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 ...

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