This is the fourth in “Postcards from the Camino” by Gareth Thomas, a series of reflections on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
Ligugé Abbey is a day’s walk south from the French city of Poitiers. It was founded in the fourth century by Saint Martin who was then reluctant to leave his life of prayer, but under obedience he was made Bishop of Tours. Together with his famed charity and pacifism, his example of obedience to Church authority provides a model which can inspire the Catholic faithful today.
To frame this Postcard and contrast Martin’s obedience with individualism and dissent, I quote from a passage that Pope Francis uses to describe the latter kind of separation. I came across this passage in the Holy Father’s recent book, Let Us Dream, concerning the “isolated conscience.” It resonated with me, since it helps to explain how the faithful fall into dissenting groups. The contrast of obedience and the isolated conscience seemed to invite a parable in Ligugé Abbey.
Halfway from Poitiers to Ligugé, I passed through the town of Saint Benoit and followed the pilgrimage signposts through river meadows. I was dismayed to find the pilgrims’ bridge over the river Vienne was closed for repairs. There had been no sign in the town to warn walkers before they made their way to the bridge. No alternative route was posted, so I stood there looking at the fenced-off bridge and I put away my prayer rope, with which I had been reciting the Jesus Prayer. My inner pilgrim’s peace was lost.
It was outrageous! Road closures affecting motor traffic always have diversion signs, so people can continue to their destination. Does nobody care about walkers and pilgrims? Resentment quickly led to blame. Various authorities were responsible for my predicament: the town council of Saint Benoit had not put up a sign; the regional river board had put up a sign, but they had allowed the bridge to fall into disrepair in the first place; and the pilgrim association had failed to indicate a temporary diversion! All these authorities had betrayed my trust. Now, to make matters worse, it began to rain. This was doubly annoying because there was no authority to blame for it. I had forgotten to pray to Saint Médard the patron of fine weather, but he should have known I needed fine weather anyway.
Convinced that my day’s walk had been ruined by incompetent authorities, I persuaded myself that an unauthorized alternative river crossing was justified. Individuals who ‘think outside the box’ are greatly admired in our independent times. Nearby, there was a railway bridge. It was not a solution for the faint-hearted nor self-righteous people who always obey rules, but I had been failed by various authorities and it was raining. Within a matter of minutes the disgruntled pilgrim had walked off the path of the saints and strayed into the logic of the isolated conscience.
Here, just south of St Benoit, a high-speed railway spans the river Vienne. A walkway runs parallel to the tracks across the steel bridge. Track workers can access it by a gate on the railway embankment above the river meadows. The padlock and chain on the gate had been left undone and there was no sign to tell the public they are not allowed to enter. Obviously, it was not a place the public was meant to be: all commonsense dictated that! But there was nothing in writing. This was more than ‘thinking outside the box’: I had slipped into the realm of serious disobedience, prompted by resentful thoughts and a conscience happily self-isolated in order to seek the quickest way to the goal.
A northbound train went swishing past at 190 miles-per-hour; then a few minutes later a southbound train. I timed the next two trains and calculated that I would have a ten-minute interval to make a dash across the walkway on the bridge. I waited for two more trains, checked my timing, and evaluated my decision. The action was entirely reasonable and completely the fault of the authorities who had failed me: their sins were the cause of my rebellion.
I went through the open gate and onto the steel maintenance walkway and I ran with my pilgrim staff and rucksack, rosary beads rattling against my Santiago scallop-shell. I scarcely dared look down through the wide gaps in the metal structure, at the rocks and flowing water of the river far below. Out of breath, I reached the other end of the bridge and climbed over a locked gate on the edge of a forest. There was a white sign with red stenciled lettering. It was exactly the public prohibition you might expect:
“DANGER: TGV trains à grande vitesse. Électricité haute tension. Entrée strictement interdite.”
Within seconds, the next northbound high-speed train went flying through the railway cutting and onto the bridge. If I had been two minutes late crossing, the driver would have seen me and radioed a local control center. A search patrol would have been sent. I left the scene of the crime and found the continuing pilgrim path quite easily. I was relieved but not pleased with myself. I am a Catholic, so I felt guilty.
Guilt is an odd thing. For several years I self-identified as a ‘traditionalist’ and this meant joining with other dissident Catholics online and declaring Pope Francis to be flawed, ‘heterodox’ and motivated by a liberal agenda. I am not sure how that came about. I converted from the Anglican church three decades ago, realizing that I could not be a Franciscan without obedience to the pope, because that was the first rule Saint Francis taught his brothers. Yet, when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took the name of my favorite saint and became Pope Francis, I sided with those who rejected him. Thus, I ignored the first Franciscan precept and put aside Catholic obedience to the Bishop of Rome. What is remarkable is that I did not feel any of the guilt that I felt after trespassing on a railway bridge!
“A charitable openness to the other is replaced by a clinging to the supposed superiority of one’s own ideas. Unity is undermined by a battle between different parties who struggle to impose the hegemony of their ideas. Under the banner of restoration or reform, people give long speeches and write endless articles offering doctrinal clarifications or manifestos that reflect little more than the obsessions of small groups. Meanwhile, the people called together by God moves forward in the footsteps of Jesus, not blind to the faults of the Church but happy to be part of His Body, confessing their sins and imploring mercy.”
I arrived at Ligugé Abbey at the end of the day: the oldest monastery in France. In the 4th-century, under the guidance of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Martin sought a life of prayer and founded a community. When I walked into the porter’s lodge, tired from the tribulations of the day, soaking wet from the rain, and my boots muddy from the forest, Brother Porter – a monk in his sixties – peered over his glasses from behind a window.
“What do you want?”
“I would like to stay for the night please.” I stood there dripping. A pool of water formed on the floor around my muddy boots.
“Would you indeed?” Brother Porter continued with some paperwork and ignored me. After a while, I tapped on the window again and he feigned surprise that I was still there.
“Still here?” he said.
I knew the problem: I’d been in this situation before. He mistook me for a tramp, which is what I looked like after this horrible day. I had to persuade him I was worthy of welcome.
“I am a pilgrim and I would like to stay the night. Could I speak to the Guestmaster?”
He looked skeptical but he picked up a phone and spoke to someone, maybe the Guestmaster. Then he came out and motioned to me to follow him across the courtyard, through an arch, into a corridor. He opened a door. There was a bed made up with thick blankets, a clean white pillowcase, and the room had a view of the abbey tower. I moved as if to enter but he quickly blocked my way.
“No!” He pulled the door shut and went to the next one. This dark room had a small high window with no view, a damp ceiling with flaking plaster. There were two metal bed frames and some plastic-covered mattresses propped against a wall, but no bedding, not even a pillow. “This is for you,” he said.
“Thank you for your kindness,” I said, hoping the deft use of irony would prove I was not a tramp. He slammed the door shut like a jailer. I checked the cupboards: there was no bedding, so I unrolled my sleeping bag on a mattress. This, I decided, was the kind of punishment meted out by God and the celestial angels to pilgrims who trespass on the holy high-speed railway.
“The isolated conscience finds it hard to treat others with mercy because it rejects such mercy, at least in practice. The biblical example par excellence of the beleaguered self is the prophet Jonah. God sends Jonah to Nineveh to invite the people there to repent but Jonah is having none of it and flees to Tarshish. In reality what Jonah fears is God’s mercy for Nineveh, which doesn’t fit with his plans and mindset. For Jonah, God came once, handed down a law, and ‘I’ll take care of the rest,’ Jonah says to himself. In his mind he was saved and the Ninevites were not.”
The welcome at Ligugé Abbey was improved when I met the Guestmaster, who had been indisposed when I arrived. After conversing with him, he introduced me to the Abbé before Vespers and told him he would place me at the high table for supper. “Our English visitor is walking to Compostela,” the Guestmaster told the Abbot. “He has an interest in liturgical reform.” It was a popular feast day in the regional Church calendar, which meant a talking supper. As I talked with the Abbot, it occurred to me with a sense of awe that he was the successor of Saint Martin of Tours.
Then I caught the eye of Brother Porter who had ‘welcomed’ me, now sitting with monks at a lower table. He looked quickly away. I was obviously still a tramp. He knew it. Everyone else had simply failed to notice I was a tramp: even the Abbot himself, ha! Any fool could see I was a tramp. I had been put in the usual tramps’ room, so I must be a tramp.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matt 25:44, NIV)
I considered Saint Martin sharing his cloak with the beggar. I thought of him being ordered away from the contemplative life he had chosen here in Ligugé and instead being made Bishop of Tours. Under obedience he accepted a ministry he really did not want, a ministry of settling disputes between the unruly faithful. It cannot be much fun, trying to keep the disobedient in line and stop them from fighting each other: dissidents like me who cannot feel guilt for rebellion against the pope, but are quite capable of self-accusation for trespassing on a railway bridge.
“It’s remarkable how quickly the isolated conscience deteriorates, spiritually and psychologically. Having separated them from the body of the People of God, the devil continues to feed such people fallacies and half-truths that close them off ever more in their Tarshishes of self-righteousness… These people end up trading doctrine for ideology, and their suspicions and suppositions lead them ultimately into conspiracy theories, viewing everything through a distorted lens.”
At the end of supper in the refectory at Ligugé, the Abbot tired of our conversation about liturgical reform and asked to hear details of the pilgrim route from England. “Such a long and winding road,” he said, just before the final supper thanksgiving prayer. “Have you never been tempted by the railway?”
 Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster, 2020.) See Part 2: “A time to choose.”
 Ibid., p.71.
 Ibid., p.72.
 Ibid., p.73.
See also the reflection Let Us Dream: A Retreat with Pope Francis by Matt Kappadakunnel on WPI, 20 January 2021.
Images: Ligugé Abbey, TGV high-speed train at St Benoit, Saint Martin and the beggar.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).