What remained of my trip was an evening in Paris.
The Place des Vosges area is where I like to hang in that city. It’s compact, unreconstructed, lively. I’m not meant for the big, wide end of Paris, which always seems to be triumphing over something or other.
Here in the Marais I find a park and a shop I love, and an intimate Jewish Quarter that’s a nice mix of grunge and posh. Maybe I’m too “Sydney”.
From the Marais I walked, via the Bastille, back toward the Gare de Lyon where I was staying.
There it was, above the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli. The newly restored tower of Messire Jacques. I’d touched it many weeks before, on leaving for Le Puy.
The Tower of Saint James has lost its church, and has been lucky to survive. Yet it was once the head of the Way of Tours.
And now, with the revival of the Camino, some pilgrims start walking from that tower, and go all the way to Compostela.
I have trouble believing that James existed. I have trouble believing in most things. But I’ve worked out that Saint James, real or not, represents something. That something is, by all appearances, contradictory and unworkable. Christopher Hitchens has wittily described it as deriving from “the boring village quarrels and Bronze Age fables that were drawn from what remains the world’s most benighted region”.
Yet this nonsense has been the generator of a civilisation that is marked, above all, by a flexibility and dynamism that seem taken from nature itself.
By contrast, the very sensible philosophy of atheism is so sclerotic and impotent a thing that it can produce nothing but short-lived slave states, busily but oafishly controlled by a grotesque alliance of theorising lout and murderous intellectual.
So I’ll be a pure skeptic and doubt skepticism. On the grounds of poor results, I’ll reason there must be limits to reason.
Rather than expound further on whether that thing represented by James – namely, Western Christendom – was worth all the effort, I’ll offer an observation.
By his feast day this year, it’s likely more pilgrims will have made their way to Compostela than at any time since the middle ages. Most pilgrims are disciplined types, open, with a wide experience of life.
So quite a few sound-minded people think that James is worth the long trudge; and that what we call the Western Experience must not only be recalled by pilgrimage, but reaffirmed by pilgrimage. That belief, even if half-conscious, draws them along the Camino, far more than the hope of an indulgence or a finisher’s stamp in their credencial. Perhaps these people are products of a century which got to look harder at the alternatives to that Western Christendom.
Finally, I think things are pretty for a reason.
Spending time in Sydney before heading back to the bush, I passed a certain church built by an emancipated convict in the early 1800’s. The convicted forger was supported by a dynamic if nutty governor, amid disapproval and adversity. The church was clearly meant to represent something. In connection to that building, which is a very beautiful one, I once wrote in another place:
After the debacle of William Bligh and the Rum Rebellion, a Scot would take charge: a turbulent but humane fusspot. He too would exhaust and impoverish and even disgrace himself in the struggle to establish that “harsh meritocracy” of the many. He would go far beyond the aspirations of his predecessors, and even the wishes of the Crown.
Opportunity, emancipation, and a durable, even beautiful, infrastructure: his aim was a rough kind of nationhood, achieved within one wrenching decade. And, in a rough way, which was the only possible way, he succeeded.
Can you see where I’m going with this? Australia was once faced with a choice: to become a plantation for investors, or a nation for all its inhabitants. Under Lachlan Macquarie, it took the second way.
Governor Macquarie was a cranky idealist, yet with the shaping energy to force the most unlikely results. He was even a kind of martyr. Sound like someone we know?
The name of that church is Saint James. It´s an Anglican church, but I suggest it would be an excellent place to erect a sign with a stylised scallop shell in blue and gold, an emblem very familiar to pilgrims. And right there could be the head of the Way of Saint James, a point from which Oz pilgrims could walk toward Sydney airport…and, ultimately, toward Santiago de Compostela.
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