I had one day of walking to get to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and there was a tickle of expectation. At that town, I would complete the Via Podiensis, the Voie Du Puy, the Camino in France. Whether I went further was to be decided. There’s an advantage in getting the Pyrenees “done” and crossing into Spain: one can come back in a cool season to complete the Spanish section without having to worry about the weather at Roncevaux.
And speaking of weather…
That final day of walking in France was solid rain. And cold. There was no point in stopping, looking about, or taking snaps. The dawdler had to stride out, with eyes down. Even the snow of the Aubrac permitted little pauses, but the cold, incessant rain – in late spring and close to sea level – allowed only relentless walking. Oh well, some people do that all the time.
I’m sure there was lots of country that looked like this.
But the snap was taken the day before.
What I was able to glimpse through the rain curtain makes me think this is one of the loveliest of all the stages.
I’d like to say that I used the conditions to contemplate pilgrimage. Sadly, my mind was full of the usual flickerings of coloured rubbish that keep it weakly entertained in free hours. Rugby League opinions, odd combinations of food and sex involving Nigella, people I should have told off better, Krispy Kreme donuts…
A brief and simple mental prayer in the morning is the best I can do to mitigate this condition of perpetual and trivial distraction. People who don’t believe in mental prayer must either have very high thought processes, or a very high opinion of their thought processes. I suspect it’s the latter.
Let’s pretend I’m walking along, my thoughts elevated, my mind on the Way, believing like a theoretical medieval pilgrim. (An actual medieval pilgrim was probably thinking about food, sex, resentments etc.) Let’s say my thoughts are directed toward the saint himself.
Most portrayals of James have him looking piqued. Rembrandt shows him subdued – but you can never tell about evangelists when they’re praying. They talk soft to God but yell at everyone else.
St. James was, indeed, the most fiery and physical of the apostles. Little wonder he was able to get all the way to Spain and evangelise there for some time.
He got back to Judaea where he was martyred. But our story is only starting!
His followers got hold of his corpse, loaded it on to a boat and sailed it along the Mediterranean, past the the pillars of Hercules, into the Atlantic, then round to the coast of Galicia. Some local pagans tried to kill them on landing, but they were able to take to the sea again, with the corpse, by using a large scallop shell as a vessel, and come back when the coast was clear, literally. That part of the story may not be strictly accurate, however.
Anyway, they got James ashore, and a sarcophagus formed on the spot where they laid him and left him. Which may not be strictly accurate.
There’s more, far more!
Some centuries later, Charlemagne, Emperor of the West, was doing that kind of lofty thing emperors do: contemplating the stars and asking his scholars about the composition of the Milky Way. The scholars couldn’t tell him much.
That night, James the Apostle appeared to the emperor in a dream, and told him that the Milky Way was a road of stars leading to the tomb of James, far in the West. When asked how to get there, James rolled his eyes – he was a notoriously impatient type – and said to Charlemagne that he just needed to follow the Milky Way, like he’d already said! Get it?
The emperor got it. He advanced along the way indicated, the Field of Stars, conquering, massacring, liberating and all that, till he reached the Atlantic shore, and personally discovered the tomb of the saint. Perhaps.
The body was later taken back inland to a place that became known as Campus Stellae, or Field of Stars. (Some doubt: Campus Stellarum would have been more accurate, but maybe Latin had gone sloppy by then.) Anyway, Campus Stellae became Compostela…unless pesky etymologists are right, and the town’s name just means “well-built”.
In any case, Charlemagne came, and, after Charlemagne, the pilgrims.
And thinking – perhaps – these thoughts of history, faith and pilgrimage, I arrived through the rain at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port…
…entering through the Porte de Saint-Jacques, the Gate of Saint James.