I had lent it to anyone since passing it round a prayer group while on a parish mission team in Saint Francis church in Hessle, on Humberside decades ago. Did mediaeval pilgrims introduce each other to their different pious customs as they walked together? After another three kilometres we ended the walking silence – as arranged – at the village of Saint-Léger.

“That is the first time I have prayed on this pilgrimage!” said Valerie. “When you have said the prayer a certain number of times, I don’t know how many… maybe the second time around the prayer rope…? The prayer takes over.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s a bit like those Solex moto-velos that used to be popular in France: you have to pedal hard and then suddenly the motor kicks in and away you go!”

“I find it hard to believe this can be Catholic,” she said.

“No, it was just a motor-assisted bicycle.”

“I mean the prayer. I don’t like organised religion. It is boring. This mantra prayer seems almost like zen! It must come from the Chinese or maybe Indian meditation. I think I will try this again.”

There could have been a number of responses to that but I did not think it the right moment. If it was good, it couldn’t possibly be Christian, but it must have come from some other tradition. What she had discovered was good and she would find out more in her own way. God teaches prayer. It is not taught by gurus. I rewound the woollen Orthodox prayer rope back on the top of the bourdon as we continued out of Saint-Léger and I changed the subject to French mediaeval architecture, a subject on which she had some interesting knowledge.

In Pons, where we would arrive in mid-afternoon after a shorter distance than usual, little more than twenty kilometres, there were a number of sites of historical and religious interest, and we could arrive at a reasonable hour at the pilgrim refuge in order to see them.

More about the pilgrim refuge in Pons here: Pons, halte des pèlerins de Compostelle – Charente Information may need updating (check with the tourist office in Pons: One thing that always remains unchanged is the distance still to go to Compostela: 1.183 kilometres. This is the halfway point from Worcester!

One pilgrim who would not be going further towards Santiago de Compostela was the Belgian who I met on the outskirts of Tours.  Remember him?  (“You will never make it to Compostela with a two-kilo bourdon…” ) Passing a café, on arrival in Pons, Valerie said “Look it is Luc.”  She had met him a few days earlier and he had been suffering badly.  He was sitting with his parents who had driven down from Belgium to collect him by car.  His feet were so badly blistered that he was giving up and going home.

He was as before, full of encouragement for a fellow pilgrim. “You still think you can make it another one thousand two hundred kilometres to Compostela with that heavy thing you are carrying?”

“La pluie de le matin n’arrete pas le pélerin,” I said.

Du matin,” he corrected.

We wished him well before we continued to the refuge des pelerins.

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