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

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone / They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on. LEONARD COHEN The Sisters Of Mercy

Janosch and Árpád.

Opposite the Église Saint-Roch in the village of Saint-Roch, a few sweaty uphill kilometres beyond Decazeville, you will find a pretty little gîte called Sentinelle. The Chemin de Saint-Jacques brought me here late in the afternoon of Tuesday 15 May. Two Hungarian pilgrims, Janosch and Árpád, had already stashed their backpacks behind the door. We chatted and joked and swapped stories, and I decided to spend the night there rather than carry on to Livinhac as I'd originally planned. Brigitte, the feisty hospitalière, one-time nurse and fervent Catholic, breezed in. She bid us take off our boots. She showed us the shower, the toilet, the small bedroom crammed with mattresses. She said she would cook a meal for us later, but first there was church.

Other pilgrims arrive, and the dynamic Brigitte busies herself massaging sore limbs and cutting up cauliflower and trying to remember our names. Then a ragged bunch of us cross the road to have our créanciales stamped and to celebrate Mass. The priest is old and shaky and apparently the survivor of two recent heart attacks. Brigitte helps him find his glasses and the right place in the Order of Service. She is his aid and supporter. The choir sings the Kyrie, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei. The choir — well, I mean the choir of Brigitte: she's on her own, toute seule, with her sweet, quavering, descant voice, battling the sins of the world like a female Saint George, her eyes piercing yet other-worldly. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy... We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth... Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace... She believes; she has no doubts. Slim and petite, she is strong and invincible with faith. She is the backbone of the gîte, the church, of the tiny settlement of Saint-Roch. 

And she is kind. And attentive. And interested in all these crazy pilgrims with their crazy stories about China and India and South America. And she serves delicious food tasting of her own garden: vegetable soup, and quiche, and carrots, and cauliflower, and potatoes — all subtly flavoured and spiced — and chocolate tart. And wine, though not a lot. And when other pilgrims roll in, tired and hungry, they are fed and watered; and somehow she produces another mattress from out of nowhere, or finds a sofa for them, or a comfortable corner of the floor.

And when we leave the next morning, after coffee and bread and home-made jam, she wishes us Bonne Route and kisses us and waves till we are out of sight, and the priest waves too from the window of his house by the church, though I'm not sure he can see us very well, as Brigitte is not there to find his spectacles.

I doubt if any of us will ever forget Brigitte...

(You can read more about Brigitte here.)


Ruth said...

Angel of mercy. Tremendous. I don't think I will forget her either, after your sweet telling. A beautiful piece of writing, quite worthy of the experience and the woman, I think.

Makes me want to read a novel about her. Up for it?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Ruth — you are too kind.

I think I may have come across her before in Balzac or some writer like that.

"Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned:
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don't turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right."

LEONARD COHEN Sisters of Mercy

George said...

A beautiful piece of writing about a beautiful human being. Very, very moving. For those who wrestle infinitely with issues of faith, it's moving and reassuring to discover someone for who not only remains faithful and steadfast, but who understands that action is the true measure of one's faith.

Rubye Jack said...

I've never met a person like this. It seems she does not think about her actions but rather simply knows how to act to care for others. Maybe it's a God thing.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, George ... and Rubye, I didn't learn much about her thought processes but, yes, she knows how to act to care for others and, yes, it's a God thing too.

Goat said...

A great little descriptive piece here, SW. It's good to "meet" some other characters on the path through your writing.

I am reading and thoroughly enjoying Stevensons' 'Travels with a Donkey', and have loved his descriptions of old and decidedly primitive auberges. Most of the hosts he has described so far have been similarly attentive and hospitable - most of them.

The Solitary Walker said...

That book is fantastic, isn't it, Goat! Another book I know you'd enjoy is Hilaire Belloc's "A Path to Rome" — about a trek this obstreperous Catholic writer did from Alsace across the Alps to the Eternal City. Some of the hosts he encounters are equally dire.

The Solitary Walker said...

I meant dire re. Stevenson not Brigitte, obviously. Sorry, it's late in the night!

Goat said...

Yes, I've been hearing about this book for a while (it's the inspiration for Peter Francis Browne's 'Rambling on the Road to Rome', which I've read) and finally made good use of the good wifi in my favourite cafe on Friday and got it from Kindle. The price: free, but unfortunately it doesn't come with the hand-drawn pictures & maps that apparently add a lot to the original book. But I'll give it a try - it is very well reviewed by Kindle readers.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

How marvellous. Pilgrims have such dedication and meet up with music and saintly like characters.
Your writing is very descriptive.