Sorde l’Abbaye to Saint-Palais

Day 54 of Walking Out of the World. A further sighting of the 15th century Worcester pilgrim and a challenging discussion about Catholic morals, in which the ‘libtard’ napalms the ‘traddy’ in the cause of Church unity.

(Previous post: Dax to Sorde l’Abbaye.)

“Sorde was a magnificent Benedictine abbey, fortified, rich and kind to pilgrims.  Here in these foothills, unlike in the Landes, there were so many little valleys, so many alternative routes that it was often unclear which path to take.”

Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim

We had looked around the abbey ruins the previous evening, after arriving at the pilgrim hostel nextdoor.  As I walked around the ancient vaults, I thought again of Robert Sutton. 

Who had he met with on the road and stayed with overnight here in Sorde?  Pilgrims would mostly gather in groups and walk together for safety, and as they walked on towards Arancou and Saint-Palais – on the same route we were taking today – they would have talked about many things.  How did the Worcester pilgrim manage with the language?  Or maybe English would have been a common language, as cities like Bordeaux and Dax in the fifteenth century had been under English rule for a while. 

Sorde l’Abbaye to Saint Palais: link to map website

The pilgrims would all have been Catholics.  Would there have been any disputes between them?   Did they divide over some key moral or doctrinal issues as they walked along, swinging their bourdons?   I thought it unlikely.   The ordinary people’s religion was deeply embedded in the culture, as we know from their fierce resistance to Henry’s reformers in England in the sixteenth century. Unlike today Catholics are a minority in the culture, they probably didn’t talk about religion very much as they mostly had the same experience of it.  Apart from swapping stories of saints and relics and miracles, the pilgrims may not have even considered themselves an active part of the Church’s mission; let alone divided over what that mission should be about.

So they wouldn’t have been listening to different cheerleaders spouting single-issue causes. There would have been no liberals.  No traditionalists. No groups of lay purists suggesting that Pope Martinus Quintus was a heretic. In fact he was the pope who had ended the great schism in the Catholic Church, and he returned the papacy to Rome. In the Council of Pavia that he called in the same year Robert Sutton walked to Compostela, Pope Martin tried to unite the Roman and Greek churches, and also bring about peace between England and France to end the Hundred Years War. He had enough on his plate, without having his cardinals calling each other ‘traddies’ and ‘libtards’ and lobbing insults at each other across the Council floor.

“Let’s go, buddy!” said Dirk.  We had finished breakfast in the pilgrim hostel opposite the ruins of the abbey of Sorde and were standing in the road taking one last look at it in the morning light.  “Isn’t it great?  All this history.”

“He walked over this bridge too,” I said, as we crossed a fast-flowing stream by walking over an ancient stone bridge that was probably little changed in six hundred years.  “I mean Robert Sutton, the fifteenth century pilgrim I was telling you about.  All across France since Saint-Jean d’Angely I have been wondering how many things he saw that remain unchanged today.”

“There was a guy on the road in mediaeval pilgrim gear,” said Dirk.  “Between Saint-Jean d’Angely and Saintes.  He was just off the path, in a small clearing in a wood, sitting down with his back against a tree.  I said ‘Hello’ but then I saw he was asleep, taking a break.”

“How was he dressed?”

“Brown, all brown.  Cloak, wide hat with a shell.  Bourdon like ours, leaning against the tree.  Small satchel, not a rucksack.  I guess he was some kind of history re-enactor, or walking the Camino in fancy dress for charity?  You get all kinds on the Camino de Santiago!”

“And boots?  What kind of boots?”

“Oh yeah!  That was the thing!  Long boots like horse riders wear: I thought that was a bit crazy.  Boots up to his knees.”

We were walking uphill, passing a farm with rows of avocado trees and a barking dog.  So, Dirk had seen Robert Sutton, the Worcester pilgrim, and that would have been the day after I talked with him in the ruined abbey grounds in Saint-Jean d’Angely.   Had it been real, or had we both seen the same ghost?  Or had we both slipped into 1423 in a parallel time-warp on the Way of Saint James?  Robert Sutton had been buried wearing those boots, with his pilgrim bourdon at his side and a shell on his cape.  Was he still walking this road, destined like the Flying Dutchman to keep travelling forever?

Near lunchtime we stopped at an epicerie in Arancou and bought ham and cheese and bread, some oranges and wine. We emptied the wine into our aluminium drinking bottles to save carrying the extra weight, then continued out of Arancou after getting route information from the Association Jacquaire d’Arancou.( They provided photocopies of the route to Saint-Palais and put the tampon in our credencial and apologised for the poor waymarking, but they had trouble getting permission from this regional authority to put up any signs.

“So, you’d call yourself a pro-life Catholic?” asked Dirk, as we sat beside a small refreshing stream where we had taken off our hot boots and bathed our feet in the fast running water. It was a good lunch spot. There had been no discussion of religion since the previous day. “You wouldn’t vote for any of those satanic politicians who allow babies to die?”

“We were both military aircraft technicians, Dirk.” I was tired of having my Catholic credentials tested or having to prove I belonged to the Church. This needed to be dealt with. Faith and reason. The argument needed to be grounded in reality rather than constantly playing some fantasy morality game that was just a reflection of partisan politics. “I don’t understand why… actually I’ve never understood why… abortion ends up being the only moral issue we need to spend all our time focusing on.”

“Jesus!” Dirk raised his eyes towards the blue sky above. “After yesterday, I thought maybe you weren’t a liberal, after all. And what’s aircraft to do with being pro-life?”

“As I said, Dirk, we were both military aircraft technicians. See these two aluminum bottles?” I picked up the drinking bottles and lay them down horizontally on the flat rock we were sitting on. “OK, Corporal Carter, I have a job for you. These are two drop-tanks for extra kerosene jet fuel, slung under this aircraft we’ve got sitting in the hangar…”

“What aircraft?” asked Dirk, becoming interested in the story. “What mark?”

“Well, I’m thinking a Canberra B2 bomber, Dirk, because that’s in my RAF experience. I don’t know what would be the equivalent in the USAF. A medium size bomber, OK?”

“Ain’t no medium bombers left in service, Gareth.” He looked at the drinking bottles. “Sling them under an A10 Thunderbolt.”

“A10 attack aircraft, yes, I know it,” I said. “That’s perfect because you’re going to empty the kerosene as you’ve been instructed by the Chief Tech, and following the steps in the servicing manual for the A10 Thunderbolt, you’re going to work with the armament techies to convert those drop-tanks to napalm bombs for a full fire strike on a Taliban mountain hide-out.”

“We wouldn’t use napalm. It’s outlawed under UN convention and hasn’t been used since Vietnam.”

“Not correct,” I said. “The use of napalm is banned under international law but the USA never agreed to that protocol. In my day, the AP 700 manual for the RAF’s B2 Canberra bomber still had instructions on how to convert drop tanks to napalm, but it was outlawed a few years later. Using napalm on those guys on the mountain would be a war crime if done by the RAF but legal if done by the USAF.”

“The Taliban are just towel-heads in any case, and they’ve probably done more war crimes than you’ll ever know!”

“That’s not your moral issue, Dirk.” I picked up one of the aluminium drinking bottles and unscrewed the stopper, pouring the last of the wine into my tin mug. “Here’s your moral issue: you are a ‘pro-life’ Catholic and you’re about to put napalm in these drop tanks which would be a war crime in the eyes of the international order.”

“Well hell!” Dirk rapidly went through the talk that he’d heard from the Catholic military padre in training, and it was the same talk delivered by padres of all denominations to troops in training in any time in the modern period, regarding the use of just force on some occasions being a state necessity, a patriotic duty overriding any personal Christian moral choice. The moral question is taken off your shoulders by the state, by the military force you are obedient to, in the name of the country for which you serve… etc. etc. “…And so, if you’re telling me I have to be a conchy in that situation, no sir I do not!”

“A consciencious objector would be 100% correct in that situation, Dirk. In fact, if you did not object, you would be doing much worse than the surgeon who you call ‘satanic’ for performing an abortion on a woman or girl whose life is ruined because she was raped at knifepoint and made pregnant against her will.”

“Why worse than him?” protested Dirk, clearly very annoyed.

“Because at least he is performing an evil action sanctioned by the civil law, regardless of how you judge him; but you are taking part in an evil action that is seen as a crime against international law. Neither action could be approved by personal Catholic moral sensibility, but we are also subject to the civil and international laws, and we do not make those laws. As Catholics we are told to live within them.”

“It’s sure complicated,” responded Dirk, after a long pause. “But I think there are some things that don’t work in that comparison.”

“Dirk, there are many things that don’t work in that comparison, and I’m not a moral theologian. You could even leave out the napalm and just use rockets to kill the Taliban. There are many Catholics through the ages – even in Roman times – who would not kill at all, and they even preferred to be executed for their Christian belief. They were your ‘conchies’, Dirk. And that’s been a perfectly commendable Catholic position for two thousand years: pacifism. But can you do me a favour?”


“Don’t ask me if I’m pro-life again, just based on the one single issue of abortion, because there are many issues and none of us is pro-death, OK? I saw that instruction in the manual for converting the drop tanks to napalm on a Canberra bomber in 1971, and I vowed – if I was ever ordered to do that – I would refuse. It was nine years before the UN convention on napalm and fifteen years before I became a Christian. I’ve never gone round asking my fellow Catholics if they are ‘anti-napalm’ or for that matter ‘anti-nuclear deterrent’, and I would never think of judging their worth as Catholics on the strength of their answer.”

“How about we do another ten kilometres in silence?” asked Dirk. He was smiling.

“I think that would be a very good idea,” I said, smiling back. “Rosaries and prayer ropes at ten paces!”

In the distance, half hidden in the cloud and haze, the Pyrenees are now within two days walk.

The 1980 United Nations Convention, Protocol III forbade the use of incendiary weapons like napalm. The United States ratified the convention but isn’t party to Protocol III and has used napalm in many conflicts.

Napalm was used during the Gulf War in the 1990s. The Marine Corps delivered it primarily by the AV-8 Harriers from relatively low altitudes.

In late 1997, Turkey launched attacks on Kurdish villages in Northern Iraq. Turkey said that they were pursuing the PKK into Northern Iraq. The use of napalm and cluster bombs against civilians in Northern Iraq was part of Turkey’s military efforts against the Kurds. (Turkey is a member of NATO.)

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