Friday, May 22, 2009

Walking with the Saints through Time

I heard an interesting explanation of what it is to be a modern pilgrim last winter while walking the via francigena to Rome. When I reached Lausanne on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, I was tired. I had walked through fog for some days and then in cold rain. Although I had already walked 500 enjoyable miles from Canterbury and was looking forward to the next 700, at that moment, I was unfocused and fried. I saw a lakeside café and plunked my pack and myself down at a table for a hot cup of tea.

Next to me, a young woman was buttoning up some small kids to leave. She noticed my pilgrim symbols – I was going to Rome, she was sure; I had been to Santiago de Compostela, she guessed. She told the kids this, pointing to the crossed keys and the scallop shell. She explained the significance of each, the keys for Saint Peter, patron of Rome, and the shell of Saint James, the fisherman, patron of Santiago de Compostela. She explained to my great surprise that pilgrims are holy people and should be helped along one their long journey. They are not beggars, she was clear about that. ‘Pilgrims walk with Saints, through time’ she said to my greater surprise. Having their lesson and now buttoned up, the woman and children left the café.

I contemplated her explanations to the kids while I sipped my tea and rested my fatigue. I never would have said those words myself, but her point was suddenly clear to me. She was right in a way. For the past six weeks and for the next seven, my steadfast companions were and would be Saints, if not in spirit, at least iconographically – carved in stone or wood, painted on canvas or frescos, imaged in stain glass… I could recognize the same Saints nearly every day. Saints who were all once real live people; many of whom walked in the same places as I. I could rely on them almost daily to present themselves unbidden. Encouraging fellows, those Saints; cheerleaders on the trail.

To know their stories adds to the experience. Saint Rocco became a frequent favorite in France and Italy. He may not have walked everywhere I walked, but the essence of the pilgrimage by foot carries through regardless. There’s a true sense of companionship, though my companion pre-dated me by seven centuries.

Other Saints peek out at predictable and unpredictable places – carved on churches, sure, but also in precariously placed niches high on mountainsides or, often in France, at deserted crossroads. Joan of Arc is common in France; Saint Catherine of Siena in Italy. Saint Martin seems to be everywhere ready to share his red cape, half of it anyway since he’s often depicted rending it in two with his sword. Benevolence at the broad side of a weapon. Before these folks were Saints, they were people representing all walks of life – rich, poor; old, young; educated, simple.

All of the pilgrims through history, all of the scholars, tradesmen, migrants, clergy, soldiers, royal figures, all of them passed some of these same monuments to the Saints. Many of them have been around for a millennium. It’s awe-inspiring to think of it that way. It’s true, then, those of us modern pilgrims who have awareness of our surroundings, can truthfully be considered to walk with the Saints through time.

1 comment:

The Solitary Walker said...

Great post. I love the autumn and winter pilgrims. May we all continue to walk with the Saints!