Ostabat to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Day 55b of Walking Out of the World. The last full day of walking on the Chemin Saint-Jacques in France, and our two pilgrims, now recovered from their hangovers after coming first and second in the pilgrim beer-drinking contest in Saint-Palais, excommunicate each other.

(Previous post: Day 55a Saint-Palais to Ostabat.)

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: a place where pilgrims join together. Or not.

I shall begin this episode at the end. The reader will have seen it coming anyway. No build-up of suspense is required.

Dirk and I had won the drinking contest in Saint-Palais, and we agreed about the superiority of mediaeval bourdons over silly clicky Nordic walking poles. We could repair a hydraulic system on B2 Canberra bomb doors and re-calibrate the avionics on an A10 Thunderbolt attack plane. We had walked from rural corners of England and had crossed the sea to France. We’ve already walked over a thousand kilometres, and the the last one hundred side by side.

Ostabat to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
on the GR653 Way of Saint James

But we are 21st century Catholic men, so we excommunicated each other before we arrived at our destination. No theological waymarking is provided on the chemins de grand randonée or the Chemins Saint-Jacques in France. This walking route, the GR653 to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Porte, was no different. Pilgrims needing to be awake to the hazards of apostasy and schism must bring their own map. Dirk and I didn’t bring any systematic theological knowledge in our rucsacks, but we carried a lot of ecclesiastical baggage and we had a ready stock of prejudices, perplexing confusions, and latent aggression born of idling away too many hours on the Catholic blogosphere. All we could do was project onto each other the opposing issues dividing a Church that we both claimed to love. It was almost as if the division had become the religion.

The only Good News was that we would separate next morning. I planned to stay in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for a rest day and Dirk wanted to continue forward into Spain: out of the town gate and up the mountain path to Roncesvalles. So, therein lay the seeds for the final argument: because we knew we would not be walking together any longer, we had nothing left to invest in keeping a truce.

Divisions in the Catholic Church are not new. I mentioned in a previous day’s walk that arguments about nearly everything characterised the early Church and that was why they ended up having Church Councils, with bishops literally trying to murder each other, even while seeking consensus! They eventually agreed the Creeds, so the majority of Christians were then happy that they all believed the same things. Except a few. And they started the mutterings of dissent for the next big showdown.

The Name of the Rose

In the 14th century there was a very entertaining falling out. Rome was in disarray and the papacy went to Avignon. New murderous arguments were concocted, even about such questions as ‘Did Christ own the clothes that he wore?’ This was the background for the novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, set in a fortified Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. (I referred to this in Day 5 walking through Oxford, which now seems a very long time ago.) Then came the Great Schism, with competing popes and antipopes.

As we cleared the village of Ostabat, we walked at a steady pace on a well-trodden path through luscious green pastures filled with brown dairy cows, I told Dirk that the word Navarre – the name of the old kingdom we walked through – originally meant ‘brownish’. Maybe it was because of the cows? We pronounced ‘How now brown cow?’ with Doctor Doolittle precise vowels. Dirk suggested I could use that as a mantra instead of ‘that schismatic Russian prayer’, which was fun, but showed controversy was still lurking near the surface.

“Navarre, Brownish. Welcome to the Kingdom of Brownish!” exclaimed Dirk, and we improvised jokes about the embarrassed ambassadors who had to introduce themselves at foreign courts. They would deliberately mispronounce the name of their kingdom to maintain their dignity. “Your majesty, I represent the kingdom of errrm… Brenische! Yes, some pronounce it Bronarsh but I’m more from the south of the kingdom.”

“Brewish,” I suggested.

“I still don’t want to think about beer,” said Dirk. We had overcome the hangovers before lunch time, but were not planning any more drinking contests. Prompted by the lighthearted banter of the ancient kingdom of Brownish, Dirk asked, “What was the name of that pope you mentioned, in 1423 when your Worcester Pilgrim was walking through here?”

“Pope Martin V,” I said. “Martinus Quintus. It was he who ended the Great Schism. The Worcester Pilgrim was born in the 1390s, so when he walked here in 1423, Pope Martin would have been his fourth Roman pope. But also there were three antipopes, in Avignon and Pisa, so he’d heard seven new popes proclaimed by the town crier in the streets of Worcester. Martin was a good pope: he united the Church.”

“Three antipopes before the guy reached thirty. Wow!” said Dirk. “The Great Schism. They spent forty years disagreeing about who was the true pope: the pope of Rome or the pope of Avignon.”

“And they excommunicated each other,” I said, “and then excommunicated all the other side’s followers. In 1410 three men claimed to be the true pope! Three-way excommunications…! How does that work? The faithful Christians had no idea where the real power and authority lay!”

“Just like today!” said Dirk, triumphantly. “But today we have just one antipope, and Pope Benedict XVI is the true pope! How could anyone think that heretic Bergoglio is the pope! He uses the good name of Saint Francis to do the work of the Devil!”

Bernard Gui
(actor F.Murray Abraham)

I was actually shocked. Not by the radical traditionalist schism but because the last words and the way they were uttered, ‘To do the work of the Devil!’ could have been hissed from the mouth of the inquisitor Bernard Gui in The Name of the Rose, as he waited in the dungeon for the instruments of torture to glow red in the coal brazier.

I was so far off my guard, as we talked of 14th century schism, I had not even connected this with our earlier discussions. I was only thinking of the relief felt by ordinary Christians in Worcester when the rift was healed and Pope Martin V was the one true pope; for never would there be an antipope again. To the amateur traddy schismatics of our time, the only Pope who should command their obedience was ‘doing the work of the Devil’. I could almost see the instruments of torture, ready in the fire. I hesitated for a few steps, slamming the heavy bourdon into the dusty track.

Marginal illumination: Bernard Gui presents his findings to Pope John XXII

“‘The Pope is ‘doing the ‘work of the Devil’, eh?” I said, finally, having struggled to recall the words Umberto Eco put into the mouth of Brother William of Baskerville, the voice of faith and reason – and yes, science – in The Name of the Rose.

“‘The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.'” I stopped in the path and leant on the bourdon – the faithful pilgrim staff that comforted me – and said, “Apply those words to yourself, Dirk, and pull yourself out of the rabbit hole or it is you who will live in darkness like the Devil.”

“Bastard.” He spat the word at me.

We walked in silence for a while. I thought of suggesting a proper silence, prayer ropes and rosaries for five kilometres, but you cannot enter into prayer in anger. I could feel the pain from Dirk’s perspective but error needs challenge, not sympathy.

The body blow to traditional Catholics after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 should not be regarded lightly.  The experience helped tribalise trad Catholic bloggers, turning them into shock troops for populist right wing politics. Like the ‘forgotten people’ in the Rust Belt in the USA, and the disillusioned English working class of the industrial north, trad Catholics were easily mustered to form an army of the hopeless. Malleable in the small hands of a demagogue or the big hands of a buffoon, trad Catholics fell into line with petty nationalist projects. Pride in a vague ‘greatness’ would do for now, after liberal trickery had ‘stolen’ Pope Benedict XVI from them. The bitterness would help rad traddies recruit many confused Catholics.

“I know where you’re coming from, Dirk,” I said. I could see he really was upset: this had been a long time finding expression. The anger and confusion was real. The occasional insensitive antics of Pope Francis only poured gasoline on the faggots of the funeral pyre of Vatican II that the traditional faithful had been stacking for twenty years and more. “Look, Dirk: I couldn’t believe it either, that day when Pope Benedict said he was resigning. He was the continuity candidate from John Paul II: the Faith and Reason pope for our times.”

“You have no idea!” said Dirk. “F*** your ‘faith and reason’. I follow the True Catholic Faith. You’re a liberal and you know it!”

“Look,” I said, “if you think it’s a simple Tom and Jerry Vatican cartoon rivalry, with Benedict ‘the goody traddy’ versus Francis ‘the evil libtard’ you’re not even close. Benedict could just as easily be read as a ‘liberal’ as Francis, if only you study his writings. Benedict as young Ratzinger was one of the powerful movers and shakers in Vatican II and don’t ever forget it. If Francis didn’t have his writings compiled by some backroom committee, we might more easily see the continuity. I don’t any longer have a dog in this fight. Well, there isn’t one, in a Tom and Jerry cartoon!”

“I don’t even want to talk about it,” said Dirk. “You’re trolling me now.”

“Trolling you? Lighten up, for God’s sake…” We walked half a kilometre without speaking. I tried a joke, “Hello, hello, hello: are you a sedevacantist? No, but I just sat down on my glasses! Boom, boom!”

“Why do you think that’s even funny?” he asked.

He looked miserable, worse than with the hangover earlier. We overtook a large group of pilgrims, Dirk wanted to get to the pilgrim refuge quickly because the beds might run out. I had no similar pressure on, as I would head for the camping ground, but I helped pace him into the town. I had said I’d show him to where the pilgrim refuges were on the main street, and get my pilgrim stamp at the same time, then go to the camping ground by the bridge. As we walked furiously, I was thinking again of Robert Sutton, whose replica bourdon was in my right hand. Whether ghost or real pilgrim, he was now behind us at Ostabat, and I looked forward to walking with him again.

Pope Martin V:
a jolly good chap.

“The pope for our time should be another Pope Martin V,” I said. “A healer of divisions. But I say that because I carry the Worcester Pilgrim’s bourdon. I am obedient to the actual Pope that we have, because that is what the Catholic Church requires of me, no more no less. If Pope Benedict muddied the waters and still swans around Rome in ‘Pope Emeritus’ white robes – against all previous tradition – there’s your source of confusion, Dirk. So don’t sulk at me. I speak as one who didn’t want him to resign. If you believe him to be the ‘real pope’, you just excommunicated yourself, Dirk. Have a Great Schism.”

“Nothing you’ve said in these past days ever changed my first ideas about you: you’re a liberal. If you follow the apostate Francis, you’re an apostate too!”

We reached the town gate at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and its cobbled main street to the pilgrim office. There would be no more drinking contests, nor could we even share the chalice. We had excommunicated each another.

One thought on “Ostabat to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

  1. “If you have been affected by some of the issues raised in this blog post…” etc. 😉

    Mike Lewis’s article on the Where Peter Is blog “The folly of the build-it-yourself Magisterium” is a good place to start. I will be submitting my debut article on that site soon, on the subject of the traddy Catholic blogosphere, viewed through the lens of Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy (“the medium is the message”), 1962.



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