19 Mar

rothenburg st james


Now we are going to talk about the Route of the Pilgrims. The pilgrim route is a very good thing, but it is narrow. For the road which leads man to life is narrow; on the other hand, the road which leads to death is wide and spacious. The pilgrim route is for the good people: the lack of vices, the mortification of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, penitence for the penitent, the road of the just, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward for the blessèd, distancing from Hell, protection of the Heavens. It takes one away from succulent foods, makes voracious obesity disappear, restrains voluptuousness, contains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, purifies the spirit, invites man to the contemplative life, humbles the haughty, raises up the humble, loves poverty. It hates the censure of the man dominated by avarice. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards the austere who do good works; and, on the other hand, it does not snatch the miserly and sinful from the talons of sin.

Liber Sancti Jacobi; Codex Calixtinus c1350





Camino preparation


On Sunday, Simon, his daughter Anna, and I catch a bus to church. He thinks I should meet his friend Father Carlyle, who comes from Edinburgh and knows about the Camino. He thinks I should talk to him before I go —and afterwards. ‘He’s hugely good,’ says Simon. ‘Often runs retreats for nuns.’

There is a holy water font inside the church doors and a gold statue of Mary holding rosary beads. Simon dips his fingers into the water, genuflects and lights two candles at her feet. ‘Camino preparation,’ he pronounces. A small choir sings O Magnum Mysterium by Victoria. Simon and Anna kneel for a few minutes and lower their heads.

I watch the congregants.

They arrive, mostly in pairs, and sit in shoulder-nudging huddles — men in navy jackets, pale trousers, and pink shirts with white collars. They push their hair back from their foreheads and signet rings flash on their little fingers. They wear flesh-coloured socks and suède shoes embroidered with fleur-de-lys. Small bright-eyed dogs peer out from their jackets. The other couples seem to be red-lipped, thin-legged older women borne up by young men. A few solitary women with strong noses and sensible coats. No families. The dogs are quiet except for the occasional high-pitched yap. Their owners smile, stroke their pets’ heads, shove them back inside their jackets and wave at Simon who’s now smiling and waving and telling me who they are. ‘Very interesting person, that man with the cane. Walked in the Himalayas at seventy…’ ‘She was one of the first Jungian analysts, you know, but doesn’t remember much now, poor thing. Sent me three silk socks in a Waitrose bag yesterday. And one had a hole.’

Five priests in birettas and green and gold chasubles sweep on to the altar. Simultaneously they bow, genuflect and cross themselves. They take off their birettas in a flourish and present them to the servers — round men in linen albs with badger hair. One bows again and gives a priest a small brass thurible. As the incense twists towards the ribbons of the Gloria, another winking ruby light flickers beside other angels at another altar: my brothers, their striped school socks sticking out beneath their cassocks, kneel beside green-robed Father Geaney. We are near the front of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. I’m leaning against my father whose eyes are closed — he’s very tired from working late the previous night. ‘Let’s make this a day of no fights,’ our mother has sighed as we’ve squashed into the car on the way to church and pushed and shoved for a window seat. My youngest brother is driving his truck along the pew humming softly, my mother is holding my sister and rummaging in her bag for rosary beads.

‘Simon,’ I whisper, ‘I think we’re in the wrong church; this is my church.’

‘Nonsense,’ he says staring at me over the top of his spectacles and swaying slightly. ‘You are Roman, We are Catholic… Oh good, it’s Father Sebastian to preach. He’s very good; brilliant in fact. Says God can only be approached by the intellect.’

He puts his glasses in his pocket and leans back into his pew, arms folded, a faint keen smile; someone certain of his pleasures.

‘As we know from our Ovid,’ says Father Sebastian, blond, blue-eyed, blade-thin, and looking as if he’s stepped out of Castle Howard, ‘passion effects transformation.’ He speaks of Metamorphoses — Daphne, Apollo, laurels, the Passion of Christ, the fear of being loved, its transforming power. He speaks about the sacred and the holy, the impulse to experience the beyond — the ‘telos.’ Telos is Greek for ‘far away’, the distant thing, the final end.

Sometimes his words are lost by rumbling as if there’s an earthquake. The little dogs bark, the signet rings glitter, the flags flutter, and the white roses in their brass vases bow their heads.

‘The Underground,’ whispers Simon. ‘I told you he was good.’

Afterwards he leads me towards Father Carlyle, who’s standing on a small bright lawn outside the church holding a cup of tea. ‘I was pleased,’ he says to Father Carlyle, ‘that Father Sebastian omitted ‘men’ from the final prayer. He said, “Let us pray for all.” Very good I think.’ Father Carlyle sips his tea and says Father Sebastian always says the right thing. Simon introduces me and explains that I’m walking the Camino, that I’m hugely brave, and that I may need to talk to someone. His voice leans momentarily on ‘talk’. Father Carlyle’s eyebrows flicker.

‘Have you got your “scallop shell of quiet and staff of faith?’’’ he asks.

shell way mark


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