Pilgrim’s Progress, part 1: Detours and deviations

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The legendary Rocamadour at sundown.

Two days after writing that post about “finishing the race” I lost the will to keep walking. The change happened suddenly with the answer to a question. I, like many others on the Camino, had been praying about future choices, and when understanding came I lost my sense of meaning in walking.

It was hot, 90 degrees. I had new blisters from my new insoles. And, what with celiac-induced illnesses and fatigue – Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was indeterminably far away.

What’s more, I’d heard of a place called Rocamadour, where questions were answered and prayers granted. The city was built on a cliff in three tiers, castle, church and commerce. At the center were seven chapels and a black statue of the Virgin Mary. I could have walked there earlier on the way, but I didn’t know about the detour route, and at this point The holy site was more than 100 km behind me. Yet it was also the only place I could happily picture ahead of me.

The day before I’d walked 32 km, dragged along by a hiker I met that day who first enjoyed my company and later realized I was in danger of fainting on the road. “Never again will I hike over 30,” I’d sworn to myself repeatedly.

To the dismay of the pilgrims and hosteleros who told me St. Jacques was the other direction (but with the encouragement of a friend who reminded me it was for freedom Christ set me free), I hopped on a bus and three trains, walked 4 km and reached the cliff-side road leading to Rocamadour shortly before sunset.

It is possible to stroll to Rocamadour along a cliff top road and drop down into the city by elevator, but that is not the pilgrims’ way. Pilgrims walk down into the valley toward the lowest tier, taking in views of the castle tower, ramparts and church walls growing like flowers out of the cliff. Below the road curved past now-closed shops of fois gras and leather handbags toward the base of a great stone staircase.

216 steps, knees optional.

Pilgrims throughout history have taken the 216 steps on their knees, one sign read. Many famous people had come there on pilgrimage, another read. I just walked up, but I felt the holiness of the climb, like Christian’s moment ascending the hill to the cross where he loses his burden.

My pack weighed about 35 lbs since I’d splurged on a shopping spree at one of the train transfers. At a grocery store at the same stop a woman had noticed my scallop shell and asked if I was a pilgrim. When I said yes, she kissed my bag where a rosary hung and spoke to me for a long, mysterious time in French. Then she gave me some food and a slip of paper with her name, Renee, and asked me to pray for her. I said I would.

Climbing those stairs I wondered if I could still call myself a pilgrim if this was my last stop.

The next day I attended a string of religious services in French and even something Slavic. The most understandable message was a stained glass picture of Jesus wearing a blazing red robe and a knowing smile as he patted the head of a sheep. He looked more Middle Eastern and clever than he generally does in windows, and the picture gave me comfort. During one mass the nuns I was staying with pushed me forward to receive a pilgrim ‘s blessing.

After mass I wandered and wondered what to do next. I ate and felt ill, as is not unusual, and climbing the 216 steps required a couple of stops. An American couple, Linda and Biff, had stopped and prayed for me for guidance in my next choice of direction, and now I wondered what that could be. Hunkering down somewhere to write seemed sensible, but I’d come on this pilgrimage partly to escape from some of those old writing projects, and I didn’t feel ready to go back.

“Son of Man, can these dry bones live?”

I prayed delirious gibberish at one of the chapels, then crashed at the hostel mid afternoon. When I awoke I knew I should ask to book another night. I should start researching my next location. I should do a lot of things, and I would do none of them. For a reason I could not explain all I wanted was to go back to finish the walk toward St. Jacques.

I went up to the top of the cliff along the Way of the Cross, stood on the castle ramparts overlooking the whole valley and watched as purple storm clouds blew in overhead. When thunder rumbled, I started back toward the hostel. The smell of dust filled my lungs as the wind picked up. I had to pass through a stone corridor, and the wind blew a heavy wooden door shut in the arched gateway in front of me. I pushed it open and passed through, hearing it slam. A few seconds later it banged open as the wind switched directions. Dry leaves swirled around me in a dust devil, then another. The wind switched directions several times before I reached the hostel, and big droplets dampened my green cardigan.

Then the downpour began, and a hostelero ran inside after me with a box of wine and other supplies for the evening dinner with the nuns.

“Morning rain doesn’t stop the pilgrims,” he said.


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