The Vipers of the Pyrenees: Part 2

Day 57b of Walking Out of the World. High up on the Route de Napoleon in a one-day crossing of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, I am haunted by memories of the creatures in an abbey at the other end of the mountain chain, Saint-Martin-du-Canigou.

(Previous post: Day 57a The Vipers of the Pyrenees: Part 1.)

A last look back at France from the high Route Napoleon over the Pyrenees

Leaving Orisson after a good lunch, I paused before leaving the last trees to look back one final moment at France. I remembered the people, the places; the Dutch pilgrim Peter looking tall in small pony cart; the pessimist Belgian pilgrim who said I would never get to Compostela, and later had given up his own walk; the lunch that was paid for by a kind customer in a restaurant; Barbara and her the donkeys and the riverside walk with Dalie; the Worcester Pilgrim; pilgrim Valerie and Saint Médard; the flat Landes and walking with pilgrim Dirk. All of it had been a blessing. I continued beyond the tree-line, up the mountain, saying the Jesus Prayer and keeping silence. After half an hour, I sat down for a rest, winding the green Orthodox prayer rope back onto my bourdon.

XI century chapel at Saint-Martin-du-Canígou

I recalled it was this very same green woollen prayer rope that I had in my hand that day, when kneeling on a prayer stool in the chapel in Saint-Martin-du-Canigou. It was my hour on the 24-hour adoration rota: keeping the last hour’s watch before Vespers, in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Someone sat down in the pew behind me.

“You must use a rosary,” she hissed. It was the grating voice of the Bergère, Sister Héloïse,* the head of the community. “Not that green rope! What does it look like, if a tourist group came in and sat behind you? They expect to see a rosary! Use this.” She dropped a flimsy plastic five-decade rosary on the carpet in front of my knees.

It was an ugly circle of turquoise beads on a nylon cord, with a cheap metal Crucifix at the end. The type sold in the abbey religious gift shop where visitors could buy postcards and Virgin Mary humidity statues that changed from blue to pink with the weather. I returned my Orthodox prayer rope to my pocket, then reached out warily to the beady turquoise snake on the carpet. It was a woman’s rosary and the gaps between the little beads were too small for a man’s fingers.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…” I began, but paused immediately and considered the situation. I was kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration of the Body of Christ. Why would I be praying to Mary, good though that might be in the Lady Chapel or in front of her icon? Sister Héloïse could not know what silent prayer was in my head. I would not allow her into my head! So I obediently moved the plastic beads in my left hand but I continued to saying the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner…”

It had been one more example of the complete control that I had sadly begun to recognize. Obeissance. Why ‘sadly’? Because I had first come to this community from Barcelona while in a sabbatical year from my former Anglican community and I had found the Communauté des Béatitudes an exciting experience. I had already come to the conclusion that I was going to convert to the Roman Catholic Church, and would return to England for the final discernment before leaving Anglican religious life. In Saint-Martin-du-Canígou I had been introduced to the ‘new communities’: the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church in France. I was enthralled; but also I would later find I was enthralled in the worst sense of the word.

The mixed community had celibate monks and sisters, married couples, a strong emphasis on traditional Catholic spirituality, with an intriguing added element of Jewish mysticism and reflecting the community’s earlier name – the Lion of Judah – there was a weekly celebration of a Shabbat meal the day before Sunday Mass. Musicians and artists were attracted to the community and the liturgy was vibrant and exciting. Every prayer office and every celebration of Mass left the participants feeling they had soared into the very clouds of heaven.

A year after I first met the community, I travelled from England with a fellow Anglican friar who accompanied me across the Channel to see me received into the Catholic Church by the Bishop of Coutances in the Abbaye Blanche in Mortain, which was the Normandy house of the Béatitudes. Now a Catholic, I took that friar to the railway station at Vire to get his train to Cherbourg and return to England. On the platform, he said, “That’s a fantastic community, brother. I’ll be going over to Rome myself, but to the Benedictines. I wouldn’t have the energy to do what you’re doing! I hope you made the right decision.”

I met him some fifteen years later in Rome when he was indeed a Benedictine monk and ordained priest and I served his Mass at the Basilica San Paolo. Later, over coffee in the park outside the basilica, he confessed that he had seen the spiritual danger I was walking into with the Béatitudes, but he knew that nothing he might say could have stopped me. I thanked him for not warning me. He knew what I meant. The experience was one that I had to go through myself: it was my spiritual journey and only I could walk it.

Route de Napoleon: Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus at the summit.

Now, on the Pyrenean crossing, I arrived at the shrine of the Virgin. Somewhere over there behind her in the east, beyond those distant peaks, was Saint-Martin-du-Canigou. I still hear Sister Clara sobbing.

I looked at the face of Mary and wondered who was the human model the maker of this concrete image had used? Who would I ask to model for a statue of the Virgin Mary? I could only think of a sister in an abbey long ago. Clara once glowed with innocence and joy. Then, she would have been the perfect model.

There were crosses and pebbles left at the Virgin’s feet. The child Jesus had his head knocked off, so the head had been replaced by the head of a plastic doll.

A passing pilgrim had draped a cheap rosary over the right hand of the Virgin. It reminded me of those cheap turquoise plastic beads that Sister Héloïse had tossed onto the carpet in front of my knees. Plastic beads for a plastic Jesus.

There was a movement in a crevice in the rock. Was it the wind in the wild thyme? I was seeing vipers everywhere today.

At the abbey there had been a French Canadian priest, on a long sabbatical, Père François. He was discerning whether to join the Communauté des Béatitudes. I went to him for confession once a week. They had moved me from the Normandy house to this abbey in the Pyrenees to join the team that was preparing to open the first Béatitudes house in Toledo. It was the year commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. As both an English and a Spanish speaker, I had been seen as a useful candidate for the seven-person team to be sent to found the new community, led by Brother Bernard who would be the berger of the Toledo house, and soon I would be clothed in the Béatitudes white habit.

“I’m having second thoughts about this whole project,” I told Père François in my confession. “I don’t believe God is calling this community to be a presence in Toledo. I think it would be offensive to the Sephardic Jewish community of that city, regardless of the encouragement given to us by the Cardinal Archbishop, the Primate of Spain and the house he is providing us.” Père Francois absolved me from my various sins, including this little sin of doubt, which he said was not even worth thinking about…

“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good,” he said.

“For His mercy endures forever,” I replied. I went to the chapel to say the Jesus Prayer with the plastic rosary.

Two days later, in my daily tasks as an abbey maintenance brother, I was changing the oil of the tractor which was used to bring supplies up the track in winter. The Bergère, Sister Héloïse suddenly appeared beside me. She had a way of just appearing, without you having seen from which direction she had come. The Bergère would also appear at exactly the wrong moment, such as when a rather striking female tourist in a summer dress was going up the steps to the abbey and you were admiring God’s creation. Then you might catch sight of Sister Héloïse suddenly manifesting herself in the abbey doorway at the top of the steps, glaring down.

“Have you mentioned your reservations about Toledo to Brother Bernard?” she asked.

It was as if a bucket of ice had been poured down the back of my shirt. A freezing shivver went right through me from top to bottom. I missed the funnel and poured the tractor oil on the ground. I put down the can and looked her in the eye.

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said.

I was shaking. I left the tractor job unfinished and walked back through the cloister, listening to the sound of the waterfall on the rock face opposite. By the time I got to the door of my cell I was certain: the only mention of my doubts had been in confession to Père François. I opened the door. I had left the window open. One of the vipers from the roof had come in. It was poised in the corner: a dark scaly question-mark on the bare red ceramic tiles. I fled the room. I realised I had tears running down my cheeks.

The Seal of Confession

Regarding the sins revealed to him in sacramental confession, the priest is bound to inviolable secrecy. From this obligation he cannot be excused either to save his own life or good name, to save the life of another, to further the ends of human justice, or to avert any public calamity. No law can compel him to divulge the sins confessed to him, or any oath which he takes — e.g., as a witness in court. He cannot reveal them either directly — i.e., by repeating them in so many words — or indirectly — i.e., by any sign or action, or by giving information based on what he knows through confession. The only possible release from the obligation of secrecy is the permission to speak of the sins given freely and formally by the penitent himself. Without such permission, the violation of the seal of confession would not only be a grievous sin, but also a sacrilege.

The Catholic Encyclopedia: The Sacrament of Penance (
Looking out from the 11th century Romanesque cloister into the dark chasm below.

*While the places and events in this recollection are real, for legal reasons it must be clearly stated that the names have been invented. For the purposes of this narrative, therefore, I ask the reader to regard these persons as characters in a moral tale, and I ask that you neither search for additional history nor ask the author for more information than is provided here.

(C)opyright of Walking Out of the World remains with Gareth Thomas and
No re-blogging is permitted. The conclusion, ‘The Vipers of the Pyrenees: Part 3’, follows shortly.

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