Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Paean to the Pilgrims

Joanna Peregrina

It has been facetiously remarked of long-married couples that the partners become so used to putting up with each other through compromise and accommodation that in time they approach near identity even in physical appearance. Approaching my current physical appearance is not a fate I would wish upon most enemies, let alone my life partner, so I was delighted to discover that even after being married for forty-eight years, eleven months, and twenty-five days I could discover an entirely new and unprecedented reason for admiring my wife. As Shakespeare’s Enobarbus says of Cleopatra:
             Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
             Her infinite variety….
Fortunately, the context in which I recalled the lines was much more propitious than that in which Shakespeare had placed them in his play. It was last Friday, about 11:15 in the morning (local time) near the entrance to the south transept of the medieval cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. In a miracle nearly as astounding as any of those performed of old by the ferocious apostle himself, we actually successfully met up as planned with our pilgrims—two moving needles in a large and chaotic moving haystack of ambulatory humanity. Though the calculation is not yet absolutely final, Joan and her friend Susan had walked just under a thousand miles to get there.

 Susan & Joan / Compostela 27 v 2011  What a feat!  Also, what feet!

Five years ago, Joan’s friend and fellow Dante student Susan—twenty years Joan’s junior--was facing her fiftieth birthday. She suggested that a good way to mark the event would be to walk upwards of two thousand kilometers through southern France and northern Spain. You or I might think of a less strenuous way to be festive, but as the old saying goes, Different strides for different brides.

There were literally hundreds of pilgrimage sites in medieval Europe, but the three greatest were Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela, the legendary home of the relics of Saint James “the Greater”, the brother of Jesus. I use the word "legendary" with some temerity, as Spaniards of the Middle Ages and Renaissance entertained no doubts whatsoever. Saint James, Santiago (i.e. San Yago or San Diego), became their national patron saint, and in his martial role as Matamoros (“the Moor-slayer”) an emblem of their ferocious ethnic cleansing in the fifteenth century and their imperial expansion in the sixteenth.

Any reader of Chaucer will know that medieval pilgrims undertook their travels out of many motives; but a long pilgrimage was always a serious business. The original meaning of the English word "travel" is preserved in the French travail—work—a form preserved in our tongue only for the agonies of childbirth. Travel was in fact so difficult, dangerous, and painful that it was appropriately undertaken as expiation for serious crimes. Canon law required those preparing for a “major” pilgrimage to leave behind their properly executed wills. The chances that they would die en route were significant.

The Compostela pilgrimage drew Christians from all parts of Europe, and it has left its memorial traces in many surprising places. (The rue Saint-Jacques in the Latin quarter of Paris, for example, takes its name from its original destination.) The scallop-shell emblem, originally an attribute of the saint himself, has become the more or less universal emblem of pilgrimage. “How should I your true love know from another one?” sings Ophelia in Hamlet. “By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon.” In recent years, the Compostela pilgrimage has enjoyed a remarkable rebirth of popularity. The percentage of seriously “religious” pilgrims is not large, but probably not proportionately much different from in Chaucer’s day—about three twenty-ninths in my calculation. There are also many young outdoors types, and lots of life transitions and inner searches. The mode of a few would appear, perhaps, to be that of the Wife of Bath: better described as cruising than journeying.  Of course the theory of medieval asceticism always linked the voluntary embrace of self-abnegation with material ministration to a needy world.  Joan and Susan called their undertaking "a pilgrimage with a purpose"--one external part of which was to raise a significant amount of money in aid of an imaginative international charity--the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.

 The Apostle's Reliquary

But what an adventure! What an engine of companionship! Chaucer’s pilgrims started out in a pretty fancy hotel where they were “esed atte beste.” Joan and Susan, like the huge numbers of today’s Compostela pilgrims, had to content themselves with modest commercial or monastic hostels. So far as I can tell the most typical activity of pilgrims is the nightly hand-washing of intimate items of apparel! You can trace the four stages of our pilgrims’ progress on the map below.

Their plan evolved.  Originally, they had plotted the pilgrimage for three stages in three succeeding years.  The demands of what we laughingly call "real life," however, soon showed that they could not devote more than seventeen or eighteen days of walking to a stage.  This meant it would require four stages.  Though circumstances made them miss one year, they kept to their revised design: four stages of almost 250 miles each, averaging fifteen miles of serious hiking a day.   Stage 1: from Le Puy en Velay in south-central France to the old medieval city of Cahors. Stage 2: Cahors to Saint-Jean Pied de Port, the traditional crossing place across the Pyrenees into Spain. Stage 3: Saint-Jean to Sahagún between Burgos and León. Stage 4: Sahagún to Compostela. The other pilgrim spouse (also a John) and I have thought of ourselves as a kind of technical “support team”—sort of like the guys who used to accompany Channel-swimmers in a motor launch, ever ready to beat off shark attacks. Pilgrimage turns out to be much easier if aided by the Wizard of Avis. But no cross, no crown. We didn’t get a diploma, the way the ladies did.

The purpose of this blog post is to salute my remarkable wife on a remarkable accomplishment. To gain their certification, pilgrims must register a few vital statistics with the peregrine officials. Joan did note that she was the sole septuagenarian on the large ledger sheet she signed. I doubt there were many on other pages either.
We know that life is a pilgrimage, and so also no doubt is marriage. There are other metaphors as well. We stumbled upon one quite by accident. We spent a most pleasant day in Compostela, before moving on to Madrid for some tapas and Velasquez, and thence back home. Old Compostela has many attractions, quite apart from Santiago and his golden shrines, and we hope one day to return. In the old Dominican monastery, now the regional museum of Galicia, there is a fascinating triplex helicoidal staircase, the work of the seventeenth-century Compostelan architect Domingo Antonio de Andrade. Three soaring sets of steps, each seemingly unsupported and each interlacing but never touching its fellows, rise from the old cloister level to the several stories of the old monastic buildings.

We started up separate flights and for a while circled each other, now coming closer, now drifting away. But by chance the flight I had chosen stopped one floor short of the top, and I was left looking up in admiration at my spouse’s greater ascension. Looking up, perhaps, as the poet Dante once did—
              E quasi peregrin, che si ricrea
              nel tempio del suo voto riguardando,
              e spera già ridir com’ ello stea…(Par. xxxi, 43-45)
And, as a pilgrim, in the temple of his vow / content within himself, looks lovingly about / and expects to tell his tale when he gets home.