I have been struggling. Not just with the blisters and the heat, both of which have been a daily nuisance, but I have been struggling with what to write first. After just ten days of walking I already have a million stories to tell and while starting to write one about weeping through a pilgrim’s blessing in the crypt of the Canterbury Cathedral I would get caught up in another about spending the night at the Abbey of Notre-Dame. While that story was still in its infancy, a third crept in about St. Benoît and how I spent the afternoon arranging the flowers at the altar of his church in his hometown of Amettes.
In addition to my indecision, I was suspicious of everything going just a little bit too perfectly and I was afraid of jinxing myself. I needed something to go wrong so I could finally be free to write. Luckily for me and for all of you, there was Sunday.
The day started out as flawlessly as all the others. I had breakfast at a small chicken farm where I had spent the night in a room with French doors that opened up into a garden of peonies and lavender. Colette, my host gave me a card with the prayer of St. Benoît after I told her how touched I had been by his story as an outcast who desperately wanted to be a part of the Church but was repeatedly refused entry, once because of his rusty Latin. As I fastened the straps of my sack, Colette brushed off a scalloped shell, a symbol of pilgrimage, and told me to attach it to my bag “so everyone knows you’re a pilgrim.” An hour later I was walking through fields of young, green wheat, where hares and butterflies went about their morning rituals and horses followed me along the edge of their pen until I stopped to stroke their long, warm noses. Walt Disney’s hand could not have embellished the scene any better.
Ten hours later, after losing my way and my hat on a windless and cloudless day, I looked like a drunk, sunburned toddler as I stumbled towards Camblain l’ Abbé along the side of a tarmac road. Here is something I bet you didn’t know—after you’ve been walking on pavement for a day, stepping into cow dung feels luxurious and you will look for an opportunity to repeat the experience.
When I finally made it to the village, I found myself at the doorstep of a fantastic start to a horror movie. Imagine the heroine of our film limping her way towards an empty Catholic school for boys where she had been told she could spend the night. Finding the door open, she enters. Everywhere there are life-size statues of Jesus and saints whose eyes she can feel following her as she makes her way from one hall to another, passing dark classrooms, including a science laboratory that may also function as a torture chamber later in the film. There is not a soul in sight as she weaves in and out of unlocked doorways, until finally she finds herself back at the entrance. Dropping her heavy rucksack, she decides to try her luck outside and just as she exits, a dark-haired priest in his long black robes appears seemingly out of nowhere. “Oh! Father, I have been looking for you,” she says relieved. “I have been following you the whole time, ” he replies. Or maybe he says, “I’ve been trying to catch up with you” or “ I’ve been behind you.” I’m not exactly sure because our heroine’s French, like St. Benoît’s Latin is a little bit rusty. If I haven’t made it clear yet, I am the heroine and I promise you that I am not making any of this up.
I was shown to my room and once I saw cabinets marked “pharmacie,” and the illustrations of broken bones and sprained muscles, I realized that I was going to spend the night in the school infirmary. “Make yourself at home, dinner is in half an hour,” said my priest and left me to my creepy abode.
Now alone, I crawled to the shower, which was just about the right size for a malnourished, young boy. I had many thoughts while I scrubbed a day’s worth of sweat and sadness off of my body. I wondered which side the priest would choose in the battle that would play out in the halls of the school that night and decided that he would fight the good fight with me. I also thought about what to wear to dinner. While I could not match the formality of the priest’s robes, I could match their color scheme and used the last of my energy to pull on a pair of black sweatpants and a white t-shirt.
And then I realized that I forgot to put on underpants. I collapsed on one of the two metal-framed beds and began searching for excuses to go commando. I know it doesn’t seem like much of a task, but in that moment asking me to take off and put on a pair of pants may as well have been asking me to dismantle and then rebuild a brick house. If you don’t believe me, may I suggest you take a break from reading, strap thirty pounds to your back and go walking in the sun for ten hours. I’ll wait.
Is it ever okay to show up to dinner with a priest sans underwear? Is it better or worse to do so while on a spiritual pilgrimage? Will this anger the creepy statues and set them off on a killing spree? If no one were the wiser what would be the harm? Before I made the final decision to throw myself into eternal damnation, the priest appeared at my door holding a tray with a plate of fried chicken and macaroni for one. I cannot begin to express how stupid and relieved I felt as he placed the tray on a rollaway hospital table and disappeared again.
What remained of the evening I spent in my bed listening to the priest whistle as he patrolled the halls. My feet ached down to the bone and I really wished the “pharmacie” cabinets had not been locked. But even as I lay there incapacitated, barely able to sleep as my imagination ran wild with thoughts of my demise, I was already writing this story. Even though I was exhausted and in pain, a part of me had lit up with inspiration and in the morning, having survived the night unscathed I pulled out my laptop.
As much as I cherish the manicured, jasmine-scented moments of this pilgrimage, I also love the parts of it that are messy, like last Sunday. Wayne Dyer once said that we are like oranges, when we are squeezed what comes out is what’s inside of us. Sunday wrung me out like an old dishcloth and I’ll be honest, what came out first was a trickle of expletives in three languages, but what came next was inspiration, humor and a need to create something. Imperfect, uncomfortable and even painful travel experiences give us the opportunity to redeem ourselves that we just don’t get with the Disney version. And given that I was prepared to forego my skivvies during dinner with a priest, I could use all the redemption I can get.