Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Camino Twenty-Two – O Holy Grail – and Weston-super-Mare!

I recover my equanimity and walk back to my room.  I meet one of the Americans on the way and mention St Francis and the cabinet holding the Grail.  He is surprised that I hadn’t known: there is a huge monolith at the entrance to the village, he tells me, with a bronze of the Grail story.  
I hurry back to see what I have missed.  Sure enough there it is – a bronze map of England and Spain, and a trail marked of the Holy Grail and its journey with Parsifal to O Cebreiro from – Western-super-Mare!  Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story on this map for the world to see, bypasses Glastonbury altogether.   
Well! Well!  is all I can manage as my loyalties are seriously miffed.  Even more disagreeable is that this bronze map of Britain in front of me, one of Boadicea’s daughters no less, doesn’t mention Glastonbury at all!  My ire grows apace!  Weston-super-Mare!  That mud bound plot – huh!  No way Weston-super-Mud will ever be named “this holiest Erthe”, as Glastonbury is. 
This is borderline blasphemy and I need another hot chocolate.  I am steeped in these legends, yet I am aware that in no Glastonbury church are these images given concrete form.
Joseph of Arimathea appears in the tapestry behind the altar of St Mary, Our Lady of Glastonbury; the window of St Joseph of Arimathea in St John’s is Victorian; Langport has a mediaeval window, but neither Grail nor cruets have ever been found...  Did Herr W. von E. know something about Weston-super-Mare that no one else does?  Or did the sculptor of the bronze map just fancy the triple barrel name?  I ask you, the Holy Grail in Weston-super-Mare!  Huge billowing laughter rises in me as I stand in front of this grand non-sequitur and I stroll across to the knoll, laughing to myself, to wonder at the foolishness of humankind, and myself in particularly, for our, my, fierce attachments to our, my, little conceits and vanities.  
 The wildflowers have more honesty.
Later I go to the pilgrim Mass in the church.  A woman in her forties or so stands next to me.  She shuffles uncomfortably and I glance down.  I am appalled at the sight of both her feet which have horrific blisters, are bandaged with transparent elastic weave over the whole foot pulled over massive pads and gauze bandages all over her heels, toes, balls of her feet. Her pain reaches me.  Feeling helpless I send a prayer to Santa Maria a Real up there on the wall to help heal them. 
The priest invites people of different languages to read the Reading.  After my earlier epiphany bathos follows.  The reading in English is offered by an older American woman with a voice that would grate cheese.  Actually it would grate the Cheesewring down on Bodmin Moor.  She hasn’t the grace to genuflect before stomping up to the lectern either, a sure test for my tired tolerance levels in spite of my restorative laughter of less than an hour before.  Her voice is painful to listen to, she relishes her moment with the microphone; her excruciating mispronunciation renders the already ghastly reading of the day incomprehensible, which is probably just as well, it’s the Ahab Jezebel scenario.
I happen to have great sympathy for Jezebel.  She was related to Dido, the tragic Queen of Carthage whom Aeneas used, abused and betrayed, and so the world lost Carthage. Her Lament from Handel’s Xerxes is quite the most haunting aria I know.  Jezebel worshipped Astarte, Ishtar, the Mother Goddess, which is right and proper for a woman to do.  The Jews of the day didn’t like that.  Jezebel was thrown out of a window by the worthies to be eaten by a pack of dogs; thrown to the dogs.  Our Jezebel was also a Daughter of Zion, an inconvenient truth when it came to getting rid of her.  The Hebrews, on the other hand, worshipped female deities, SHE, who was to be later eradicated under the extreme pressure of the male Jewish priesthood. Reflecting on this I forgave the cheese grater for not being able to pronounce what she read, she probably couldn’t believe what she was reading!
I squirm.  I’ve never fathomed why we insist on perpetuating the Old Testament when its blatant mal-treatment of women and nature runs counter to the new leaf Jesus was said to have turned.  The OT has long been on my list of books to-be-sidelined as antithetical to women. 
The priest was lovely.  He asked St Francis and St Clare and St James to protect and guide all peregrinos safely to Santiago de Compostela. 
And so to bed.  I fold up one of the seven quilts lengthwise to lay put on the glacial tile floor of my iceberg so I can step warmly all the way to the loo.  I eat cake in bed, and spend ages writing. 
18th June - to Triacastela 
Fab night’s sleep in the iceberg.  Today I will walk to Triacastela, according to my Michelin deserving a red walker sign for a difficult descent; 660 metres and steep.  I will take care and put fleece in the toes of my socks to cushion my toes against hitting the crown of my boots on the descent.  
Paulo Coelho took a taxi from O Cebreiro to Santiago de Compostela, a whole 150 kilometres.  He obviously didn’t collect a Compostela.  In fact I’m not even sure Shirley MacLaine did, she doesn’t mention it either.  I’ll give it mention for sure, I will have earned it. 
O Cebreiro is my epiphany.  I leave as the sun is rising; know my own Camino will be different from now on.  I will continue to walk every step but there, on the mountain, after that breathtakingly lovely walk and a whole day of Memorable Moments I feel I have penetrated a ring-pass-not. 
All pilgrims walk in silence as the hills and wind and forests seem to demand.  The fleece in my boots cushions my toes; bluebells, significant of these cooler heights, line the banks. 
Alto de San Roque has a marvellous windblown pilgrim statue, many times life-size, on the crest of the climb; as his hand clutches his hat the wind is frozen forever in bronze. Coming into Hospital de la Condesa a young Italian passes me, stops: I take a photo of you he says and I ask: why?  He indicates with his hands my polka dot ribbons, the rose in my scarf, my billowing skirt, the beribboned walking cane: so spirituelle, he smiles.  I giggle.  Only 144 kms to Santiago. 
A slow-worm too slow to escape some deliberately cruel boot lies bleeding and only half crushed in the centre of the path, the centre where no one walks.  I am saddened by such gratuitous mutilation.  Would it make it less bewildering if I thought whoever left it to die so slowly mistook it for a snake?  No.  Nothing deserves such cruelty.  It is a protected species in England but I am helpless to protect this one. 
Mount Poio at 1340 metres nearly does for me on the last sheer rocky and shale-slippery moment.  Another young Italian reaches for my hand and steadies me, helps me on up. 
I don’t stop at the café, too many pilgrims, but walk on past Fonfria and Biduedo to Filoval.  Huge rock crystals are everywhere, some even placed as park benches.  I stop at a new albergue and café in the last magical hamlet.  Had I foreseen Drearcastila would be just that, drear, I would have set my mochila down in Filoval for the night.  The food is so good, so plentiful and so tasty; gazpacho, the freshest bread and an arroz con leche.  All made in the kitchen and eaten outside on a hilltop garden levelled out of the steep incline, spectacular views down to the valley and Triacastila. 
Drearcastila – I walk the whole of the small town in search of an improvement on the dorm in albergue del Oribio with its washing lines on the busy street and chairs on the busy street but other pilgrims had walked faster than I and all rooms and dorms had been snaffled.  I return with foreboding to my top bunk by the window of a dorm of sixteen and lay out my sleeping bag, have a hot shower, dress in the same skirt and check out the church which I see from my window. 
and the tale continues ...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Camino Twenty-One – O Epiphany! O Holy Grail!


I wander over to the little 8th century church with the intention of saying thank you to the memory of Don Elías Valiña Sampedro the rather saintly priest who painted yellow arrows along the entire Camino from Roncesvalles to Finisterre.  And then re-painted them when they needed it.  He may have invented the yellow cockleshell milestones too – but whatever he did I am fiercely grateful he did it.
I walk in to the church directly to the left chapel where his grave is.  Thank you’s said, I glance up to see a statue of St Benedict.  Father Bede made me an Oblate of St Benedict years ago in Shantivanam; St Benedict and St Francis appeal to me for being just laymen seeking holiness.  Not piety, which is pretentious, but holiness, wholeness, an integrity of living. 

I smile, and wander over to the other side chapel where, on the wall, is a splendid 11th century Virgin in Majesty.   There she sits, on her Throne of Wisdom, le Trône de la Sagesse, just as she should.  

Seeing her catapults my thoughts back to my research throughout France in the late nineties tracking down these wonderful images in response to Father Bede’s request that I do so, for him and for women.  I count my blessings: two great mystics have each taken me under their wings before I had wings of my own with which to fly:  Father Bede, Mrs Tweedie ... remembering what she told me of the timeless links in the Chain of Succession brings a prickle of tears to my eyes as I stand there.  The church seems incredibly warm suddenly, as if I am cocooned in a warmth not quite actual.

I look to my left.  There are people sitting and praying or simply gazing at an alcove in which is a glass cabinet displaying a patten, a chalice and two cruets.  I blink and go closer.  I can’t read Spanish but I do know the meaning of San Graal – a grail, “wondrous but not explicitly holy” and connected to the Arthurian legends but even more essentially to Joseph of Arimathea.  

What’s he doing here? I think, surprised.  The Glastonbury legend tells us Joseph of Arimathea came there after the Crucifixion, carrying two cruets which contained the blood and sweat of Christ ...  Goosebumps add to the prickling sensation I am experiencing, and with it a sense of dislocation. 

These things – St Benedict, Mary in Majesty, two cruets and a chalice said to be the Holy Grail – are powerful mnemonics of remembrance Past, almost Far Memory stuff.  All in one tiny church. 

I decide to leave, to ground myself with a hot chocolate after such an exertion of climbing.  I don’t reach the door.  On my right is a small side chapel and ever curious I go in – and I am undone.  In this empty, holy, place is a copy of the Cross of San Damiano, the Cross ever linked to St Francis.  Unbidden, tears flow down my face, I cry, these stones ... this remembrance ... I am overwhelmed by a flood of images that takes me back to last Christmas when I went for the first time to Assisi...  

Assisi - Christmas 2013: on my second day there the fog came down so thickly no one but me ventured out. I was alone.  The fog was so thick I struggled to see my hand at the end of my arm.  Santa Chiara, a vast, vast Cathedral, was completely invisible as I stood in the piazza by the fountain in front of it.  The fog was a white and silent duvet over the whole of Assisi but I couldn’t bear to waste time by staying in my room.  I ended up walking, climbing, a long winding road right out of the fog to the Eremi, the Hermitage.  It was a blessed choice.  A hoopoe flew overhead as I walked.   Farmlets were named Upupe, the Italian name for this pretty bird whose presence on other pilgrimages of mine highlit, for me, significant rites of passage.  A decade beforehand I had painted an icon of St Francis with a hoopoe – how could I have known then of its place in his forest?

Up at the Hermitage I was above the fogline; looking down I could see only a dense white blanket without even a church spire to suggest Assisi might still be there.  More than foolish, I took a path down through the forest from the Hermitage, my rationale being that it would be shorter than the long winding road; and in equal measure, it would have been the path St Francis walked. The fog had time-travelled me back 800 years...  Footfall by silent footfall I inched down through the forest in the fog guided only by keening my ears to the quarter-hourly sound of church bells far below me. 

The day before the fog came down, in the Cathedral of Santa Chiara, I found the Cross of San Damiano.  It is fundamental to the whole exegesis of the man who wrote the Canticle to Creation; surely the first Code for the care of animals and the whole earth.  The point of my divertissement here is that I went down to the museum in the crypt of the Cathedral and I was floored at the sight of the gown St Clare had made for herself when she left all to follow Francis, who wasn’t yet a saint.  It was mine.

I kid you not; I was even wearing something almost identical at that very moment.  I have always worn loose layers, tunics, over-garments, and this, this epiphany in front of me, was the prototype.  Now, I am no reincarnation of St Clare (or Cleopatra, or Mary Magdalene, she who walks the High Street of Glastonbury in clones, or Morgan le Fée  another commonplace clone in Glastonbury), but I swear to you that garment was mine.  

The stone steps to the crypt held my boots fast as I gazed at this mediaeval marvel in its glass cabinet.  It was a Goosebump Moment.  The garments of St Francis were there too, St Clare had made them all.  Slightly dazed, I left the Cathedral and walked down to San Damiano.  A sizzling sensation through the soles of my feet left me in no doubt I was walking in the footsteps of St Francis. It was only a slight suspension of thought to claim my place in the twelfth century.  San Damiano was a different epiphany moment, in this garden St Francis had written his Canticle praising Brother Sun and Sister Moon ... 

More was to come.  I continued to explore this tiny church where St Clare lived for over forty years, fell in love with the fresco of the Madonna above the altar, and was led up very worn stone stairs to come face to face with bronze statue of St Francis and – a Hare.  Oh my! 

A hare, another flood of memories ... the symbols of my own life were coming so thick and fast my brain couldn't travel that way, couldn't keep time.  

2012 was my annus horribilis.  I doubted I would survive it but I did, and its final transition and return to normality was dramatic.  One morning, after almost a whole year in a kind of stasis as the litany of events unfolded, I woke up completely free of their effect after two significant dreams, neither of which were relevant to what came next.  I was compelled to paint a hare

 I did.  The painting took me seven days and my revelation of the hare as a once sacred creature then took me to north Wales to the shrine of the Hare and of St Melangell, the 6th century princess turned holy woman for whom the Prince of Powys ceased hunting hares. 

 After my painting of the hare came a painting of a hoopoe.  I have never painted animals; I have barely ever painted anything.  

 They came, perfect and exquisite, a kind of blessing from the inner world where symbols sacred to our individual psyche abide.  In front of that bronze statue I knew I was in the presence of a mystery, it spoke through me, and it would continue to guide me. 

... and I haven’t even mentioned the synchronicity of my ‘chance’ meeting with a stranger named Mary in the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane – where I was metaphorically burying my daughter in October 2013 – who told me over coffee at a shared table in the Gallery café of a book she was reading on the life of St Francis which title lit up a flame of longing that I must go to Assisi ... 

Now, six months later, I am standing in an 8th century church in Galicia where St Francis has lived.

The girl at the reception desk of the church comes to me, sees how moved I am.  Did you not know this of St Francis? she asks, that he walked here, walked the Camino?  The Benedictine fathers who built this church gave it to him... For this year you can have two Compostelas, one to commemorate 800 years of St Francis.  We have even this credential ...


As I ponder all this the dear girl stamps my new credential of St Francis and St James, Santiago.  We are both teary.  We hug, bound by a common understanding of the magnitude of synchronicities and I go to sit and contemplate all these not-so coincidences over a cup of very hot chocolate.  There is yet one more surprise before my day ends.

To be continued ...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Camino Twenty – O Cebriero! O Epiphany!

The path was comfortable for some while; crumbly asphalt wound through tiny hamlets, a number of which offered horse riding as an alternative to walking the mountain to O Cebreiro.  I thought it a wondrous idea, but the notices proved carrots, always leading on to the next notice and promise and then the next – until I suspect one’s belief in their actually being any horses to ride ends up making one feel a complete ass! 

After Las Herrerias the path took on a different character altogether.  Now I was struggling with the ascent and the rocks and the slippery boulders as a whole lot of pilgrims attempted to jostle past me on the narrow defile. 
 There was a considerable drop on my right, over which I did not want to hurtle, and I held my place along the ascent with difficulty as faster pilgrims assumed a sense of entitlement.  I waited, immovable, while they changed to Indian file and passed me.  This same sense of entitlement astonishes me on high-hedged English country lanes too when cyclists blithely ride two or three abreast with no thought under their silly helmets of the possibility of sharing the narrow lanes.   There’d be a few less swipes in their direction from irritated motorists banked up behind them in second gear if they went single file.  I couldn’t safely go any faster, stood my ground, and bore the frowns.  Going single file through the defile interrupted their conversations!
At last the remaining morning rush of pilgrims from Vega and Ruitelán disappeared ahead of me and I could continue at my own pace, plodding along, stopping for breath every few minutes.  It was fairly dense but open-leaved forest here, no views but the rocks underfoot.  On and on I went climbing and climbing, only looking back down when I paused, not up or forward.  It was more than an effort and time seemed very slow in responding to my getting anywhere at all.   In due time I came out of deep forest and could see a couple of farm buildings with an arrow pointing straight and an arrow pointing right and saying Albergue de La Faba.  I went right, anything to break the intensity of the climb.
I am so glad I did.  I came to an eleventh century church and an albergue of exquisiteness and there in the courtyard stands that most famous of all famous pilgrim statues.  It was an enchanted space.  Pilgrims had already left and the hospitalero spent a few minutes talking to me of the history of the albergue of la Faba.  Try as I might I cannot recall the name of the princess who commissioned the statue – Fürstenberg? Württemburg? – my memory has hitched itself to a passing cloud.
The pause refreshes me; I look at my guide profile, pretty impressive I reckon.  Another 300 vertical metres to La Laguna ... But now the scenery changes dramatically, I am on top of the mountains and the views unfold as I walk.  I see huge quartz crystals on farm gateposts, on roofs of houses, on old cattle sheds, purposefully placed.  A young man came out from an impressive house just as I am contemplating his climbing roses and believing the sign that comforts me with O Cebreiro 4 kms and I ask him why the crystals? 
I am not at all surprised when he says, surprised that I would need to ask such an obvious question: they bring down the light, conduct energies.  Earth wisdom here is not confined to esoteric books in the High Street, it is a genetic inheritance.  El Acebo and La Faba are quite my favourite secrets.
The road to O Cebreiro seems easy now; the quartz underfoot really does impart a charge.  I remember the first time I set foot on Magnetic Island I was dizzy for two whole days.  Quite discombobulated, I couldn’t shake the feeling off but on the third day it disappeared, my head cleared, and I’ve never felt it on there since.   The instruments of Captain Cook’s ship went haywire when he came close to the island, hence his naming it Magnetic.  The island is granite, and granite is a natural source of radiation; the granite on Maggie Island has huge amounts of quartz and walking on the island gives the same feeling of ‘bounce’. 
I am frequently amazed at how similar parts of the Spain I have walked through are to parts of the Australia I love.  Now I leave the village of La Faba the hills roll away from the eye, range on range, silhouettes of lilac, mauve, smoke, reminiscent of the valleys of Numinbah, Beechmont, Lamington, Binna Burra, Springbrook, beloved mountains, perhaps not so high, of the Great Dividing Range of southern Queensland.  I dawdle, entranced, all feeling of effort suspended.
I once had a dentist in Exmouth who disappeared for three weeks every year to walk.  One day I asked him where he went.  At that time walk for me was a four letter word; it was curiosity that prompted the question. You won’t know it, he said, it’s the most beautiful place in the world and it’s in Australia.  Try me, I replied and he said: Springbrook.  I laughed and said, you’re right, and I’ve a block of land up there near Purlingbrook Falls!  My book, Patrick and the Cat Who Saw beyond Time, is set right there on that magical plateau of mists and waterfalls, lookouts and spectacular bird life.
My reveries have brought me to La Laguna, the road is easy, winding up and up and beautiful beyond words.  Close to what I think must the top, well past La Laguna, I turn to grasp the magnitude of the 360 degree view and see just behind me the two Japanese legends I have kept on hearing other pilgrims speak of.  They are seventy-nine and eighty-one, or is it eighty-nine and ninety-one? At their great age it’s academic.  They seem tiny, slender, fragile figures as they hug the edge of the path coming to one of the crests. Beyond them I count seven mountain ranges, silhouettes fading to azure smoke in the skyline. 
The scene is almost unearthly in its beauty and burns itself into my heart.  The Japanese couple are doing the whole Camino.  Precious, I think and offer to take a photo of the pair of them with their camera.  They are delighted.  Not a word is recognised between us.  
Then – Galicia!  I have reached the painted monolith that marks the boundary between Castilla y León and Galicia!  I have come to the last of the provinces of the whole of northern Spain.  It is Galicia all the way now.  I am almost sad, I love this adventure in spite of being exhausted and in pain one way or another over much of my poor old bod much of the time!  But, no blisters!  And I have seen some horrific feet along the Way; many pilgrims are forced to drop out. As I stand at the milestone a young Italian offers to take my photo, and takes a couple of others for good measure with the views all around.  Who would believe me without these photos ... I can barely believe it myself.  And I remember Wolfgang of La Faba telling me Didier made it up in his wheelchair, he took the road, not the path of course, and Wolfgang drove him on to O Cebreiro.  How privileged I am to be able to walk these mountains ...  
 And I enter the village of O Cebreiro.  I am charmed by the thatched roofs and round buildings, I imagine winter to be serious here at such heights.  
Chris is here, he suggests we have a coffee while he waits for his fellow walker and fellow driver.  We learn a little of each other’s lives, he loves cats and I am guided by a Ralph Cupboard sleeping on the window sill of a private house to seek for a room.  If I don’t find one, says Chris, as all appear full and I won’t stay in the albergue-of-snores in such a divine place, I can sleep in their car. 
The lady with the last private room in the village apologizes that it is pequeño frio, and by golly it is!  But it is ensuite, the bedding would satisfy the princess and the pea it is so thick, the wardrobe is stacked with even more quilts should I need them, the window is too high to look out of and I think that may be a pair of knees walking past.  No wonder the room is so cold, it is probably the wine cellar!  For my purpose it is perfect, and Ralph Cupboard leans against the external window alcove warming himself.  Cats along the Camino are not well treated as a rule, I’ve seen some sad ones along the way, and I stopped a man throwing a stone at a very pregnant and hungry mother cat way back, so to know my hostess has three happy ginger cats is a comfort.  An atmosphere charged with cruelty is a hard thing to abide in. 
 The huge key to my room is kept behind a baroque French enamel and ormolu clock in a niche in the salon wall.
Lunch is a succulent stew, meat, falling of the ribs of a rib cage so generous I wonder if they’ve unearthed an Auroch or two.  I wash it down with a small bottle of dry local cider which is crisp, thirst-quenching and delicious. A quaint tin cut out pilgrim sits by the wall of the hostel whose food is, I learn, legendary.
Full and happy and so proud of myself for climbing O Cebreiro, which doesn’t seem difficult at all now I am here in heaven, I go over to the eighth century church to say thank you – and I am undone ... but the Epiphany and the Holy Grail must wait to be told, for even Ezekiel’s response to his bizarre experience was to sit dumbfounded for seven days; a stretch of time proper for digesting a divine vision.

 To be continued ...