For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Monday, 8 September 2014

Day 2: Licques to Wisques

As usual, crosses and calvaries punctuated the route . . .

. . . though other wayside 'shrines' were more kitsch than ecclesiastical. Is it my imagination, or does Snow White resemble the Virgin Mary? And where on earth is the seventh dwarf?

I was walking through a soft and gentle countryside of lush valleys and peaceful villages. In small fields between the woods grew beans and a nice mix of cereals — barley, wheat, maize —  and cows grazed in the riverine meadows. The roadside verges were full of wild flowers — columbine, poppy, willowherb, woody nightshade, St John's wort — and wildlife included rabbits, herons and a solitary egret. It was a dull, damp day, but I relished the novelty of these early stages of the walk, whatever the weather. People I passed were curious and kind. I was again reminded of the fact that most people are well-meaning and generous, if only they are given the chance to be so. It's the pilgrim's role to give them this opportunity! In Alquines the owner of the bar-shop-post office asked if I would like to take a rest and gave me a free coffee. In Bouvelinghem a woman opened up the church for me (note the Flemish-sounding name — we are not far from Belgium here, and I would soon be walking through the fields of Flanders). In Quelmes another woman filled my water bottles. All in all, I was enjoying myself immensely. 

By late afternoon I'd reached the abbey at Wisques, home to an order of Benedictine monks. They have a tradition — as do all the Benedictine communities — of hospitality, and give food and shelter to visitors, pilgrims and those seeking a meditative, spiritual retreat. I was made most welcome by a tonsured and cowled Père Pierre, who carried my staff (or rather Leki walking pole) up to my room. It was simple and comfortable, with a shower and WC next door. At 6 o'clock I attended Vespers, which was a dramatic, theatrical affair — lots of chanting and deep bowing from 14 monks in dark habits — and then at 7.30 joined them in the refectory for dinner. One interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict decrees that meals should be taken in silence, which I found strange and difficult to get used to at first, though after a while I relaxed, stopped trying to make eye contact and just concentrated on eating. I found to my surprise that it was actually quite enjoyable not to have to think of something to say. And there was always the intoned religious lecture to listen to, which reverberated through the refectory and lasted the length of the meal. All around me the monks were attacking their plates with gusto, licking them clean. Dinner was unpretentious, nutritious food, prepared and served by the monks themselves: bread and cold soup, boiled eggs, a dish of greens,  a dressed salad, plums, a glass of water, half a glass of wine.  

This was the view from my room, looking out over the central cloister or courtyard. The monks are only allowed to enter this courtyard for a brief period each day. Each day is exactly the same for them, a day regulated by the 'horarium': strictly ordered periods of work, prayer, eating, sleeping, spiritual reading and the daily religious offices.

9 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Robert, I am enchanted by all this - particularly the stay with the Benedictines. How lucky you are to have studied French and therefore to slot in here with such ease.

George said...

Thanks for the very descriptive account of this leg of your trip. It allowed me to experience it vicariously. Like Pat, I'm especially interested in your experience with the Benedictines. Kathleen Norris, a poet, essayist, and one of our spiritual writers here in the U.S., has written very fondly of her transformative experiences with the Benedictines (she was an oblate in a Benedictine monastery for a period), and I have long admired the Rule of Benedict, particularly its emphasis on contemplation, study, renewal, and hospitality, as a reliable guide to life.

The Solitary Walker said...

Pat — yes, you're right, I did find that being able to speak and understand French gave a satisfying depth and resonance to my pilgrimage.

And George — I really must check out that poet and spiritual writer you mention... thanks for this.

I couldn't live the strict and repetitious life of a monk for an instant, but it was so rewarding to experience the Benedictine way for a brief period.

So good and important that a few people are carrying on the traditions of the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, the Adorers of the Sacred Heart, the Carmelites etc. all over the world. We can, I think, learn much from their tradition of contemplation, devotion, study and hospitality, as you say.

I came into contact for a short time with many of these monastic orders on my pilgrimage, but more of that later!

Amanda said...

A beautiful journey, Robert. This kind of life appeals to me so much — my husband often says that I must have been a monk in a previous life.

litehiker said...

I think I can make out the seventh dwarf hiding behind the tree house.

The Solitary Walker said...

Hi Amanda — and thanks for linking me in your latest post!

I think you're right, Litehiker — that one's probably 'Bashful', then...

Ruth Mowry said...

It's good to be exposed to another way of life for a while. This one appeals to me, but like you, as an observer. I learned something that stuck with me in the hostel at Vezeley, with soup, salad and stew served sequentially in the same simple bowl.

Do I hear a potential line of verse with "Licques to Wisques" ?

The Solitary Walker said...

I'll work on it, Ruth!

dritanje said...

wonderful abbey & courtyard view. Wonder if I would be able to live like the monks - the idea has its appeal, but the practice - ah, dream on...