Labouheyre to Onesse-Laharie

Day 51 of Walking Out of the World finally sees the two pilgrims with the mediaeval bourdons meet up on the road across the Landes. The intention to pray for the unity of the Catholic Church hits the ground running.

(Previous post: Moustey: the 1000 kilometre stone.)

I begin walking from where I ended yesterday. A small family home offering pilgrim hospitality in Labouheyre. Each day on this pilgrimage is about a beginning and an ending. Walking Out of the World began in Worcester but each day it begins again from somewhere different. Today it begins from the home of Jacques and Jacqueline in Labouheyre. I thank them and start walking. Their names are now in my notebook to pray for them in Compostela when I get there. I walked from home, from England, like the Worcester pilgrim. Now I walk from Jacques and Jacqueline’s home and I reckon it is five days walk to the Pyrenees.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
In my end is my beginning.

T.S.Eliot Four Quartets

As I walk down the drive of the neat little garden Jacqueline says, “Maybe you will see that pilgrim with the bourdon later?” At breakfast she told me she had looked out of the kitchen window while making coffee, when I was still packing my rucsack in the guest bedroom. She had seen a pilgrim walking past and she said he had a mediaeval bourdon “Just like yours!” When I asked if he wore a broad-brimmed hat, she said yes he did.

“Did he look as if he had walked out of the 15th century?” I asked, and she had looked at me in some surprise, then smiled weakly. She thought I was making some sort of joke she didn’t understand, I supposed. I did not pursue the matter. And now I was on the road again behind that other mysterious bourdon – not far ahead of me now. I increased my pace. “Still… moving / Into another intensity.”

The chemin Saint-Jacques on this stretch entered a small wood – in between two wide expanses of typically featureless wide Landes landscapes. In this wood I saw another walker ahead of me. I increased my pace until my shins were beginning to ache, and I caught up with the pilgrim. He had a bourdon like mine, but slightly shorter, and yes he had a broad-brimmed hat, but it was not the brown pilgrim’s hat of the 15th century; instead a white explorer’s sun hat. And as I drew closer, he heard the sound of the twin metal spikes of my bourdon thudding into the stony track as I walked behind him, and he stopped and turned.

The pilgrim with the other mediaeval bourdon.

After so many days since Saint-Jean d’Angely, when I met the 15th century Worcester pilgrim Robert Sutton in the grounds of the ruined abbey, I had been wondering about the possibility of meeting him again. The hints and guesses during so many days since then, the sightings, the bourdon on the bunk in Saintes, the casual remark of the woman in the pilgrim museum at Pons; all of this collage of images that had suggested the man from the 15th century was walking ahead of me, all fell apart when I saw this pilgrim and when he spoke in an east coast American drawl.

“You were in the refuge in Saintes!” he said. “I saw your bourdon when I got up early to leave that day. I’m Dirk Carter.”

I introduced myself. We walked on. It turned out that he had stayed out late in Saintes that night we were in the same refuge – in the days when I was still walking with Valerie – because he had met some other pilgrims on the road and they took him to a good restaurant in Saintes because they were returning to Paris and wanted to thank him for his company on the walk. Dirk was not long out of the military and was taking a year off before he went to college to do further studies. He had been an aircraft technician in the USAF. I couldn’t believe it: I told him I had been an aircraft technician in the RAF!

“Avionics?” he asked.

“No: airframes!” I replied. “In my day avionics people were just called electricians.”

Matching mediaeval bourdons and military aviation experience. Coincidence? No such thing on a pilgrimage. We paused at a village green to drink some water and photographed the bourdons. We joked about the way guys on social media might send girls photos of their bourdons to shock them. Military vet humour meets pilgrimage. Dirk was also walking the Way of Saint James as a Catholic pilgrimage. He had a metal Compostela shell badge. Holy medals on his rucsack. It was all too coincidental.

I said, “People days ago told me there was another pilgrim on the road ahead of me, with a similar bourdon, but they said he had walked from England.”

“That’s right. I walked from Cambridge,” said Dirk. “When I was coming up for my discharge the last thing I did was fix a free ride across the pond with my old maintenance unit. I decided to walk the Camino and I hitched a ride on a USAF transport from Virginia to a base near Cambridge. So I walked from there.”

“I walked from Worcester,” I said. I told Dirk about the Worcester pilgrim, and how my bourdon was a replica of his, and I explained about the route that Robert Sutton had taken in 1423 slightly different from mine, via Cherbourg.”

“That’s sure a coincidence!” said Dirk. “I came on the Portsmouth ferry to Cherbourg.”

“On a route from Cambridge?” I exclaimed. “Why would you do that?”

So Dirk Carter explained he had wanted to start his pilgrimage by walking to Canterbury, then following the Pilgrim’s Way in reverse, across the south of England. “Just to get into the whole pilgrim idea before stepping into the Camino de Santiago!”

We walked at a similar steady stride, and the bourdons swung in unison. After the small wood where we had met, the vast expanse of the Landes opened up again and we were on a straight road stretching to the horizon in which the only break from the monotony of the landscape was the occasional village and the welcome conversation of a fellow pilgrim. Dirk had also calculated this would be a five day walk to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port before crossing the Pyrenees. We both sensed that the idea of a few days company on this challenging stretch of the road across the Landes would be a welcome morale-booster, and we settled into the nerdy world of aircraft maintenance.

“What was the longest time you ever had to wait in the hangar before the lost spanner was safely back on the Tool Store board and everyone could go to the canteen for supper?” That sort of aviation mechanics nerd talk could quickly put another five kilometres behind us, in a twinkle of an eye. We laughed about the new guy on the squadron who was sent to the Tool Store to ask for a “long weight” and was left standing there for an hour. And then suddenly we talked about being Catholics and it all began to go horribly wrong within a few minutes.

In a little wood on the edge of a village there was a commemorative sign “MISSION de 1928.” We paused to photograph the bourdons leaning against it, and Dirk was curious about what it meant.

I suggested it was probably a parish mission by visiting Church missioners, and this would have been an open-air gathering place for evangelisation. The sign would have been put up by grateful people to remember the renewal of their parish. I explained how I used to work in parish mission teams as a Franciscan friar.

“Yeah, we need that now in the States,” said Dirk. “Nearly every parish has been taken over by communist priests. Even the bishops are left wing and preach evil. We sure need some missions to drive out Satan.”

My heart sank. As we walked on, I tried the ex-military comrades gambit and we discovered something else we had in common. We had both gained a marksman’s badge on the firing ranges and as well as the standard US and NATO self-loading rifles, we had both fired a Kalashnikov on the ranges, for comparison. We agreed it was the easiest weapon for hitting a group of three rounds within an inch, the marksman standard. That conversation safely kept us from any more ‘driving out Satan’ until we eventually found a place to eat our sandwiches and share a bottle of wine from a neaby epicerie, at a round table on a village recreation spot.

There’s a limit to how much you can talk about firing a Kalashnikov, unless you are actually on the range firing a Kalashnikov, so Dirk decided it was time to get back to driving out Satan from the Church.

“So you’re a pro-life Catholic, yeah?” he said, splitting a bread roll and packing in some sliced salami.

“I’m certainly not pro-death,” I replied. “This is pretty good vino for three-seventy-five… Or does the flavour comes from my tin mug?”

I knew it was going to go downhill quickly from here. It was just a matter of putting one foot wrong, and that could happen at any moment. The relaxed conversation of the morning had been a welcome break from the monotony of the landscape. Now, even the monotony of walking solo across the Landes in the previous days began to seem relaxing. At Moustey I had made a firm decision that the 1000 kilometres to Compostela should focus on prayer for unity in the Catholic Church. I had not for a moment expected to be tested the very next day. Thank you, Lord… (no, don’t be sarcastic…) OK, yes thank you, Lord and give me the strength.

“Would you call yourself more of a liberal?” asked Dirk Carter. This was scary, but at least we could stop playing cat-and-mouse after that question. He took a large bite of salami sandwich, and I followed suit with a hunk of cheese and the end of a roll, and that bought me some time. A full minute.

“I think… from what I understand of it anyway,” (buying a few more seconds), “the Catholic Church is probably a bit different in the USA? I think I would be seen in England as more of a traditional Catholic… because the hierarchy – well, many bishops – are much more ‘liberal’ than I would like. Yes…”

“So they’re all commies?”

“Not exactly…” I tried to get the immediate mental image out of my head, of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster dressed in an olive green Fidel Castro army hat and waving a Kalashnikov as he stood at the lectern. “There’s a strong tradition of Irish Catholicism in England, mixed with an old Catholic element… you know, the recidivists… no what’s the word? Recusants! Yes, recusants who are often from the older English families, aristocracy, that sort of thing. Still keep the Latin Mass going… You know.”

Dirk didn’t know. I didn’t know either. This was not how picnic lunches were meant to be on the Way of Saint James. Any moment now, he would use the word ‘libtard’ and it was going to get very difficult. I wanted to play this well. I had only yesterday begun to think about this commitment to prayer for unity in the Catholic Church. I needed some thinking time. I didn’t want to be plunged into this without any preparation. Now, let’s remember. What did I used to do in the parish missions? No, that experience would be useless now. They had been Anglican parish missions in the years before I converted.

“So, you’re a traditionalist?” said Dirk. “That’s good. I hate commie libtards too. Satanic baby murderers!”

“I’m a Franciscan at heart,” I said. “One of the strongest reasons why I converted from the Church of England was that I began to see you cannot be a follower of Saint Francis if you are not obedient to the Bishop of Rome.”

“That commie bastard!” exclaimed Dirk, spitting a sliver of salami rind across the picnic table in a wide arc, onto the grass nearby. “Do you think Bergoglio was elected by freemasons? That’s what my priest, Father Joseph-Maria says.”

“Gosh! I had never thought of that,” I said. “Do you really think so? How interesting. And your priest is called Maria?”

“Joseph-Maria.”

This was not working well. We finished our lunch and heaved our rucsacks over our shoulders. I knew the afternoon walk to Onesse-Laharie was going to be a challenge. As we returned to the road I decided to explain to Dirk the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox tradition. I made sure to repeat the word ‘tradition’ several times, and I had his full attention. I took the green woollen prayer rope off my bourdon and explained how it worked. I talked about the anonymous writer of the Russian Way of a Pilgrim. I was in parish mission mode and it was going well, but this was only plugging the dam with my finger, stalling for time while subconsciously getting my ducks in a row, ready for the return to the arena of ‘traddies’ v ‘libtards’.

“So this Russian Jesus thing is like the Rosary, except you leave out Mary?” said Dirk Carter, summarising a half hour of my explanation, demonstration and actual prayer, as we walked along, plus a precís of The Way of a Pilgrim in search of the way to obey the command ‘Pray without ceasing’. And he finished with the oft-quoted objection to any kind of ecumenical spirituality: “You know the Orthodox are in schism with the Catholic Church?”

“OK,” I said. “Now that’s an interesting one because you’ve been saying to me – and I can see you really are sincere in this – that you think Pope Francis does not need to be obeyed or respected because you think he is in error. How would you define schism, exactly?”

So we finally hit the issues head-on. The fragile truce was maintained throughout a wide ranging discussion – desperately hovering in the area of ‘whataboutery’ but retaining a semblance of development – on the subjects of ecumenical dialogue, abortion, distrust of any government health programmes (including vaccination, which also connected somehow with abortion), the fight against the communist take-over of the world, the globalist New World Order promoted by freemasons, and the need to get all the sisters of Catholic religious orders back into their traditional habits instead of wearing jeans which made them ‘look like whores in some whorehouse in Las Vegas’.

We stopped to look at a parish church in a village not far from our destination. Inside there was a stained glass window of little artistic value, but it depicted Saint Roche (San Roque, San Rocco) who I have mentioned earlier on this virtual pilgrimage.

I explained Saint Roche to Dirk Carter and he was intrigued because this was not something he had known about in the USA. I explained how Saint Roche had been a pilgrim, how the dog had rescued him, and the way that he ended up caring for the poor and the homeless in Rome, then died penniless and was proclaimed a saint by the poorest.

“I guess you could call him a ‘libtard’,” I said. “And look, the naughty man is showing a bit of leg. Would proper saints do that? Maybe just in Las Vegas?”

That was the last time we talked about religion on the afternoon walk, and Dirk avoided the subject vary studiously. How surprising it was, I thought, that two Catholic men on route to Compostela were united in every other possible way, but their mutual shared religion was the thing that divided them.

I remembered the old adage about English and Americans: “Two nations divided by the same language.” We arrived in Onesse-Laharie and stayed at another family-run pilgrim-friendly house. A good meal and a conversation simply about our experiences on the road from England, shared with the family, kept us from any mention of our faith. What, I wondered, would tomorrow bring?


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