Sunday, 29 August 2010

She Ain´t Heavy, She´s My Sister

They have nice hands and neat, clean faces. They have almost 40 years of combined service between them. They´re walking the Camino under a special dispensation, to pray for their community, which is going through a crisis. They wear their gray and white habits under their backpacks.

They are Sister Mary Elizabeth and Sister Miriam, from the contemplative Community of St. John in France. They started walking from there several weeks ago, following a monastic pilgrim tradition of seeking shelter at convents, monasteries, and parish houses all along the Way. (Public albergues, an innovation aimed at the latest upsurge of tourism, they usually leave for secular pilgrims.)

But like the "donativo" and the "Casa de Acogida" traditions of old, the monastic hospitality concept is evidently dying out. As harmless and decent as these two sisters are, they are sleeping outdoors more and more. They say they really don´t mind, that dossing down in doorways is part of the adventure.

But c´mon. A little nun pilgrim asks if she can sleep in your spare room tonight. Do you tell her to hit the bricks? 

Tons of people do, for whatever reason. Even fellow nuns do. I asked Miriam to tell me some tales. In a sunny and sweet way, she narrated a hair-raising account of repeat rejection.

In Navarette the sisters found no convent, so they went to the public albergue. There were two beds available. They were the only two women in the place, plunked down in a roomful of bicycle boys fragrant with pub-fumes.

"I couldn´t do it. I know what Providence is. I am grateful for the albergues and the volunteers. But I just couldn´t stay there," Miriam said.

Some would say these nuns are too high-strung and demanding, that the Camino is meant for flexible people willing to take what´s offered. But these two are already flexed right to the breaking point. They´ve been inside their convent walls, in silence and prayer, for decades. Their camino is an extraordinary change from the close-knit, exclusively feminine world they inhabit. A pack of bikers is tough enough for any modern woman to cope with, much less a vowed religious. (Although when I consider it, a vowed nun is not so different from a camino biker. Both groups tend to run in gender-specific packs and wear matching uniforms. The nuns wear loose gray and white habits; the bikers stuff themselves into Spandex sheaths spangled with lurid advertisements. Both fashion statements would seem to reinforce celibacy.) 

Back in Navarrete the sisters packed up and headed for the church. An old man outside told them they were welcome at his house, to come over after the 8 p.m. Mass. Which they did. And when they arrived, the old man´s son met them at the door.

He told them to go away, that they couldn´t stay there.

It was after 9 p.m., too late to find anywhere else. The sisters walked out of town, found a soft spot in a vineyard, and slept under the stars.

In Burgos the sisters met with the superiors of three different religious congregations. They toured the grounds, had tea and biscuits, were asked to pray that the aging orders would receive more young vocations. And then they were told "good luck" and "good bye." Offering rooms to wandering nuns isn´t part of some orders´ traditions. 

Still other places were wonderfully welcoming: the priest at Los Arcos found them a place to stay for three days while Sister Miriam recovered from a pulled muscle in her back. All down the camino, families opened their doors and their cupboards to house and feed them. Hospitaleros, bartenders, priests, and fellow nuns phoned around town to find spare rooms. Someone came through almost every time, they said.

They were on just such a search on Friday in Fromista, when I met them first. I was there with the guitarristas, and the two sisters sat quietly in the pews, their backpacks off to one side. One of them had a terrible cold. They waited to talk to the priest about where they might stay, but the priest was on vacation. Three local nuns sat in the pew behind theirs, but they didn´t have any guest quarters at their convent, they said. Instead, they directed the travelers to a cheap hostel in the square.

I would´ve brought home at least the sick one. (I hardly ever go to Fromista these days without bringing home some pilg who´s been hard done-by in that town. What´s up with that, Fromista?) But on Friday I went there with Fred. His car was packed full of guitars and guitarists, leaving no room for even the smallest nun. We gave the sisters some money so they could book into a pension or the cheap hostel. Then we rolled out of town.

Sister Miriam left her sniffling companion at the church and went to find shelter. The cheap hostel was full. The pilgrim albergue was full. The sun was going down. Sister Miriam sat down on a bench and thought about crying. A lady sat down next to her and said hello. The nuns spent that night in the gazebo behind the lady´s house. 

And yesterday they arrived here at the Peaceable, having walked all the way from Carrion de los Condes. The dogs adored them. Tim was smitten. Even the greyhounds ventured out to look them over. Soon our clothesline was hung with the various oddments of hand-made habits. They sang a pretty French song to bless our dinner. When they did the dinner dishes they also scrubbed down the countertops, swept the floor, and picked the black stuff out of the blender-blade attachments. In the wee hours I heard their voices speaking low in the salon, intoning together the night office of prayer.

They are sweet, joyful people. Having these ladies stay was like having fresh flowers delivered to the house.

So next time nuns ask to stay at your place, bring ´em home. They promise to pray for you when they leave the next day. And if their prayers are anywhere near as powerful as their charm, you´ve got nothing to lose.

(And even if nuns don´t figure into your daily round, you still can pray for them. I promised to ask all of you to pray for the Contemplative Community of St. John. So do that, OK?)

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Antoine Update

Thank you, darling blogsters, for all the prayers and kind words.
We didn´t know how draining it was, just having a newly bereaved person in the same house. Trust me: you don´t have to have ever met the deceased, or know or care for or love the one who´s lost his partner. Just the rawness of pure loss generates its own mad horror, with or without words or language.

We really did not do much to help Antoine, the man mentioned in the last post. He only stayed here one day and one night. We treated him like just about any other pilgrim, only gave him a bit more affection and attention and food than the usual. On Sunday morning he was gone off to Palencia city with Esteban, where Antoine´s son and brother-in-law were to meet him at the mortuary.

Once the car pulled away, I let myself cry. I have no idea how funeral directors and morticians and hospice ministers handle the strain of that kind of shock and loss so near, so often. Paddy and I were pretty well exhausted by less than 24 hours!

We haven´t heard any more from them, but for one abortive attempt, in rapid French, for road directions. We don´t even know Antoine´s last name, much less his phone number or email. But Antoine has our contact info. I hope he will find this blog, because it´s important he know what people all over Spain and the world are doing for him, and for his wife. Her name is Marie-Claire, he told me. She was a great singer, a lover of Russian choral music. She belonged to a choral group in their hometown. It was a Russian Orthodox hymn the two of them sang at the Capilla de San Roque on Saturday morning, just before they set off from Finisterre. She didn´t sleep well the night before. She was tired. She should not have been driving...

Antoine said he´s not a Christian, but Saturday night he asked if he could spend some time in our parish church. Oliva gave us the keys. Milagros gave him a candle to light, and she made sure the place was locked up after he left. Someone asked Don Santiago to say Sunday´s Mass for the soul of Maria Clara, and the comfort of Antonio. And so he did.

Saturday night, Federico was at work, too. Fred´s an orthopedic doctor back in Wisconsin, but on Saturday morning he was at the accident scene in rural Palencia. He helped pull Marie-Claire from the car, and tried to stabilize her while waiting for the ambulance to come. He went over the checklist and signed the certificate once she was gone. He spent his afternoon with Antoine at the hospital afterward. He delivered the man to our house, then shifted back into his Camino Guitar Impresario Mode. He got a Massachusetts guitarist to Villacazar de Sirga just in time for the scheduled concert at Sta. Maria la Blanca, and had the evening´s Mass said for the sake of Marie-Claire and Antoine. (Fred is amazing.)

And once the blog below was written, my friends at the pilgrim office in Santiago de Compostela got to work. They looked up the pilgrim credentials, they hustled over to the cathedral office, and the Monolithic Catholic Institution everyone rails against worked like a well-oiled machine to celebrate a beautiful memorial Mass for "la peregrina Frances."

 Here´s the email I received from a member of the Archconfraternity late Monday evening:  

"Dear Rebekah,

Don Jenaro celebrated Mass at 7.30 this evening in a full Cathedral. There were seven priests including one bishop concelebrating, all from Ourense. The Mass was the Mass of St Jacob and therefore in the liturgical red vestments of the martyr. There was a magnificent floral decoration of Madonna lilies in front of the altar, as there had been a large society wedding at the Parador yesterday. The perfume filled the transept. Joaquin was at the organ and at his best, while the Cantor a young man of 30-35 yrs of age lead the assembled with a strong yet gentle voice. During the communion he sang very softly "Soul of My Saviour" to Joaquin's accompaniment. It was a peaceful and moving pilgrim's Mass.

Soul of my Savior sanctify my breast,Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Savior, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with waters gushing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee
 Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
in death's dread moments make me only thine;
call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.

We are with you in the suffering of this family. May they find consolation. "

Hey. With these kinds of benefits, maybe being an Archiconfradia member isn´t so bad!

Add to this all the prayers, thoughts, energy, and kindness offered near and far, and this dear departed pilgrim can (hopefully) marvel from her present position the decency of the pilgrim family in specific, and humanity in general. Meantime, don´t stop "holding up Antoine to the light." I think he´s going to need a lot of brightness in the coming days.

And pray too for Fred. He´s been through all kinds of hell, and he just keeps rolling along in that time-honored yet deadly American Way.

Oh, and just so you know:  This morning we found a 10-Euro bill in the donativo box. Apparently left by Antoine, even after washing-up the evening´s dishes and sweeping the kitchen, he still left a contribution toward his keep. A pilgrim indeed.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Dark Fiesta

It´s a bittersweet fiesta this year in Moratinos. We celebrated a new Santiago in our church, but the camino brought us brokenness, too.

Fiesta weekend in Moratinos is an anniversary to us. It was at the fiesta of 2006 we first saw the neglected farmhouse that became The Peaceable. Two years later, we opened up our house on fiesta weekend to welcome all the neighbors in to see what we´d done to the place. Last year, Moratinos fiesta was the debut performance of what´s become Camino Guitars, a concert series that´s going on now in three locations on the Camino Frances.

This year´s fiesta Mass was extra happy, because our little Santiago statue took his place up front at the Iglesia de Sto. Tomas. Throughout the week I biked back and forth between the church and Segundino´s carpentry shop, choosing the wood and drawing pictures and demonstrating just where on the church wall we might put the little shelf with the saint on it. Segundino delivered, above and beyond what I could have expected -- a triple-arched pear-wood perch that´s securely bolted onto the wall, with Santi himself safely bolted down, too. Milagros brought in two little vases with carnations, to stand on either side. I put a beeswax candle, (sent from California by Kathy) by his elbow, and he was good to (never) go. Don Gaspar duly sprinkled him during the big Mass. Santi himself looks a little embarrassed at all the fuss.

Milagros says this is the first new saint installed in a good thirty years. He makes her happy, she said, because a new saint means Moratinos is going to survive. You just don´t see new saints in dying towns. 

But while the procession and prayers and music were going on, something else happened nearby.

Out on the N120 two-lane, a French couple from Lyon were zipping down the highway. Inside the backpacks in the trunk were two fresh Compostela certificates, dated Thursday. They´d finished their long pilgrimage, a trip they´d done over several years, one two-week chunk at a time. At dawn they´d held hands in a little church in Finisterre and sang a hymn. They got into their rental car and headed east toward France and home.

Hours later, along the Meseta road between San Nicolas del Real Camino and Moratinos, their car veered off the road and rolled over. The woman died. The man was not hurt.

Fred (aka Federico the Mad Guitarrero), stayed with the man from the moment he came upon the accident scene -- it was Fred who brought the couples´ belongings here, and drove the man along behind the ambulance to the hospital. Fred made sure the man was checked-over by a doctor. Then they went to the Tanatorio, the mortuary, and got Antoine started on the mountain of paperwork and decision-making that awaits him. Then Fred brought him back to Moratinos.

The man, Antoine, is here with us now. He is numb, red-eyed, eating everything we put in front of him. He´s keeping busy, clearing out his backpack and his wife´s, wondering what to do with her shoes, her walking stick, the things she packed herself this morning, but will never touch again. He´s washed the dinner dishes, taken the pills the doctor gave him, scrubbed the black stains off his shirt and shorts. He´s made the telephone calls. He told his five-year-old granddaughter what happened, but she doesn´t understand, he said.
His son will come tomorrow from France.

The neighbors were upset that we didn´t tell them sooner what was going on -- but we didn´t know, not til much later, after the accident when Fred brought Antoine here. Nothing much can be done on the weekend. There was nowhere else for the man to go, at least nowhere a compassionate person would leave him. It´s good he´s been on the Camino, and still has his full pilgrim flexibility. None of us speaks French. He has little English. His Spanish is about as good as ours, so we struggle along.  We try to engage him when he´s open to that. But we know he´s got to be left alone, too.

The neighbors, once they knew, were eager to lend a hand.
Oliva and Justi gave us the church keys so Antoine could go there and pray.
Milagros and José came over to offer whatever help the man might need. Later on, Esteban showed up too. He  offered to drive Antoine to Palencia in the morning. Esteban knows his way around that city, and it´s an offer Antoine may have to accept -- he´s got to be at the Tanatorio at 11:30, and we don´t know which of the several funeral places to go to.
Antoine couldn´t decide yet.

I took Esteban to the gate. "I can´t imagine," he said. "To suffer such a loss, in a land that´s not your country. In another language. The poor man."

Over at the plaza the Mobile Disco tells us "Tonight´s gonna be a good night."
This year we won´t dance. We don´t want to leave Antoine alone.
He´s asleep now. I think he will be alright.
Tomorrow is on its way.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Alone Again, and Sweetly So

Tamara de Campos, one of many places visited last week

Not much posting to be done today. I´m afraid I´m fried.

The past week was a lot of fun, with Miguel Angel around in addition to the usual round of neighbors, pilgrims, and other summer adventures. Kim left us a few days ago, and is off to the east to live her soulful camino. We met Federico and the guitarristas and some Americans for a feast of roast suckling lamb in Villacazar de Sirga. Miguel´s sweetheart Nathalie came on Saturday, and we all went off for a day in the Cantabrian mountains, scoping-out yet another spectacular old pilgrim path -- this one called the Ruta Vadinsiense. Massive mountains, switchback narrow roads, a very near miss on one bend...

Our pilgrims included a Brazilian fashion model, and the return of Frederic, the angelic Popeye lookalike. He is now hard at work over at the Italian albergue, having joined the pack of strong men from Brescia who are bashing up the ground and installing a septic system. Una spends hours there, bullying the men and keeping the worksite free of field mice and stray sandwiches.

One of these days we´ll have an albergue in Moratinos, but it´s a slow business.

Around us the fields are checklists of straw-bales, or great mourning congregations of drying, blackened sunflowers. It´s the in-between time now, after the harvest, before the plowing and seeding, time for welding and repairing the machinery that bought the farmers these quiet days.

Today is extraordinarily quiet, if not silent. No one but us is here at The Peaceable. Miguel and Nathalie left yesterday, and Frederic went this morning to join the Bruno Crew. Not even Kim is about.

It´s been about five months since Patrick and I were alone in our house. It is delicious, I gotta say.

We went to Sahagun this morning. I got a haircut, Paddy bought some more brushes and paints. The Kangoo got a much-needed oil change, and new brake-shoes.(we drove over that mountain and back with very bad brakes, I am told. I think brakes are a good idea.) They washed the car, too. I didn´t recognize it at first, until I saw the dog-nose smears on the inside of the window glass.

We sat at a terrace table outside Cafe La Rueda and drank Tonicas. The Plaza Mayor is heaving these days, full of leaping children, staggering pilgrims, fashionable folk from Burgos and Madrid and Bilbao come back in their summer frocks to visit the abuelos on the family farm. All the little pueblos are in full fiesta-mode, including ours: this weekend it is. We have a guitarist coming to play the Mass on Saturday... more company in the house. We´ll roast a leg of lamb and dance the neighbors ´round the plaza, under the leafy trees we trimmed together back in March.

Til then we are keeping to ourselves. I am sleeping deep sleeps. Paddy is out in the patio under the flyscreen, listening to radio broadcasts from the York horseracing meeting in England, playing great big Tchaikovsky on the stereo so we won´t hear anyone at the door.

Which is closed, for now.
We are tired right down to our bones.

Next camino starts up there someplace!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Old, older, and downright primitive

Me and my friend Miguel Angel went this weekend to Salamanca, I city I love and he had never seen. I love showing people I like around cities I love. The new person sees things I overlook. They marvel the same way I did not so long ago, at the food and buildings and sunlight and people. They just generally remind me of how cool it is to have places so marvellous in such easy reach.

Salamanca was its usual beautiful self. We hiked around the city´s Siamese-twin cathedrals: a smaller, medieval cathedral built in the 1100´s stands right up against what was supposed to be its replacement: a towering limestone Gothic pile from the glory days of the 1500´s. It took forever to finish the new place, and people just didn´t have the heart to tear down the old one, so they just knocked out some of the walls in between and kept them both. The "new" one is still used for worship. Both are popular for "showcase weddings" on weekends, and we witnessed at least five nuptials going on while we nosed around at the thousand-year-old murals and tombs of knights and abbesses. (One of the wedding couples chose a priest rather fond of the old fire-and-brimstone. His high-decibel exhortations followed us down the medieval cloister-walk and into chapels where  Comunards boiled up revolutions, centuries of university students defended their doctoral theses, (Salamanca is home to the second-oldest university in the world!), and Mass is still said a few times each year in the ancient and outlawed Mozarabic Rite.

The place is a huge museum of bygone glories. It is beautiful and full of people, but they weren´t there to worship God. They, like us, were tourists, having a look at the wonders wrought by mankind during the spectacular years of Spain´s greatest power. And there´s nothing wrong with that. (Just don´t go there if you want to meditate or pray. People who attempt such anachronistic behavior will be photographed without mercy by the tourist throng.)

We left the city at mid-morning and headed north to Zamora, a sort of miniature Salamanca on the Duero River. We didn´t go to see the town (even though it´s another big favorite of mine), but to visit San Pedro de la Nave, a "pre-Romanesque" church 10 km. out among the sagebrush badlands west of town.

The building is made of all kinds of rocks and stones stacked together into a small church of simple elegance. Windows are tiny slits. Outside, the stone walls are carved with dozens of crosses -- the graffitti of illiterate monastic vandals, probably carved there long before anyone thought to build a church or start teaching classes down in Salamanca. Decorations are simple stone carvings of grapes and wheels and faces. This church was built by Visigoths, a tribe of early Christians who took over Spain after the Romans pooped-out, and took up where the Romans left off when it came to winemaking and grape-growing. The grapes worked their way into the sculptors´ repertoire -- bunches of grapes, leaves and vines are standbys of Visigothic church art.  Spain was full of vineyards until the Moors invaded and overran most of the peninsula -- and the Arabs don´t drink alcohol. The vineyards vanished... almost. And so did grapevine carvings.

San Pedro de la Nave was built in the 7th century. It´s stood for 1,300 years. It, too, is a tourist attraction, but no one but hard-core architecture nerds like us makes the trip. The people of tiny El Campillo, still use the place for their parish worship. It gives me the wim-wams, being in a place so old.

But something older still stands in an empty lot adjacent to the church. A skinny tree trunk, four-stories tall, is erected there. All the branches are stripped off but a few at the very top. And up there among the bare limbs hangs a dummy, a crude human figure.  I thought I recognized what it was, from some long-ago sociology class. I asked Javi, the young man who showed us the church.

"That? Oh, that´s a custom of the pueblos around here. On May 1 there´s a fiesta, and we burn down the old tree. We set up a new one, put a new dummy in it, leave it up there til the next May." He was very matter-of-fact about it. He didn´t offer any further enlightenment.

Unless I am mistaken, the people of rural Zamora are celebrating a primitive holdover of a pre-historic "burning man" ritual, just as the crops are taking hold out in the fields each spring. It dates back to tree-worshiping Celts and Druids, who sacrificed actual people to ensure fertility in their crops and barns and homes. When that proved messy or wasteful or distasteful, substitution was made.  

It´s not hard to see how early Christians made the jump from sacrifices in the trees to a man nailed to a cross. More substitution. But to see the old, old San Pedro church there, alongside a ritual that reaches even more deep into the past... well. It took my breath away. So much history, ritual, culture, symbolism, and artwork, hundreds and hundreds of years´ worth, in one day´s drive.

Back into the car. We headed out on the two-lanes through Zamora, then Valladolid, then Palencia province, through dusty backwaters, past ruined castles and adobe ghost towns. We stopped in a place called Castroverde de los Campos, and had two rounds of small beer. Miguel Angel picked up the tab: three Euros. Miguel Angel lives in Paris, where he´s used to paying three times that price for the same stuff. He thought there was a mistake. Then he thought he´d died and gone to heaven.

So here I am, so heavenly minded I am no earthly good... Excitement round here is provided yet again by Murphy Cat, who ate some rat poison, fought for his life overnight, and is now clawing his way slowly back from the brink.  We also are undergoing repeat visits from Jackie, an enormous Leonnese Mastiff dog who lives at the pilgrim hostel in Terradillos and walks with the pilgs to Moratinos... and then hangs out here for hours before his people come to collect him. We call him Hoss. He´s a whole lotta dawg.

And if I may once more venture into church territory, I hope all you readers who donated to the Peaceable in the past few months will look at the picture here. The little image is made of pear-wood. It´s Santiago Peregrino, carved about a century ago by a Compostela pilgrim from southern France or northern Spain. It´s primitive, but I love it. We bought it from an Irish antiques dealer a month ago, to install in the parish church of Moratinos. Our church stands dead on the Camino de Santiago and hosts pilgrims every day, but has no Santiago figure in its collection! Your donations, combined with a few other donativos, helped to bring this little man to our church. Hopefully we´ll have him safely installed in time for the Moratinos fiesta in a couple of weeks.

Thank you, generous readers.