Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Accidental Pilgrim: Thoughts for Ash Wednesday During Oscars Week

Thinking about The Tree of Life and The Way reminded me that I stumbled very unintentionally upon two pilgrimage sites when I was traveling for other purposes. I thought of myself as an Accidental Pilgrim, a twist on The Accidental Tourist, the novel by Anne Tyler and movie staring William Hurt from the 1980s. I read the book, and have vague memories of appreciating its depth.

Then it just so happened that the movie was on Ovation last night just as I was writing about this. What are the odds!? It was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1988: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Kasdan), Best Original Score (John Williams), and Geena Davis, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance. “Best pictures” were a very different breed back then. It seems very slow and leaden in 2012.

Perhaps some day I’ll make a movie about the Accidental Pilgrim.

Studying Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the closest many Americans get to medieval pilgrim sites, without a concerted effort.

Which is why I was so surprised when I found myself at two centuries-old places that millions had considered holy and sought out at great cost of time and energy to visit, looking for something: healing, grace, hope.

France: Rocamadour

In 1998 I was on a Butterfield and Robinson bike trip of the Dordogne, France’s most interesting and beautiful region, and much less traveled than Bordeaux and Provence. The last leg was a ride from the bastide de Domme to the Chateau del la Treyne, a 14th century castle perched on the cliff overlooking the Dordogne River surrounded by endless sunflower fields. The next day was a circle ride, out and back from the Chateau. The destination was Rocamadour.

I didn’t read anything about it; this trip was about bicycling, not about thinking or having to read up on anything. As we cycled up one long, steep hill, a wildly imposing city complex of abbeys, churches, and town buildings carved into cliffs  slowly came into view. The guide told us that this was a very popular 12th century pilgrimage site for pilgrims on their way to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, or Jerusalem, known for its healing powers.

We entered the city and parked the bikes to look around.

I was completely startled when I saw a small sign pointing to Chapelle Notre Dame. At the time I was singing in the Notre Dame church in New York, near Columbia University, where I was learning polyphony under the patience of David Schofield.

The first difficult, modern motet I learned a few years earlier with David was Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire. We did it as a trio, with me as alto, and the soprano Barbara Geach (whose story I think I will one day tell). What I hadn’t noticed on my copy of the music, and only learned after I was back home, was that this Litany was to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour! And now here I was, in that chapel.

How strange.

AND, I later learned that Poulenc had had a “reversion” experience in this chapel, rediscovering a deep belief in Catholicism. He had made the pilgrimage to Rocamadour in 1936, distressed by the death of another young composer and looking for solace, which he found. After his visit he began writing exceptional liturgical music until he died.

What a surprise to stumble on this holy place with all these connections to my life, even though I didn’t connect all the dots at the time. And I did find healing on that trip from a crushing heartache (no, not The Talented Mr. Ripley, this was years before that). At the time I assumed it was the strenuous exercise, exorcizing the disappointment, and seeing the elan of the French in the Dordogne. We ate lunch in a small restaurant in a tiny village, where a group of factory workers were eating.  A sit-down lunch, with some wine, talking and laughing. Most urban Americans I know eat at their desks. I was re-energized by seeing that much LIFE in such an easy, natural expression.

And yet.  Maybe the chapel had something to do with it. Our Lady is very powerful . . . .

Spain: Santiago de Compostelo

My second unplanned pilgrimage site was Santiago de Compostela. I was on a tour to northern Spain and Portugal with Davidson Singers in 2002. I signed up because we were going to sing at the Bibao Guggenheim, but singing in Compostela was also on our itinerary, not in the cathedral, but in a cultural center.

The cathedral is impressive. I watched as various groups of young pilgrims finished the Camino, walking or bicycling to the front of the Cathedral to have their group picture taken. I didn’t see anyone on a donkey, the third legitimate mode of travel to be considered a pilgrim. But again,  here I was a tourist at a pilgrimage site.

Ashes to Ashes
I don’t know that I will ever decide to make a journey as a pilgrim. The idea of a holy place doesn’t have that much meaning for me. Every place there is life there is holiness, and we are on the Camino every day.

I like to think that there may have been some accidental grace at work in my accidental pilgrimages, and that is sometimes the best kind.


Phyllis said...

Lovely reflections......thank you! Sang the "Litanies" many years ago (not as a soloist!) and it was truly a mystical experience. So few people know that transcendent music.

M.A.Peel said...

Phyllis, I'm so glad you know the Poulenc!