Walking the Camino – May 2017

August 9, 2017

labyrinth poitiers

In ten days Sue-Claire Morris and I completed a pied (with a bit of hitch hiking!) the Chemin / Camino Jacque de Compostella from Poitiers to the beautiful city of Saintes. Yesterday we began our return, with four lifts along various sections of the route to the medieval town of Lusignan, finally with a man who took us for tea at his extended family farm and whose brother happened to be driving to our exact destination. And then on to visit the Abbaye de Bonnevaux near Colombiere, where a community and centre for contemplation, action and peace will be opening this summer.

The labyrinth of this pilgrimage has revealed the incredible benevolence of the universe, not from finding a magic key, or because we’ve done something special to deserve it; pilgrimage seems to remind us we are not in control, we are not the centres of our worlds. I have found it is when one surrenders to the path with a simple intention to greet life with grace, gravity, generosity, not grasping the light or hiding from the shadows; that surrender invites the path to rise up to meet you in love. It has also been a test of trust on every level. Carrying tent, camping gear and all we needed on our backs has challenged, strengthened and restored us. Setting out into the unknown, we eventually became known as ‘les pelerins anglaise’, doing it our own way without credentials until at St John Angelou the official pilgrimage office recognised our journey and gave us the certification. So many people, animals, gifts of nature, their strength, resilience and abundance, helped us it’s hard to think of this as just the journey of two people seeking peace. Let it send ripples into the world 🙂 (Below is an account of the longer story).

sue claire bonnevaux

One gift of this pilgrimage is a restored hope in humanity. At every turn and especially in difficulty, getting lost and survival of the elements our path has been intercepted by the most kind, open-hearted and inspiring people, often sharing with us with their own story of suffering and renewal.

 

One day after losing the path several times, we managed to hitch a ride with some Parisian men travelling to the city of Saintes for the last few kilometres of our route to Brioux-sur-Boutonne. They were pretty surprised when we said we wanted to be dropped ‘a la camping’ but warmly understood our motives with a respectful ‘vous avez le courage’. We arrived at the municipal campsite to find it completely empty, but encouraged by a toilet block with abundant hot water we refused their offer of a further lift on to St Jean Angelou and began to set up our tiny red tent. In the middle of this expanse of green it looked like one crimson berry in a flurry of foliage. The rapidly dropping temperatures with bouts of stormy rain we’d braved all day now started to feel more threatening. But warmed by all the activity and thought of finding an auberge for a drink and hot meal, we set out to explore.

Nothing could have prepared us for the deserted strangeness of that town. Not only had the entire road through the centre been dug up for reconstruction, but every single house, shop, restaurant stood shut like huge sleeping faces, doors and shutters firmly closed in hostile silence. We circumnavigated this desolation for at least an hour in hope of finding something open, or at least a person. Nothing! The odd car passed us, tyres splashing in the wet road, eyes staring at our displaced figures swaddled in all the clothes we could manage to carry on our backs. Wet, cold and hungry we conceded to turn back to eat the remains of our picnic in the only dry place open and big enough for two of us, a disabled toilet, and to hunker down to sleep in the tent.

At that moment we were crossing a bridge and a lonely figure was walking towards us. It was a homeless man, laden down with bags, shuffling through the hopeless rain and fading light, face hidden behind a matted beard. It had felt like being in a play by Samuel Beckett, and now I thought, this must be Godot. As he passed us however, we were ejected from our existential angst when he gestured a kind of recognition to us as fellow pilgrims, putting his hand over his heart. By this time we’d reached the middle of the bridge, and it was as though the waters of our pilgrimage broke at that moment, tears of emotion and realization mixing with the rain and the river gushing beneath our feet. In that moment we stood in the place of the immigrant, the refugee, the homeless, the displaced and forsaken populous, experienced the discomfort of their shoes and the aggravation of a mind bent only on survival.

I’m not sure what led us to walk the crumpled road back through the centre of the town, but we did and it was there that Sue Claire spotted a door through an old archway, scattered chairs outside and some hint of a lived-in home. Driven by the kind of heart-mind that comes to the fore when you meet your edge, we decided to knock on the door. The man who became known to us as Saint Patrick soon stood in the doorway along with a waft of warm air. He was immediately moved by our situation and as soon as he knew we were pilgrims needed no further explanation. We were led into his small kitchen which displayed a simplicity and poverty rare to find, but we were invited to sit at his table and eat. A little banquet of tea, bread, cheese, fish, salad. Food had never tasted so good and also to learn that he worked for homeless people in this town and drove people on coach tours to Lourdes, serving food to thousands of pilgrims there, this was music to our ears. Like the whole story of our evening had turned full circle. Patrick sent us out into the night with a spare blanket from his own bed and invitation for hot tea the next morning.

sue claire and st patrick may 17

We spent probably one of the most uncomfortable nights of our life in the pouring rain and cold. But meanwhile our hearts were warming to a new way of seeing the world, a new compassion, an invitation to walk as pilgrims with eyes washed by tears. As St Francis said, the gateway to the kingdom is the way of poverty and humility, of letting go and seeing what gifts then flood in from the most unexpected places.

hitchhiking joy may 2017 france

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