Onesse-Laharie to Dax

Day 52 of Walking Out of the World. Two pilgrims with mediaeval bourdons continue on their way across the vast featureless heathland of the Landes. As we walk, we continue to find ourselves divided by belonging to the same Church.

(Previous post: Labouheyre to Onesse-Laharie)

Story telling is an art practised by pilgrims through the ages. Not the art of the short-story but the art of the long-story. A story told in episodes. Like a soap opera. Each day is different, with a new starting place and another temporary destination for another night stop. Today the story starts at Onesse-Laharie, saying farewell to another good married couple – Julien and Annette – who welcome passing pilgrims into their home. There is always a story within the story. We told them about the sign we saw earlier in the day, on the edge of a village: “MISSION de 1928”, and it prompted us to talk about the film of that name, The Mission.

So after supper and with an extra glass of wine, we watched that film again, with its hauntingly beautiful oboe theme by Ennio Morricone that so wonderfully speaks of all the good that could be ours if only we allow our world to be touched by heaven. And it was very different to enter that story within the context of our present story: a half-completed walking pilgrimage of two and a half thousand kilometres. We two pilgrims identified more with the physical challenges faced by the two Jesuit missionaries played by Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. So everyone wept and had another glass of wine and mourned the loss of innocence again, then went to bed.

Dirk and I were on the road shortly after eight-thirty, a later start than we preferred, but we were guests in Julien and Annette’s home and we could not rush breakfast and dive out of the door with our bourdons clanging on the tarmac drive after they had been so welcoming. So we lingered a while over breakfast and added their names to our notebooks for prayers before the relics of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.

“Great people,” said Dirk, as we headed out into the vast featureless heathland of the Landes once more. “Catholics always open their homes to fellow Catholics.”

I let it pass without comment, as I was reminded of the Jewish family who had once invited me into their home when I was sleeping on a park bench in Franciscan habit, while hitch-hiking to Rome. I remembered the Muslim man who had come down from his flat overlooking the spot where I was stuck for the night under a tree and completely lost. He brought me a quilted eiderdown, saying, “Leave it here under the tree and I will collect it in the morning.” The Abrahamic religions always put an emphasis on hospitality.

“Look what happened when those native south American tribespeople opened their homes to two Jesuits,” I said, remembering The Mission from last night. “Total devastation. So sad, eh?”

“Yes, but that’s the downside. Those countries all became Catholic in the end.”

“I usually start the day saying the Jesus Prayer,” I said to Dirk, as I unravelled the green woollen prayer rope from the top of my bourdon. “Do you remember back in Saintes, I was on the top bunk next to the bunk where you had left your bourdon that evening. There was a girl on the bunk below me. Valerie.”

“Yeah, I do remember!” he said. “She looked up as I was climbing down from the bunk early in the morning. Great big brown eyes!”

“Well Valerie and I walked for the whole distance between two villages in silence.” I waved the Orthodox prayer rope. “She borrowed this for a while too, and silently said the Jesus Prayer. We did about ten kilometres in silence and it worked really well. You could say your rosary. How about it?”

And as we fell silent, apart from the clicking of Dirk’s rosary beads (and there’s the advantage of an Orthodox woollen prayer rope!), the ceasing of chatter opened the other senses to the landscape. Across the Landes the tall pines with their twisting trunks bent to the west wind bringing the salty warm air from the Atlantic and the saltmarshes. There were birds walking acros the flat land between scrub and pine trees. Terns, I think, but I wouldn’t know a tern from an ostrich. They didn’t look like ostriches anyway. And it was good to be walking again in silence with another pilgrim. An agreed silence, not a sulk like yesterday’s silence between a traddy and a libtard, following a conversation that was strained by mutually misunderstood allegiances.

As I said the Jesus Prayer I thought about Valerie. These woollen knots were tolled by her fingers. I put aside the fleeting thought: she was not some kind of minor Dulcinea to my more-minor Don Quixote. My pilgrim companion for just three days would be back in Paris now. Like Dirk, she was from a Catholic family too. Thinking of her, I remembered I must pray to Saint Médard before the rain starts again today. But Valerie was a sceptic as well as a nominal Catholic. Yes, a prayer to Saint Médard could change the weather, and guide her to a welcoming refuge where she found a holy picture of Saint Médard above her bed. Yet, when I talked of my search for vocation or taking my part in the mission of the Church, that left her completely cold. Was this an example of ‘folk religion’? Praying to saints was OK but ‘organised religion’ was an alien, oppressive force?

Then I reflected on The Mission. The Jesuits. In my experience, as my life changed to conform to Christian values years ago – in my thirties – Ignatian prayer had been very popular, even in the Church of England where I had started my journey. Anthony de Mello and other teachers of prayer had helped me in those first steps along the way. And then, in the early days of life as a Franciscan novice, we were taken to a residential centre run by the Jesuits, for a full-blown experience of south American ‘Christian Base Communities’. It was led by Catholic animators from Brazil and all the key quotes were from Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino and the other leading lights, but it was a hands-on experience of the Early Church. We had been put into groups, so we were the people of Ephesus or Thessalonika receiving the Epistles from Saint Paul, or even a visit from him, and it was thrilling, totally scriptural, live and everyone felt some sense of how the Holy Spirit could fill the communities of the Early Church with a sense of the power of the Word. But now, thirty years later, among conservative Catholics, the Jesuits (including ‘Bergoglio’ as they continue to refer to the current Pope Francis) are the demons who would undo the traditions of the Church. And ‘Christian Base Communities’? Best not mention you ever were touched by them, or you will not just be a heretic but a purveyor of evil.

Dirk and I had agreed to end our time of prayer and silence at the village of Lesperon after eleven kilometres. We sat down at a bench in the centre of the village. Today’s walk would be forty-four kilometres to Dax, so we wanted to keep the rest times short, particularly after a late start from Onesse-Laharie. (Map.)

“I can’t think how you could do that Russian prayer thing without Mary,” said Dirk, putting his rosary beads away in the waist-pack he carried in front of him. “I sure get all the help I need from the Mother of Our Lord. She’s not good enough for you?”

I explained that the Jesus prayer was a similar prayer of repetition as ‘Hail Mary full of grace’. But I told Dirk that I had always found the Rosary too fussy, with too many stages, too many words, and it was only after I had finished the rosary marathon that I could get back to real prayer. With fewer words, fewer images.

“Wow!” said Dirk. “You’re really something! You find the Mother of the Lord ‘too fussy’!”

We finished our rest time at Lesperon and returned to the walk across the flat Landes, with the next village of Taller ten kilometres away. I decided to pick up the theme of the Virgin Mary and run with it. I told Dirk the story of how I was hitch-hiking back from Assisi to the west of England and I stopped for the night at the ecumenical community of Taizé in Burgundy. I was welcomed there and given a room near the community house and invited to supper with the Taizé brothers in their refectory. Later, I was told to be there an hour before supper because the founder of the Taizé community wanted to talk with me.

It was one of the outstanding conversations of my life, which I will never forget, and it was an extraordinary privilege to be granted time alone with this man, which even the brother who brought me the message said was very rare. In the little garden next to the community house, with the Romanesque village church behind him, Brother Roger Schütz spoke to me in French. He only had a few words of English – or maybe he chose not to speak English – but I persevered in my rudimentary French and explained I had come directly from Assisi and was headed into Worcester, to Glasshampton monastery to spend a year there in silence. I did not need to struggle much longer with my French, for Brother Roger did all the talking from there onwards.

This was in 1989 – even before the Berlin wall came down – and Pope John Paul had visited Taizé not long before. Brother Roger had recently finished the draft of a joint book he had written with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an ecumenical book about the Mother of God: Mary, Mother of Reconciliations.

I was humbled – almost to the point of embarrassment – when he said he was thrilled to have a Franciscan brother in his presence who had come directly from Assisi, and he proceeded to explain to me how he had discovered – as a protestant – that Mary was the key to understanding the message of Jesus, and the answer to the great question of how to unite the divided churches of Christendom. He spoke softly and at times almost inaudibly, so I had to lean towards him until our shoulders almost touched. Then, as a whole hour seemed like it was over in two minutes, the little bell in the refectory sounded for supper. We went inside.

I was seated at the T-shaped grouping of tables at the head, next to Brother Roger, and there were brothers at the line of tables in front of us, and to the right and the left, maybe sixty or seventy brother in all, in a table formation making the T-shaped sign of the Tau, with Brother Roger at the head. There was a visiting German bishop sitting on the other side of Brother Roger. Grace was said and the first half of the meal was eaten in silence. Halfway through the meal, before the second course, Brother Roger gave a short talk, after which the meal continued as a talking meal. He spoke in French, but I understood enough to be immediately aghast at the misunderstanding of what I had conveyed to him in my poor French earlier.

“Brothers, my brother Bishop, I welcome this little Franciscan brother who has come directly here from Assisi. He has hitch-hiked here on the roads of Italy and France and stopped here for the night before going on to England, to a silent monastery. He has brought us a special message from Assisi and from Saint Francis himself, who spent his last years at La Verna in a hermitage. The message is that we must build a hermitage in the hills near here in Burgundy, a place of prayer, a remote house of prayer where some brothers will live in silence, away from here, like Saint Francis in La Verna. With some brothers acting as ‘mothers’ to care for the brothers in seclusion, and then change over, so the brothers become the mothers…”

And so it went on, while I could feel my face glowing bright red, and some Taizé brothers were looking at me, as if to say “What nonsense have you been talking to this poor dear man, our founder Roger?” I wanted to be somewhere under the table, or out in a forest under a tree instead of staying here tonight, and I turned to the American brother next to me and said, “I didn’t say any of that. It’s my poor French, I think…” He nodded sympathetically, as Brother Roger finished by saying he wanted the bursar to see how much money there was for purchasing a suitable property, and a party of brothers should go and search the hills during the following week.

Ten years later, when a Taizé brother was leading a prayer evening in the crypt of Canterbury cathedral, I was then a teacher and had brought some students to the prayer meeting. I went up to the Taizé brother afterwards and said I was the Franciscan brother who was at the table that night, and he said, “Yes we always remember that. We did look for a house in the hills for a hermitage, but happily Brother Roger had forgotten all about you within a month, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.” I too was relieved to hear it.

I finished my story and we completed a few more steps across the Landes in silence, then I said: “And that, Dirk, is how I was first made aware of the importance of Mary the Mother of God.”

Dirk looked sideways at me, swinging his bourdon to the path in front. “So you were taught about Mary, the Catholic Virgin Mary, by some protestant guy! No wonder you use this Russian prayer thing instead of a true rosary!”

The conversations for the next kilometres to Dax were dominated mainly by heavy rainfall, as I had actually forgotten to pray to Saint Médard even if I had briefly remembered him earlier, and the rancorous exchange between Dirk and I – following my revelation – on the subject of ecumenism, the movement towards unity in the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches. This was described by my companion as the cause of Vatican II and the secularization of the Catholic Church, the collapse of morals, the destruction of true doctrine, and the reason why the faithful had accepted Satan’s abortion and contraception as a way of life. For a while, after that, we trudged along in the wrong sort of silence.

I wondered if I should bring the conversation back to Kalashnikovs and losing the spanners under a cockpit ejector seat in an F-15 fighter. Anything was safer than talking about religion with a fellow Catholic. We reached Dax. There was a pilgrim refuge. We talked pizza and beer instead.

The pilgrim refuge was next to the parish church of Saint-Vincent-de-Dax. It was a small dormitory with iron bunk beds. We finished our beers and pizza and slept early, ready to get up early for another day walking on the Landes. And we said, finally, “Good night and God bless.” The traditional and the liberal usually agree on at least the wording for falling silent in sleep. I lay awake for a while. I didn’t want to sing the liberal counter tenor against the main tune of the traditionalist, as I had long ceased to identify with either, but there was no way out: if you didn’t go along with every word, you were on the opposite side, and that was the end of the game. No discussion.

Having recalled that meeting with Brother Roger of Taizé, I also remembered how things had developed years later, after his murder in 2005.

Totally shocked by the news of the murder of Brother Roger, I went back to Taizé in the winter of 2006 and spent a week there in silent retreat, in the school half term while I was teaching at the Archbishop’s School in Canterbury. The village was like a Christmas card picture in the snow, and the church next to the spot where I had talked with Brother Roger in 1989 now contained his grave, with a few recently placed flickering votive candles. I talked with him. My French had still not improved in nearly twenty years. May he rest in peace, for he struggled in the cause of church unity and died in that effort. Stabbed by a mentally unwell woman who had felt she was excluded by the Romanian church group with which she had come to spend the week in Taizé.

It was during that week that I felt called to leave my job as a teacher and seek advice to try and rejoin religious life. Now I was on the road to Compostela, still unsure of my destination, but not too concerned: for God’s will is always in your best interests, even if you don’t much like the outcome. And now, in this pilgrim hostel in Dax I fell asleep silently singing a Taizé Magnificat. For the same American brother Jean-Marie who sat next to me that night when I was placed next to Brother Roger at the supper table had later been my spiritual director in the snowbound retreat in Taizé six months after Roger’s murder, and he had been a wonderful guide; but also the heavenly voice on the Taizé recordings, as the lead descant tenor.

Magnificat. “Sing out my soul…”

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