I had to prove my bona fides as a pilgrim today. We’re talking the Roman Catholic Church here, so there’s no harm in a bit of Latin. Bona fides. Sounds like a name for a dog, doesn’t it?
I set off from St. Omer to follow the general line of the Via Francigena, and the dead straight Roman road, down to Arras. Am I then a pilgrim? That’s a big question.
When I stopped at Camblain (I think it was there) to admire a ruined abbey, and read all the accompanying signs about the Via Francigena, I was very conscious of a long tradition. It isn’t difficult to imagine the numbers of people who have come this way, pilgrims from Canterbury to Rome, over the centuries.
But I haven’t got the document, which they stamp at the waypoints, to say I’m genuine, that this endeavour is a divine undertaking.
Well, I want to say, under this interrogation from the accommodation officer, everything I do is fraudulent to a degree, improvised, provisional, agnostic, uncertain, ambivalent. Sometimes it’s a pilgrimage, and sometimes it isn’t.
But that won’t get me a bed for the night, and I’m tired. Yes, I say, I’m a retired Anglican vicar. I played my cello, an essential part of this undertaking, in Canterbury cathedral, and set off from there with the Bishop’s blessing. I just haven’t got the booklet for stamping, because St. Martin’s Church was shut when I set off.
All of which was perfectly true.
The Diocesan House, where I’m looking for a bed, relent their strict policy that allows only the bona fide pilgrim to stay. Have this room – you’re the only person here tonight. Sometimes there must be more pilgrims – there are four ancient iron beds crammed into the tiny room. The building itself is the size of a city museum, with corridors big enough for cricket.
But in the entire building there is not a single kettle. That thing that is top of the English pilgrim’s list of necessities – a cup of tea – cannot be had. That’s a privation too far, in my view.
Maybe I should have tried harder to make Rashid and Munir’s invitation in Bruay work. I’d had the biggest kebab salad I’d ever seen in their Moroccan restaurant, Le Marrakech, and they were closing up after lunch and smoking in the sun.
They admired the bike set-up, and one thing led to another, and then I was getting the cello out and playing James Bond for them. Please, they said, come back this evening and play for our diners, and we’ll give you a good dinner. They would have invited me to stay, but they were both recently married and living in adjoining single rooms.
So I pressed on to Arras, along the Via Francigena and the Roman road, which was very straight, but not always surfaced. And in the Diocesan Pilgrim Centre, the lone guest, I was too tired to eat, and went straight to bed. Not that I needed to eat after that kebab salad.