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A Weekly Column
September 11, 2002 - Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle
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The mother of all hiking trails is the le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle. There is nothing remotely comparable. Even the great hiking trails of the United States fall short. Sure, you can hike the savage wilderness of the Appalachian Mountain range, live in a tent and eat beanie weenies from a can, but it doesnt compare to a day of medieval castles, druid caves and foie gras a la sauce de Vouvray. I could say that its the food and wine that makes the difference but it is much more than that. The trail to Compostela, Spain is a pilgrimage with a thousand years of tradition. It is literally a walk through the history of western civilization.
In the English speaking world, Saint Jacques is Saint James and Compostelle is Compostela, Spain where the tomb of Saint James was discovered at some time between 820 and 830. In Spanish, Saint James is Santiago, but regardless of the language the trail is called the French trail because of the large number of French penitents who made the pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.
Pilgrims from all over Europe and the Middle East would gather at various points in France to make the voyage. The route was fraught with danger from wolves, thieves and murderous highwaymen. It was considered so dangerous a voyage that convicted heretics were sometimes offered the option of making the pilgrimage instead of being burned alive. The fifteen hundred mile journey does not seem long in comparison to the great American trails which cover more than two thousand miles, but in the tenth century there were no buses to carry a victorious hiker home. The pilgrim had to walk back.
The basic idea of the pilgrimage is to stop at the holy places along the route and offer prayers to the local saints and their relics. The relics are supposed to possess special power to communicate prayers to Heaven. Touching the relic or just the reliquary, opens a path of communication through the saint to God. The more important the saint, the more likely your prayer will be delivered. The goal of the Compostela pilgrimage is to eventually pray before the tomb of Saint James in Compostela, Spain. Of course in modern times, most of the fifteen thousand hikers who start each year are not making the pilgrimage for spiritual purposes, but it is hard not to get caught up in its great spiritual and historical traditions.
Aprille and I have been talking about making this hike for more than eight years. Even before we met, we had each developed an interest in this adventure. We finally decided to get started this summer. The first trail guide was discovered in an apocryphal document entitled the Codex Calixtinus or Liber sancti Jacobi which was compiled it the middle of the twelth century. The fifth book of this document describes four separate trails, all starting in France. Today, three of these trails are well marked with published trail guides listing hotels, gites, dormitories and homes where pilgrims can spend the night. Naturally, Aprille doesnt want to take any of these trails. She wants to start in Paris which was the most popular starting point in the Middle Ages. She wants to follow the via Turonensis that goes through Tours, Poitier and Bordeaux. The problem is that there is no longer a marked trail for the old Tours route. All has been covered by trains, roads and the suburbs of Paris.
I found a guide book by Francois Lepere describing how to get through the suburbs and a rough description of the route to Tours. Armed with these meager directions we head to Paris. The book gives the address of a place where we can obtain our Credencial del Peregrino, which is a kind of passport that allows you to stay in churches and dormitories set up along the route. When we arrive at the address, we find an architects office and plumbing fixture's shop but no organization for the Compostela. A lady in the plumbing shop tells us that she has been there for ten years and has never heard of the Compostela group. We survey the other shops on the street but find nothing. Aprille spots the parish church of Montrouge around the corner so we go in and ask for help. Aprille asks a young man if he knows where we can get our passports for the Compostela . He introduces himself as Christophe and takes us into an enclosed chapel where there is a phone. As Christophe is calling for information, I look up high and see four bronze angels, each holding a glass reliquary. I climb some steps and look closer. Each of the angels is holding parts of a spinal column. Its my first relic. I ask Christophe if he knows what saints belong to these spinal columns. He says he has no idea. I am disappointed.
The names of the saints are important because the more important the saint, the more likely the prayer will be conveyed to Heaven. The communication system is shaped like a pyramid. At the top, without getting into complex religious doctrine, would be God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is what we call the Holy Trinity. The next tier might be the mother of Christ and perhaps Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. Then you would find the most important apostles like Peter, James and John. At the bottom would be the lesser know local saints. Obviously, Saint James, the son of thunder, the Moor killer and a close confidant of Jesus, is high on the pyramid and the reason the pilgrimage to his tomb became so important.
After about twenty minutes of telephone calls Christophe finally locates the address of the group that issues the passports. Its not far so we head out on foot to find the office of an organization called Compostelle 2000. We finally locate the office on a small side street. As we walk in a man gets up to greet us but Aprille walks past him to address a lady sitting at a desk. The lady tells her to talk to the man. For some reason Aprille and the man have trouble seeing each other. When Aprille finally recognizes the man, she stick out her had to greet him but he does not see her hand. I watch this awkward scene for a few moments and wonder if I should really try to do this pilgrimage.
We finally sit down at a desk and the man introduces himself as Rene Delevel and he tells us that he hiked the Spanish part of the trail last year. He seems very interested in our project of hiking from Paris but does not have any information about getting out of the city. As I am filling out the application for the passports, Aprille spots a beautifully carved bourdon in the corner. The bourdon is the traditional walking stick of a jacquet, a Saint Jacques pilgrim. It is truly magnificent. It looks like one of those big medieval swords with its carved hilt and heavy oak construction. As I grip the hilt, I can feel the subterranean telluric currents of the earth. This is truly a sacred stick and I feel like I have drawn Excalibur from the stone. The hilt unscrews and there is a secret chamber inside. A small tube inside the chamber contains something that looks like a relic. I immediately think of Durandal, Rolands sword, with the finger bone of Saint Peter in the hilt that gave it a special power.
Aprille asks if the bourdon is for sale and Monsieur Delevel says that he has to call someone to find out what it costs. I expect the price to be in the hundreds and have already decided that we cant afford it. When he puts down the phone, he tells us the price is fifteen dollars. I am shocked. Surely, I am the Chosen One. It is not possible that it could be so cheap without the intervention of some mystic force. I quickly pay the fifteen dollars before someone calls to say it is a mistake.
With stick and passports in hand, we leave Compostelle 2000 and head for the starting point of the pilgrimage. After a few blocks, Aprille wants to carry the bourdon but I dont want to give it up. I dont remember anything in the great epic tales about there being a Chosen Them but I grudgingly cede it to my sword bearer as we head to the Tour de Saint Jacques, the traditional starting point for the pilgrimage.
Pilgrims coming from England and the north countries would enter Paris on rue Saint Martin or rue Saint Denis which would lead them to a hostel founded by the brotherhood of Saint Jacques. They would attend mass at a chapel in a church called Saint Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. The only part of the church still standing is a fourteenth century tower called the Tour de Saint Jacques. This tower is considered ground zero for the start of the pilgrimage. After hearing mass in the chapel dedicated to Saint Jacques, the pilgrims would pass by the tower and collect a sample of earth to carry to Compostela. After a stop at Notre Dame, the jacquet would cross the petit Pont and take the rue Saint Jacques in passing by the church Saint-Severin, the Cluny Abbey and the convent of the Jacobins, all of which have offered support to pilgrims since the thirteenth century. We are striving to start our pilgrimage with the same ceremonies and on the same route as the ancient jacquets.
As we approach this beautiful gothic flamboyant tower, I see scaffolding covering the visible side of the tower. When we get closer, I realize that the scaffolding extends from the bottom of the tower up to the very top. We can not see even one little stone. I am amazed that scaffolding can be built so high and that it can so thoroughly hide a building. We walk around the block to see if we can see the tower from the other side but to no avail. The tower is completely covered. I am disappointed that I can't see the tower, and at the same time , I am truly impressed with the height and scope of this covering. Cristo could not have done a better job. Despite this distraction, we continue with the ceremony and gather dirt to put in the hilt of the sacred bourdon. I decide not to desecrate the holy relics in the small tube with the construction dirt from the tower so I just pour the dirt loosely in the chamber of the hilt.
After collecting our dirt samples and taking pictures, we head for Notre Dame. We muscle our way through a horde of tourists to the information desk where a lady perfunctorily stamps our passports. We make a tour of the cathedral in search of something relating to Saint Jacques but find nothing. Saint Etienne seems to be the most important saint here. I am told that there is a statue of Saint Jacques outside but I can't identify him I am a little disappointed in Notre Dame. It fails to move me.
After a brief visit to Paris Beach, we cross the Seine on the petit Pont and head south on rue Saint Jacques. After passing Saint-Severin and the Cluny Museum, a couple stops us and asks if we are doing the Compostelle. Carl and Lynne Brant from nowhere recognized our bourdon. I say nowhere because they are perpetual travelers and have no home address. They tell us that they have just finished hiking the Spanish part of the trail from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Compostela. They spent two months and made a lot of side trips to see the country along the trail. We exchange email addresses and continue our march. I am very interested in this perpetual traveling concept and hope to hear from them again.
Ancient pilgrims would gather a rock or stone at the Tour de Saint Jacques or along the route to throw at the tomb of Issoire before exiting the city through Port Royal in the direction of Orleans or Chartres. We decide to search for the tomb of Issoire so we can throw a rock like our predecessors. Issoire was a Saracen giant reputed to be fifteen feet tall who robbed all the travelers as they entered the city. He would approach the city everyday and challenge anyone who would come and fight . The inhabitants were terrified and the giant threaten to destroy Paris. One of the little signs giving the history of Paris indicates that a monk named William came of his hermitage in the desert to challenge the giant. William killed the giant and buried him where he fell. Grateful pilgrims tossed a rock at the tomb on the way out of Paris. I don't exactly understand the symbolism of this gesture unless it refers to David and Goliath, but since Issoire was probably the first Islamic terrorist, we will toss our rocks for God and country.
We walk the entire length of rue de la Tombe of Issoire but we never find the tomb. Osama bin Issoire may not even be dead but we have to complete the tradition. We settle for throwing our rocks at the concrete wall of a tire store. Even though the automobile is probably more of a threat to Parisians than the giant ever was, I am not quite satisfied with gesture. I promise myself to come back and find the tomb. We cross the Peripherique and are out of the city but the suburbs lie ahead.
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