Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Joy of the Pilgrimage

When I woke up at 5:15 AM (French time) in my pricey Paris hotel room, I could not have imagined I'd be writing the words "The Joy of the Pilgrimage." Never mind the physical hardships: quite a lot of the pilgrimage involved an interior battle against silently complaining, against worry, against annoyance at innocent fellow pilgrims. However, there were moments of joy I felt at the time, and there was an overarching joy I can appreciate only in retrospect. It was the joy of being completely out of the modern world of computers, newspapers and TV.

For three days, our lives were entirely concerned with the physical environment, each other and prayer. Apparently Michael Matt of the Remnant--to whom I introduced myself during Saturday lunch--blogged from the field, and I feel sorry for him--unless his blogging was just like writing letters. As I promised, I texted Benedict Ambrose every night to say I was safe, and that was like writing a quick letter. (I have a very basic phone; nothing like a smartphone, I suppose we could call it a dumb phone.) At the time I was unaware that anyone had access to the internet--the Latin Mass Society had sternly told its people in advance that personal electronic devices were forbidden, and our chapter definitely reveal any until someone hauled out his smartphone in Chartres.

It was a purely Catholic life, lived in transit, in which I was delighted when the rosary began again, for that meant singing, thinking about our Lord and our Lady, and distraction from the pain in my feet. To my surprise, I found the very traditional (i.e. conscience-pricking and militant) Catholic meditations fascinating, and people found my meditation--mostly a reading from St. Catherine of Siena's Dialogue--fascinating, too. (St. Catherine, by the way, preached infinite love for God and infinite sorrow for our sins.)

Everyone around---thousands of people--were all tradition-loving Catholics. We were all on the same page. We had all temporarily escaped our (let's face it) blatantly evil times. Although there was occasional crankiness and irony and prickliness towards neighbours while pitching tents (mea culpa), there was no, er, worldliness. I didn't realize that we somehow all had the same unworldly look until I was in the queue at the airport and was taken aback by the facial expression--or general demeanor--of a slender young Canadian (or American) man in front of me talking to his mother. He's not a pilgrim, I thought. Generally I am not given to sudden interior knowledge about people, but the contrast between him and the young men of the pilgrimage was, well, palpable and even a shock. 

One of the most "Catholic" moments for me on the pilgrimage was the sight of a tall teenage Girl Guide helping a tiny child Girl Guide out of a ditch. Chartres Cathedral was visible on the horizon, and so it felt as if we were nearly there. (I think we were probably still an hour away, at least.) Naturally one of the worst privations of the pilgrimage was suffered by the women, who have much stronger inhibitions than men about urinating outdoors and in public. Many a time did I ponder how the women pilgrims of the Middle Ages could not have shared this taboo. In fact, it must have come in with modern plumbing, and Miss Jane Austen herself must have relieved herself in a field or in the woods when needs must. 

Anyway, this ditch, between the road and a field, was so deep and afforded such an opportunity for decent concealment that I had been eyeing it with interest when I saw the bigger Girl Guide leaning over a little Girl Guide in the ditch on the other side of the road and then hauling her out. They had the exact same uniform--blue skirt, blue beret--and the wee one looked abashed to the point of tears whereas the taller one was the very picture of spiritual maternity--compassionate, beautiful, more patient and kinder than a blood sister would be. 

The act of motherly kindness--and the need of the little one for help, combined with the almost military uniforms, the long parade of singing, praying pilgrims, the green and yellow fields, the wide blue sky and Chartres Cathedral on the horizon, struck me as the Most Catholic Thing Ever. 


  1. Prudery about basic bodily functions was (I have read) almost non-existent before the invention of the 'water closet'.

    Women's long skirts would have protected their modesty in those days, while freeing them from worries about accidentally wetting themselves, all too likely if one is wearing trousers like a man but must squat to do the deed, like a woman.

    p.s. There is today a device like a funnel that is called 'le funnel', or used to be called that. It makes these things easier because it allows one to relieve oneself in male fashion. Its name seems to have been changed now:

  2. Good heavens. I am afraid to click. But, yes, another good argument for wearing a long denim skirt on a long wilderness hike.

  3. - Alias Clio,
    very happy you mentioned that device as I thought of it myself but was afraid to say anything.

    - Mrs. McLean,
    I wonder if you've written much children's fiction? The image of the two Guides helping each other was so touching, I'd love to hear you flesh it out into a short story.