Sunday, December 19, 2010

Walking with the Saints

On my first great pilgrimage, from Canterbury to Rome, I was startled one afternoon when in Switzerland and a woman described pilgrims as 'walking with the Saints through time.' Since that moment, I've often thought of that description. It's certainly easy to become familiar with many Saints on the pilgrim trails through Europe. Carvings, paintings, statues, grottos... all sorts of art and architectural elements relate the stories of these many real-live people who lived long ago in Europe, and thanks to their subsequent sainthood, have become part of the cultural fabric of the land. What better way to pass those ten-minute breaks in village churches in France playing 'Name-that-Saint'?

I've gotten to know many of their stories and carry them with me on my long, often isolated, treks. Being a hardcore engineer, I'm not one who falls toward the inexplicable; on the other hand, I've realized that not everything has an explanation, nor needs one.

While I walk, I think of my favorite Saints as part of the team heading off to the Basilica in Mexico City. Saint Rocco, the pilgrim... he comes to mind when my feet are tired and I've still got many kilometers to go to get to the next village. Saint Martin of Tours, my horseman, always depicted in his Roman soldier's uniform on a gallant steed cutting his cloak in two to share with a cold beggar (or maybe pilgrim). Outside of Poitiers, I spent a night in the monastery he founded, so we're pals, obviously. Saint Joan of Arc - I spent a pilgrim night in her hometown - also mounted and in ridiculously shiny armor completely unsuited for the desert heat and dust. San Juan de Ortega, the Dominican abbot whose abbey church in the north of Spain has an astronomical phenomon wherein on the spring equinox the rising and setting sun illuminates a particular series of columns that depict a passage from Genesis. Saints Catherine of Siena and Rose of Viterbo, I took refuge in each of their convents during my way to Rome, were both of rather weak constitution, so I don't call upon them often during the rigors of my journey. There are others, too, but these are some of my go-to Saints.

I've been doing a lot of bush-whacking lately - cutting through the rugged terrain without benefit of a trail (or map). I think of Joan on horseback to my left and Martin to my right and sometimes appeal to them to go on ahead and reconnoiter on the next ridge to plan the advance. One recent day, I could see from the ridge, going down to the left would be difficult through thick undergrowth, but to the right, a more unfavorable steep, narrow canyon, unpassable. Joan's way won, but without her armor, the prickery vegetation would lead to a lot of bloodshed. Ah ha, a cornfield, unseen from above, provided me with the inspiration to wrap my lower legs with the rustic armor of corn husks. I made it through the thicket largely unscathed, and for the first time, without ripping my hiking pants and without having to spend hours de-thorning them. Joan saved the day!

Some days later, a similar call-to-arms. This time, Joan's side was unpassable, but Martin's, not so easy on foot. I could see from the vantage of height the need to cross a wide arroyo, then a dry island of tall cactuses and mesquite crossed by a myriad of cowpaths, and then only one correct path out the far side up the hillside and onto a truck track. I actually thought: It will take a miracle to find that one path out. Plunging downward into the obscurity of a labrynth, I didn't know how I would manage but resolved myself to spending hours applying some unknown logic to make it through. As I jumped down into the arroyo (=dry river) who appeared - and this was miles and miles from the nearest ranch - but a cowboy on a tall horse. I explained my plight and with one strong arm, he pulled me up onto the horse behind his saddle (I wish I could convey the idea of grace on my part, but it was all very awkward, being so small and all, and it was a very tall horse...). I was almost afraid to ask his name for fear of the answer, but it had to be done. Luis. Very suitable; 'Martino' would really have freaked me out. He rode me through the maze of paths in the cactus and mesquite and out to the truck trail. I made it to the next village before sunset. Oh happy day Martin! Luis was far more Huck Finn-ish than a Roman-era knight, but whatever...

Some distance back - around Parral, if I recall rightly - I checked my compass one day just out of habit and noticed it was behaving pretty wonky. Mining districts tend to make compasses unreliable. It's not that it matters very much. I haven't seen a cloud in the sky in over a month. The sun's position is unerring. Lacking a map for as long as I was, I had only a general sense of my day's direction - somewhere between east and south everyday taking not of boundary conditions - the principal highway to my far far left and the tallest sierras to my far far right. I call Juan de Ortega up front. Check my math, Juan. A reliable geographic compass can be made with a stick and an analog watch. True north, not magnetic north is the better instrument anyway. Holding one of my walking sticks upright, I align the short hand of the watchface with the direction of the shadow made by the stick onto the ground. With the other stick, I etch a line into the sand perpendicular to the shadow. Twelve on the watch points to true north; six to south. I scratch these lines into the sand as well. I find some point on the horizon in the direction I know I need to walk that day - southeast, for example - and note the angle between the shadow and this direction: acute or obtuse. For another hour or two, I can gage my progress from both the point on the horizon and the magnitude of the angle made by the shadow and my direction of travel. It's not so complicated to do, but I like to think Juan watches over my shoulder to make sure I don't mess up.

Meet a Saint and he's your friend and team mate. I'll be soon coming into the lands of San Juan Diego. Maybe he'll become more active. Maybe he already did by nudging the Native American who judged how long it would take me to get to Indè? Who's to argue?


Anonymous said...

I always suspected you had imaginary friends, but I never realized they were Saints. Once again, you've set the bar too high for the rest of us mere mortals to reach. Merry Christmas from all of the Californians to our favorite pilgrim.

OHMV said...


Your saintly treck transforms those who read your outstanding blog.

Let us all keep close to Christ and his saints walking with a steady pace neither looking to the world nor to vainglory, lest we fall from the straight and beautiful path to salvation.


The Solitary Walker said...

Great post, Ann. May the saints always be with you.

Compostelle 2008 said...

Anne, you continue to amaze me and your writings are fascinating. As a lapsed Catholic, I find it fascinating that your "imaginary friends" are saints. But hey, saints can exist outside of organized religion. keep on trekking and I hope you have the chance to spend some time with people on Christmas day.

Michèle, Ottawa (ON) Canada

Anonymous said...

Anna,as always, your posts are an amazing read! Who did you say you want to play you in the movie? Which is worse? Do you think she will be up for it? Which is worse: cactus or Ukrainian ice/snow and Kgb? I just can't believe you know so much about saints and equinox and compass-making...I am sharing that with my grandsons! Feliz Navidad! Yo se que tendras un dia lleno de alegrias porque la gente es muy acogedora!