Let us make a joyful noise.
I am continuing my walk from where I left off last year, along the Voie du Piedmont to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and even beyond. Yesterday morning I arrived in Paris. After two long flights with little sleep the night before, I was absolutely spent.
I sat down in front of a bar and ordered a double espresso. To my left was the Tour Saint-Jacques; to my right, Notre Dame. People were sitting in the sun by the Seine eating their lunch. How beautiful is Paris! Along with a host of others I took yet another photo of Notre Dame along the Seine from the Pont Saint-Michel. Sometimes you just have to keep snapping the same image in the vain hope that you'll capture its beauty.
I decided to walk to the Gare Montparnasse. Russet buildings stretched along busy boulevardes, and narrow streets led off to gardens and museums. Beggars asked for a sou, and petitioners demanded my signature. Joggers circled the gardens. London is history, but Paris is endless variety and charm.
After a long journey by train I arrived late at Accueil Pelerin la Ruch in Lourdes, where M. Doux had kindly kept a meal for me. We were five around the table: Jean-Louis Doux, the hospitalier; Rachel from Florida, his son's girlfriend; a Devout Dutchman and his wife; Servais the Belgian, who at 77 is even older than I am; and me. As we ate, singing floated across the river from a procession of religious pilgrims carrying their cross. This was Lourdes. There was serious business within as well. We sang a few rounds of "Ultreia", the other pilgrims' chorus, and discussed the next morning's mass.
I decided to join them, although going to mass at Lourdes was not high on my bucket list. I really belong in the Dawkins-Hitchens camp (but without their vitriol).
I have attended many masses along the Camino, from simple ecumenical ceremonies in Romanesque chapels to stultifying services in ornate churches, where elderly Spanish priests preached to a few withered souls. The most formal mass I have attended was not Catholic at all, but high Anglican, bells and smells, at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, where the priests walked in and out of little doors, bowing to each other, and following some obscure ritual of their own. They didn't need a congregation at all. I didn't know quite what to expect at Lourdes.
The mass was held in a huge concrete vault, which reminded me of an upside-down football stadium, but twice the size, built in the days where even the large parish church was not big enough to accommodate the faithful.
On entering, I avoided the holy water, but my companion, the Devout Dutchman, smeared it on me anyway. He wouldn't accept that I was non-pratiquant: "You're doing a pilgrimage," he said. Later on I got another dose as the priests sprinkled it over the congregation.
There must have been between one and two thousand people in the vault, barely a half of its full capacity. There were various groups of course: a flock of priests in white, a procession or two of pilgrims from different parts of the world, including Toronto, the sick in their wheelchairs and stretchers, and nuns scattered throughout the congregation. The rest were ordinary folk, mostly devout, I imagine, with a few curious observers like me.
During the service my thoughts wandered. I didn't say a prayer for them, but I thought of my religious friends around the world who would have found the service very meaningful. Like them, I lament the decline of Christianity. I want something not to believe in. I thought of how vulnerable we would have been in this concrete cavern were it situated in another part of the world where people of faith are the victims of bigotry and hatred. The insense made me think of the huge censer at Santiago, the whirling dervish of censers. Today there was only a modest amount of scent. We weren't smelly pilgrims in need of fumigation.
When the collection plate came around I noticed that it was designed with a narrow slot for notes, not for coins. But I didn't have a fiver and I wasn't going to put in a twenty, so I pulled out a handful of shrapnel and squeezed the coins in one by one. As they clanged, the collection lady glared at me, gesturing impatiently, worrying about missing out on more generous contributions. My dear wife, who likes to get rid of her small change when there's a queue behind her, would have been proud of me.
The service was warm and welcoming. No fervid adoration, or prone submission. Much signing of the cross, kneeling, and joyful singing with tasteful hallelujahs. An ambience of love and joy. The Devout Dutchman and the Servais the Belge were quite beside themselves. The latter, who has a fine tenor voice, had insisted on going up to join the choir, even though they told him he was too late, that he should have been at an earlier practice if he wanted to sing with them, but he refused to take no for an answer and sang with them anyway, and the Devout Dutchman's wife nudged me as he appeared on the huge screen. One of us was on television. The congregation all knew the songs, but not me, except for a grand old Protestant hymn which the Catholics must have stolen.
Truth to tell, I found the mass very moving, and I appreciated the warmth of my Christian friends. I will not see the Dutch couple again, but I will run into Servais, who is following my route for the next few days.
After a quick lunch, which revealed that to the merchants of Lourdes their Christian customers were victims to be exploited like any other tourists, I set out about one o'clock, walking along the river Gave towards Betarram.
I was back in rural France. Dogs barked, birds sang, nettles stung, or they would have done if I'd not kept my wits about me. Donkeys brayed. One aimiable ass followed me along a fence, poking his nose over the barbed wire from time to time to be rubbed. On s'entends bien, l'ane et moi. I was temped to linger. He really loved me, that gentle animal, but I had to reach my gite.