Land of Pilgrims
Who are those serious faced walkers with their sensible shoes and long walking canes? ‘Pèlerins ’ my neighbours reply and explain that this is the land of pilgrimage on the Camino of Saint James of Compostela.
So what does it mean to be a pilgrim in the modern world? Someone who seeks to take a solo journey for sacred reasons. Any place can be sacred if you are able to see its holiness. In Australia the Indigenous peoples lived a life of perpetual pilgrimage understanding the hidden sacredness of the ancient continent. Pilgrimage can be an individual creation as well as a traditional one and here I think of my friend Mike Pauly who recently completed a solo walk around Australia . You can check out his blog at https://ozsoulwalk.com/blog/
‘Pèlerin’ the French word for pilgrim (the English one reminds me of all those John Wayne movies) calls forth a certain respect in a country that has established guideposts for the sacred journey.
I too am a pilgrim in this beautiful part of France. But I’m not treading a well worn path of but have come here to experience the country of South West France and care for cats, donkeys and horses. I want to be open to what emerges from my stay in a simple farmhouse. I don’t have a car because if I am directionally challenged in Australia, I am even more so here where they drive on the other side of the road. ‘À la droite Kate’ was my mantra when I cycled through the vineyards in the Loire, but here its just too steep for me to cycle and as I’m not in the Tour de France category of cycling type, more the Sunday morning cycle for a bit then stop and have an espresso and croissant brigade, I’m left with the option of walking, but as every pilgrim knows its the only way to travel.
One morning after settling the pets, I start walking with no particular aim in mind and find myself at a crossroads. Wondering which route to take I decide to visit the nearby village of Saint Quintin, a mere 30 minutes away. Its not really a village but a collection of houses built near an old church. As the door to the church is open I enter and see the familiar array of statues of Catholic saints, one of which L’Enfant Divine de Prague was a favourite of my mother.
The white statue of Our Lady outside the church is accompanied by a memorial to those who have died in the great war. Its a portrayal of Mary as a young girl but what intrigues me are the railings behind not around the statue and as I investigate I see that at the bottom of the old stone steps is an entrance to an underground cavern. The gate is unlocked so naturally I have to check it out. It feels like it is ancient and has been well trod.Could it have been a site sacred to the Gauls? So many of the Catholic churches, abbeys and monasteries were built on the sacred sites of earlier peoples who instinctively knew where the power lay in the land assigning their gods and goddesses to individual sites.
After doing some research I discover that the cavern was once a subterranean fountain where pilgrims follwing the Camino of St James from as early as the 16th century stopped to bathe their blistered and tired feet. But I like to imagine what it was like in earlier times when women of the Gallic and Pagan tribes visited to bathe and purify themselves, calling on the sacred powers of the goddess to heal and bless their world.