A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Trail Angel

The weather grew warmer as we gradually descended towards the wooded valleys of the Lot and the Tarn. We meandered along the path as if in a dream, picking wild blackberries and walnuts freshly fallen from the tree. At Nasbinals, where we slept in the municipal gîte adjoining the school house, we ate in the cold, evening air hot roasted chataignes, or chestnuts, with the village schoolchildren and their teachers and parents.

By day kites and buzzards patrolled the skies. In the woods we heard the laughing call of the green woodpecker and now and then glimpsed its yellow rump and undulating glide. But the true symbol of the woods was the ubiquitous jay. It was a real joy to see so many. You would hear their raucous screeches from far away, then watch them fly by in a flash of pink, white and blue. In the autumn they search for for acorns, beechmast and walnuts which they hide to eat later like squirrels. The French call them les gardiens de la forêt, the guardians of the forest.

One chilly morning in Saint-Chély I lost my way. I'd slept the night in the impeccable gîte next to the very helpful tourist office and I'd departed early the next day to rendezvous with Thierry. You can't become seriously lost on the Chemin - it's very well waymarked with red and white blazes called balises - but get lost I did. After an hour and a half's steep uphill climb out of the valley I spotted a ruined castle on the other side of the river we'd passed the day before. But the view was gorgeous, the stony path ancient and beautiful, and I wasn't unduly worried.

As long as you have a general idea where you are, as long as the conditions are not dangerous and the weather is not deteriorating, I really don't mind being "lost". Indeed it can be a positive experience - something to be embraced rather than feared. And so it was on this occasion. I finally arrived breathless at a small hilltop hamlet and asked the first person I saw if I was still on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques. I was not. "But many pilgrims take the wrong turning in Saint-Chély and end up here", she assured me. This kind lady then invited me into her house, asked if I'd had breakfast, made me a cappuccino and drove me in her car a few kilometres to a point where I could rejoin the true path. She was a genuine "trail angel".

In the car she told me a sad story. Her son-in-law had been a local farmer. Like many farmers he was rather taciturn, a man of few words who kept his problems to himself. Evidently there were secret worries and anxieties which had built up inside him and for which he found no release. He had talked to no one in his family about them. A week beforehand, a week before I lost my way and turned up at this strong and generous woman's door, her daughter found her farmer-husband dead in one of their barns. He had hanged himself from the rafters.

I caught up with Thierry in Espalion and we reached the lovely small town of Estaing (see photo) in the dark. The last few kilometres along the road, with my headtorch picking out the way, were difficult for me. I had walked 37 km that day and was exhausted. There was some sort of problem with my boots and my feet were excruciatingly painful...


am said...

Just discovered that Simone Weil was born in Le Puy, the place where pilgrimages begin.

Kind wishes for the New Year!

The Solitary Walker said...

I thoght she was born in Paris? No matter. I have just taken down a book from the shelf containing some letters and essays of hers collected under the title "Waiting on God: The Essence of her Thought". In it I see that I have marked this passage: "Christ made promises to the Church, but none of these promises has the force of the expression 'Thy Father who seeth in secret'. The word of God is the secret word. He who has not heard this word, even if he adheres to all the dogmas taught by the Church, has no contact with truth." Amen to that. I tried to decipher this secret word in my own pilgrimage. Then I realised that you should not try too hard. If you wait, if you attend with an open mind and open heart, the secret word may reveal itself without warning, without any diligent or intellectual pursuit of it. This is one of the messages of Simone Weil's work, I think.

Many good wishes for the New Year to you too!

am said...

solitary walker -- Not sure why I was thinking she was born in Le Puy. You are right. She was born in Paris. I read a translation of "Waiting for God" some time ago after learning about her while reading Thomas Merton's writings. What I appreciate most about her is the intensity and integrity of her unconventional life and thought, her experience and understanding of "affliction."