Like a dry, weary land without water
Sunday 29th April
Distance 34.2km Total Distance from Canterbury 742.6km
The above line comes from Psalm 63
O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
The European summer has produced a lot of dry weary lands this year, more than usual in the northern regions.
Longing is a common and powerful feeling and according to Geoffrey Chaucer is a part of the urge to go on pilgrimage. Chaucer lived from 1343 to 1400 and wrote in Middle English, which is very difficult for us to read today so I am using a translation/paraphrase into modern English. The Canterbury Tales is his most well-known work and is an account of a group of pilgrims journeying from London to Canterbury, to visit the shrine of Thomas à Becket, also known as St Thomas of Canterbury, who was murdered, indeed martyred, in the Cathedral there.
The opening of the prologue is originally a single sentence and here it is:
When April with its sweet showers
has pierced the drought of March to the root
and bathed every rootlet in the liquid
by which the flower is engendered;
when the west wind also, with its sweet breath,
has brought forth young shoots in every grove and field;
when the early sun of spring has run half his course in the sign of Aries,
and when small birds make melody,
birds that sleep all night with eyes open, (as Nature inspires them to) —
then people have a strong desire to go on pilgrimages,
and pilgrims long to go to foreign shores
to distant shrines known in various countries.
And especially they go from every county in England
to seek out the shrine of the holy blessed martyr
who has helped them when they were sick.
(If you want to read more, you could start here.)
Chaucer establishes April as the time for going on pilgrimage, and note these words: then people have a strong desire to go on pilgrimages, and pilgrims long to go to foreign shores. That concept of longing is there from the outset. Mention of April as the time for pilgrimage reminds me of a throwaway line (if there is such a thing in the Bible) in the Second Book of Samuel: In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; (2 Samuel 11:1). Well we could be doing worse things in April than going on pilgrimage! The thesaurus gives yearning, pining, craving and many other words as synonyms for longing. It is a lot more powerful that just wanting.
From time to time you will hear mention of a Welsh word, hiraeth. When I was at school we had ‘singing’ when we sang songs of the British Isles from an unexciting textbook: Men of Harlech, The British Grenadiers, The Ash Grove, The Minstrel Boy and others. And Land of My Fathers. Land of My Fathers is the Welsh national anthem, always sung in Welsh, at least in Wales. You can listen to it here. We sang it in English and the words of the English version go like this:
Oh, land of my fathers, the land of the free,
The home of the telyn, so soothing to me,
Thy noble defenders were gallant and brave,
For freedom their hearts’ life they gave.
Wales, Wales, home, sweet home is Wales,
Till death be pass’d, my love shall last,
My longing, my hiraeth for Wales.
It is not a direct translation, it is a metrical paraphrase so that it can he sung to the same tune as the Welsh original. A telyn is a harp. And there in the last line is that word hiraeth, left in Welsh, ‘because’, you will read everywhere, ‘it cannot be translated’. And ironically the word does not seem to feature in the Welsh original. I think myself you should take with a pinch of salt the idea that there are words which cannot be translated. I think all words can be translated. What is true is that not every word in one language will find a single corresponding word in another language. But the concept can always be explained. Schadenfreude, for instance, is a German word which means ‘taking pleasure or satisfaction in the suffering of others’. And indeed there is not, I think, a single English word to convey this notion, but Linus has no trouble explaining it to Charlie Brown:
Mudita is a Buddhist concept, which means ‘to take pleasure in the well- being of others’, so more or less the opposite of schadenfreude. We may not have the benefit of such brief words in English, but we understand the ideas.
So what does hiraeth mean? It means something like longing, but something much more than that. A mixture of longing, and nostalgia and homesickness, which is bittersweet. The internet is full of people trying to define it and ‘a longing to be where your spirit lives’, and ‘a profound yearning born from the very recesses of our soul’ are amongst the attempts you will find there. Anyway it is a deep and powerful feeling, something akin to what the psalmist describes in the dry desert lands. We will come back to it.
Gy was a really lovely place with a really lovely gîte. And an exceptionally friendly and welcoming host. She explained that if there was one pilgrim he or she looked after themselves, but if there were several she would cook. The gîte for me was an apartment with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and sitting room all hundreds of years old and furnished in very much period style. The town was quiet on Saturday evening. I went looking, somewhat half-heartedly for the castle and church which were easily visible high above the town, coming in, but somehow managed to hide when I went looking for them. And a trip to the supermarket seemed very important too. And it was threatening very much to rain. So I abandoned my religious and historical research. When I came back ‘home’ from the supermarket I found everything laid out for my meal for the evening and for breakfast. And it was very generous. Pasta, cheese, home made jams, butter, bread, salami. And an aliquot of sugo, or pasta sauce, homemade by my host and decanted into a jar. Aliquot is a word I like.
An aliquot is a division of a whole. Like a half or a quarter. So if you are cooking at home and you make, for instance, pasta sauce, you might like to make more than you need. You could use a third and divide the remainder into two and you would have two aliquots. And yes the word is used more in analytical chemistry than in cookery, but still I think it is useful.
When I was at primary school, (the same one where we sang ‘Land of my Fathers’), in the latter part of the middle third of the last century, we learned our ‘times tables’. They were displayed on the classroom wall on posters, going for example from 3 times 1 to 3 times 12: the ‘three times table’. So you said in a kind of a sing-song, ‘three ones are three, three twos are six, three threes are nine, three fours are twelve’ etc. And you finished at ‘three twelves are thirty-six’. The reason for this was that we still had ‘old money’, with 12 pennies making a shilling and 20 shillings making a pound. But we also learned ‘aliquot parts of a pound.’ If you don’t know how pounds, shillings and pence worked, this will seem a bit esoteric. There were mysterious chants like ‘Sixteen one-and-threepences make a pound’, ‘three six-and-eightpences make a pound’ and ‘six three-and-fourpences make a pound’. This would have set us up wonderfully for a career in business, but history intervened and rendered it a useless relic. The pound sterling was decimalised on Decimal Day, February 15th 1971, so no more shillings and a much simpler 100 pence to a pound. And then in the early 1970s the pocket calculator arrived, very quickly becoming very affordable, and the need to work things out in your head effectively vanished.
Directly opposite the gîte was a combined boulangerie and chocolaterie which, rather wonderfully, was open on Sunday morning. So my already generous breakfast was supplemented – the sabbath should be special.
Once under way, a gentle rustic walk brought me to the village of Gezier-et-Fontenelay. It is a sizeable village and I arrived mid-morning. There was not a soul to be seen. There was a sort of village green and the strange thing was there were dozens of cars parked all over the pIace. I wondered if perhaps there had been a fiesta of some kind the night before, or a wedding. I couldn’t get things to add up in my head. I carried on past a couple of closed shops and found a church on my right. As ever, I tried the door of the church but it didn’t give. Disappointed I made to walk away but a lady materialised opposite and signalled to me that the church was open. I put my hand on the handle again, a sort of latch that you had to press down with your thumb, and as I touched it I could hear ‘Alleluia’ being sung inside. Extraordinary. I pressed hard on the door and it opened with a jolt and I sort of fell into the church. Which was absolutely full of, obviously, all the people from the parked cars. Singing of Alleluia signalled that I had arrived in time for the gospel of Sunday Mass.
I put my bag into a small recess and found a seat at the back. A few people turned around and looked at me, but in a very friendly way. A few toddlers came to inspect me. The people at Mass were very enthusiastic and joined in the singing led by a cantor and choir up at the front. There were lots of children, lots of mums and dads, and lots of grandparents and, I daresay, aunts and uncles. I wondered was it Confirmation, (which would occur once a year) but there was no sign of the bishop. I wondered likewise if it was a wedding, but no, and nor was it First Communions. It appeared to be ‘ordinary’ Sunday Mass, but suffused with a buzz of excitement which I couldn’t really explain.
Mass finished, and the people filed out, still very animated. The priest disappeared before I could speak to him – undoubtedly he covers many parishes and was heading to another one. I later found there were fourteen different villages in the parish. So I spent some time at the door chatting with the people. The church is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. The people were very friendly and were interested in what I was doing. Eventually I told them how impressed I was at the excitement and enthusiasm of the congregation and explained that I found it pleasantly surprising. What was the reason, I asked. Quite simple, I was told. ‘We have Mass here in this church only three times each year. You are very lucky that you came today.’
I was very struck by this. It was like a dry weary land without water which suddenly gets a refreshing shower of rain. And new life.
The Office of Readings for the day (Fifth Sunday of Easter) includes a passage from the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible. It includes these lines:
And I seemed to hear the voices of a huge crowd, like the sound of the ocean or the great roar of thunder, answering, ‘Alleluia! The reign of the Lord our God Almighty has begun; let us be glad and joyful and give praise to God, because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb. His bride is ready, and she has been able to dress herself in dazzling white linen, because her linen is made of the good deeds of the saints.’ The angel said, ‘Write this: Happy are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb’ (Rev 20:6-9)
It seemed extremely fitting, especially as ‘Alleluia’ was the first word I heard there. On Sunday 24th April, 13 years ago, almost tothe day, Benedict XVI was formally installed as Bishop of Rome, a few days after he was elected as Pope. In his homily that day he spoke of deserts – dry weary lands without water. He said:
And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.
Very simple words, from a very erudite and academic man, who sometimes seemed rather distant.
And that was it. The people of Gezier-et-Fontenelay were having a real fiesta that day – with just ‘ordinary’ Mass. Happy to be invited to something which can easily be taken for granted and which, whisper it, can be boring on occasion. But not so if it is scarce and rationed.
Another line from the psalms came to mind:
I rejoiced when I heard them say:
“Let us go to God’s house.”
And now our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem. Psalm 122:1-2
And so I continued, carrying with me some of the happiness and excitement of the people waiting, I suppose, three or four months until they have Mass again in their church.
Further along the way, I was in a tiny village in the early afternoon when two young lads on bikes stopped to say hello. They were aged about nine or ten and looked like angelic choir boys. They were keen to try out their English.
Where do you come from?
Ireland, I said.
How did you get here?
NO WAY!!!! <Expletive deleted>
All the way?
On your feet?
NO WAY!!! WICKED!<Expletive deleted> <Expletive deleted> <Expletive deleted>
They were hopping up and down, bursting with excitement. I am sure their English teacher would have been proud of them. I am not so sure about their mothers! Too much American TV I think. I would have loved to hear them telling their story in school the next day.
And so to Besançon where I have long planned to have a rest day before my assault on the Alps. And eventually, I hope, to another St Peter’s church.
(For those who were reading the blog as I walked, let me explain that I am hoping to finish it now, over the next few weeks, although at present I am actually back in Ireland.)