Pilgrims

A Personal Essay
Cloister of the cathedral Sainte-Marie in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, France (Danièle Schneider / Photononstop)

A friend of ours celebrating her birthday in early June rented a house in the Loire Valley and invited her closest friends to visit for a couple of weeks. My husband C. and myself were very glad to be included. When the time came to leave Azay-sur-Cher, it was still only the end of June and we couldn’t remember why we’d ever thought it necessary to return, so early in the summer, to New York City. For what? C. and I followed the academic calendar and at the moment had no responsibilities anywhere. We’d spent a fair amount of time in France but had never visited Languedoc so decided to take the train south to Toulouse. Most of all, we wanted to visit friends we’d known years before in the West African country of Niger at a time when we’d all been living there with our small children. Our combined offspring had families of their own by now, but we snatched at any chance to meet and talk not only of the Niger we’d known in the early ’70s but of our long friendship. Now Vicki and Jean Francois were spending the summer in a village called Le Plan, south of Toulouse, on the old road to Santiago de Compostela.

From Tour, we took the train to Toulouse where Vicki and Jean Francois met us, then drove us to their house along roads lined on either side with plane trees, trunks raw and sun-speckled, green light winking overhead. The heat was intense. These were the foothills of the Pyrenees, Spain just on the other side of them.

Each time the four of us met I found it impossible to resist mentioning—if not recounting in full detail—the story of how we’d all become friends. C and I, who’d been living in eastern Niger, were crossing the country in an autobus with our three little daughters. We intended to buy a car in the capital, Niamey. Before we’d gone far, we’d stopped for the night in Maradi, where Vicki and Jean-Francois lived and where we’d all met briefly. The following day, as we were sitting in the autobus with the girls—waiting for the bus to fill so we could continue our trip over an unpaved road where the sand rose in clouds and floated in the window leaving grit between our teeth—Vicki had suddenly appeared outside the open window. She rapidly passed through it two baguettes and a sack containing a dozen hard-boiled eggs, as well as some toys that belonged to her own little girl. “You’ll need them,” she said. 

These were the gifts we hadn’t known to ask for. Gifts that only later on I recalled as lit by a mysterious radiance.

 

I remembered it was seven years to the day that my father had died and understood that at last I wanted to write about his death.

Now, at Le Plan—between lengthy meals when Vicki and Jean-Francois told stories of their recent years working in Yemen, and we all talked about our grown children, about people we’d known long ago in Niger—C. and I drove in our rented car to towns in the region that had been way stations for those making the pilgrimage to Compostela. In St. Gaudens we stepped into the cool spaces of the Romanesque church, admired the grace and buoyancy of its apse. We then continued on the road to St. Bertrand-de-Comminges and from a distance saw the cathedral high on a hill and just below it the large hostel where pilgrims fatigued by their travels had found food and shelter and companionship. It occurred to me that pilgrimage was not so much about arriving at a place, as discovering anew what one knows already, the accidental joys the pilgrim is suddenly alive to.

Le Plan had also been a stop on the pilgrims’ road. All night long, the bells of the Église Saint-Pierre, the high crenellated church that shadowed Vicki and Jean-Francois’s house, struck the hours and half-hours, greeted the Angelus at six in the morning with a high bright shower of sound. How strange, I thought one midnight as the clock struck twelve, that we fix a time, an hour, a half hour, in order to say: take notice. Now. 

And with that thought, a sudden imperative took hold. I remembered it was seven years to the day that my father had died and understood that at last I wanted to write about his death. I hadn’t been present when my father died, I’d been crossing the ocean on my way home from elsewhere. I felt some grievous error had been committed but didn’t know whether to blame myself for my late arrival or my father who’d taken his leave so abruptly. But recently I’d come to feel that every new journey ended up as yet another barely disguised return. I hoped that writing about my absence on the day he’d departed might ease my baffled grief.

The next day I wrote a first paragraph and stopped. Then a couple of days later, one hot mid-afternoon, listening to the clock strike two-thirty, I wrote all in a rush the last lines. I didn’t have a middle, didn’t have most of it. To do that, I imagined I would need something I didn’t have. But what that was or where it would come from I had no idea.

 

We had already stayed with Vicki and Jean Francois nearly a week now, and thought it time to move on. We wondered if there was a monastery nearby and if we could possibly stay there. Vicki said she knew of a Carmelite monastery in Muret, just outside Toulouse. It was the old monastery founded by one of Teresa of Ávila’s nuns rebuilt now in modern times. And then Vicki was on the phone making an appointment for us to meet the prioress the next day.

We met the smiling prioress—or prieure as she was called—in a little room divided by a grille. We sat on one side, she on the other. We asked if we might stay a little longer than their usual guests. Perhaps even a month? She could see no problem in that, she said. And we were a couple—would they be able to accommodate us? There was no problem there, either. All the guests were given their own room and we would be put in rooms next to each other where we could come and go as we pleased. The last question seemed the hardest. We used computers during the day, we said. Would that fit in with the life here? She didn’t see why not. After all, a day in the monastery is an ordinary day like any other, anywhere, but one that tries to put prayer at its center. Besides, computers are silent.

So it was decided. After we’d returned our rented car Vicki drove us the half hour back to the monastery through fields of sunflowers staring west to the sun, fields crossed by lines of Lombardy poplars, trembling leaves throwing off the light. Again we said goodbye to Vicki. Until the next time.

 

We arrived about six-thirty, and were quickly ushered into a small dining room where the other guests were sitting round a table already eating their evening meal laid out on a yellow tablecloth. I was seated at an empty place facing a large open window that took up one side of the room, shutters thrown back on a garden. The sun streamed in at a golden slant and touched the deep rose hydrangeas at the window ledge, the white laurel blossoms just behind. An orange trumpet vine on a nearby brick wall was all lit up as on the day of revelation. It didn’t seem possible we’d been delivered to such a place. An elderly man who introduced himself as Père René Bel sat at one end of the table, and round it two others who like ourselves were guests of the monastery. Now entirely dependent on our rusty French, we explained ourselves as best we could. But no one seemed to mind and soon the meal was over and we were included in washing the dishes. Before they were dried and put away Père Bel had disappeared to his nearby apartment and returned carrying a nest of wires over his arm to hook us up to the internet. He was sure that would be important to us.

Then we were shown to our rooms. The wall opposite the door of mine was mostly taken up by an enormous window that stood open in the twilight. I didn’t know then that I would spend hours lying on the bed that faced the window watching the long needled pine branches lifting up and down. The scent of pine grew more intense as night fell. As did the sharp smell of lavender that rose from the garden below. I left the shutters open all night so as to breathe in the air.

 

Père Bel had disappeared to his nearby apartment and returned carrying a nest of wires over his arm to hook us up to the internet. He was sure that would be important to us.

C. and I were rapidly included in the little band that sat round the table in the refectoire: for a casual breakfast from seven on, a midday dinner just after twelve. And then supper at six. These included Père Bel, the chaplain of the nuns in the monastery, as well as a friend of his, François, a Congolese priest. He and Père, as we’d begun to call him, had known each other in Rome years before and had stayed in touch. Now François was a parish priest in Northern Italy, from where he’d traveled to visit his old friend. There was also a young woman, Chantal, from Pau, who was taking art classes in Toulouse during this week and staying at the monastery.

During dinner the following evening, Père Bel suggested that afterwards the five of us go to visit a friend of his, the wife of a farmer, several kilometers away. He had a car, and so did Chantal, so we could easily follow one another. We had already learned that Père was a Sulpicien, which meant that he belonged to an order that formed people for the priesthood, and that he’d spent many years working in Togo. He was eighty-three now and retired.

On the way, Chantal and I exclaimed over the fields of sunflowers, the old barns, the lonely farms. We went higher and higher and then we were winding up a steep hill and at the very top reached a house, just above a field of cows. Père’s friend Monique came out of the house and after Père had greeted her with the same radiant smile with which he’d greeted us, he introduced us all to each other. Monique immediately told us she was very isolated up here, their only neighbors had died, there was no one. Beneath a tree she’d prepared a table with cold drinks, she’d set chairs in the grass all round. After she’d taken care of us, she leaned forward and began to talk. I said to Chantal later on, driving down the hill, that it was as if we’d been watching a Bergman film in which a lovely woman talks freely about her life. Everything about Monique was striking, her bright eyes, very blue, her full lips, her dazzling white blouse, bare arms. She spoke of her three daughters, of the middle one, of the school, the problems. They were eleven years old and nine and seven. They were all away, she was without them for the first time since they were born. But no, she didn’t worry, she confessed, she knew they were all right. She asked Chantal about her drawing, where did she go for inspiration. Perhaps she herself might try something similar. Did we think this might happen? François was sitting there at ease, beaming, and later said we’d experienced “la France profonde.” Meanwhile Père sat silent, a little apart, white hair combed neatly above his forehead.

Monique’s husband went by on a tractor and soon after came to join us. An enormous man in overalls, burnt brick red by the sun. Chantal spoke with him and said later that he was bitter that the government didn’t support farmers, that he had to work like a beast to keep the farm he had inherited from his mother going.

The next night, again at Père’s suggestion, we all made an excursion to visit a lonely Romanesque church in what seemed to be a meadow. Having visited several of these Romanesque churches, we talked about how, something slowly begins to emerge, the central window behind the altar streaming light, the faded frescoes appearing like ghostly forms moving into clarity.

Chantal and François made their departures a few days later and it was then that Père and C. and I entered into the days of our intimacy.

 

We talked about West Africa, of course, Père in his customary place at the head of the table, three times a day, one of us on either side of him. Père had been six years in Burkina Faso, another six in Benin, several in Togo, five in Rome, three in Paris at St. Sulpice, a year in Limoges, a year in Miami. He showed us magazine articles he’d written about his time in Africa, told us his most precious memories were bound up with his years there. We all agreed Africa had been the great gift of our lives. He had grown up not far from where we were now, in Languedoc, in a poor family, had been a seaman during the Second World War, had decided to become a priest as a result of what he’d seen during that terrible time. Sitting at the table, he lifted his arms to indicate the inexpressible. Lowered them. A gesture of surrender. He wanted to know all about us. Yes, he’d learned English during his year in Miami, but we insisted he help us with our French. He proved an exacting teacher, interrupting me in the middle of an impassioned sentence to say the adverb belonged before the adjective, not after. He wanted to know about our children, each one, their names, their inclinations. He listened eagerly to stories, throwing back his head to laugh heartily. He himself was the youngest of four boys: “Ça explique beaucoup,” he said. Did we have sisters? Brothers? And our parents, what of them? We talked about the current state of the church. I told him I thought it a scandal that women were still barred from ordination. I grew heated as I spoke. He listened, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

A new visitor arrived, a man in his early fifties, who moved easily between French, English, and Italian. His wife, whose sister was a Carmelite nun here, had died of cancer three years earlier and her ashes were buried at the monastery. He made a pilgrimage twice a year, he said, to visit the place. And to see his friend, Père Bel. He’d been a member of the commedia dell’arte, sang Don Giavonni at full volume while washing the dishes. Père stood nearby drying them, smiling to himself.

 

He had decided to become a priest as a result of what he’d seen during that terrible time. Sitting at the table, he lifted his arms to indicate the inexpressible. Lowered them. A gesture of surrender.

Père said Mass every morning at eleven. It was immediately after that we repaired to the refectoire for our midday meal. On one side of the chapel was a wooden statue of a Carmelite saint: St. Teresa, founder of the discalced order, caught with a plume in her hand in the very act of writing her autobiography, perhaps, or one of her books concerning prayer. On the other side stood Teresa’s great friend, St. John of the Cross, holding open a volume that surely contained his poem, The Spiritual Canticle. I learned the Carmelites had been founded on Mt. Carmel outside of Haifa and their patron saint is the prophet Elijah—or Saint Elie, as they call him in France. The one who listened for the voice of God in the storm and in the earthquake and in the fire. And at last heard it in the still small voice. Covered his face with his cloak as God passed by.

The Carmelites not only sing the psalms in community several times a day but also pray in their own cells in solitude. They also silently pray in the company of each other. In the afternoons I sometimes came into the chapel to sit as quietly as I could while behind the grille the nuns knelt or sat in profound silence. Were they listening for the voice of God? Did they, like Elijah, hear it while I heard nothing?

I remembered those fellow travellers crossing Niger long ago who—while we remained on the bus eating Vicki’s hard-boiled eggs—had gotten off and knelt on their goat skins in wide open spaces of wind and stinging sand, bowing in unison. It had been about three in the afternoon, at the third call to prayer. As we tore the baguette into chunks, we’d looked out the window at our companions standing in the immense open landscape: kneeling, bowing, touching their foreheads to the sand. Were they also sustaining the world we all passed through?

I, who knew so little how to pray, sat humbled, remembering the psalmist’s words: Open my lips that I might sing your praise. A prayer for stuck writers, surely.

We met the prieure again, the grille between. She said that the impulse within the community was to react, reagir. But the hope, she continued, is to come into oneself, into one’s fullest self, which I supposed would be precisely a state in which one did not react. Perhaps responded instead. One returns, she said, chaque jour to the same task of loving others. The task is taken up day after day, in the monastery, elsewhere. St. Teresa, she added, had thought that the love of God was discovered through other people, in friendship.

 

One evening we were talking about films at dinner and C. mentioned one we’d seen recently: Of Gods and Men. Had Père seen it, he asked? “Mais bien sur!” Père exclaimed. Indeed, he had a DVD of the film in his apartment, in the original French, Des hommes et des dieux, and he immediately invited us to accompany him back after dinner to watch it. Opening the door of his little apartment he bent to pick up his neglected copy of Le Monde delivered that day. Then the three of us sat down in front of his upstanding computer screen and after he’d slipped in the DVD we watched the film, spellbound. When it was over we sat without moving until Père breathed into the long silence a single word: yes. 

Standing on his threshold, we said Merci encore, dors bien, a demain. The last of the summer’s daylight was fading in the west and the bell was ringing to announce the Grand Silence. There would be no talking now in the monastery until tomorrow.

But the next morning when we assembled at the usual breakfast of baguette and coffee we found that the film had broken open whatever was waiting and we talked of it throughout the day. At bottom the film seemed to be about the fear of death and what’s possible in the light of that fear. A couple of nights later Père invited us to watch Carl Dreyer’s Passion of St. Joan. And there again the fear of death. But in each case—the Trappist monks in Algeria, Jeanne herself, la Pucelle—the fear had been accepted and at last faded in the light of a larger understanding.

But something was happening I had no words for and that even in this aftertime I think requires another language altogether. That first evening, dazzled though I was by the sun on the rose hydrangeas resting in the window frame, I’d immediately recognized my own father in Père: his delicate hands, a kind of shrewd attention he gave to each of the people around him. I watched him watching each of us in turn, could see he did not judge easily, was bemused, rather. He was a tolerant man. My hasty temper that had shamed me my entire life I felt he recognized and forgave, just as my father had. And gradually I began to love him deeply because I fancied he loved me, accepted me as I was. And with that love was born a dread of the last day. Although we had almost two weeks remaining in Muret, it seemed that Père was already being taken from us. Or we from him. In no time at all we’d be on a train streaming north to Paris. If I hadn’t been conscious of my father’s death in the moment that it was happening, then I would be conscious now. But had my father returned only to be snatched away again?

 

We had begun going every night after dinner to Père’s apartment to watch another film from his large collection. Sometimes he chose it, sometimes one of us did. But they all seemed to be about the same thing. Together we watched Cinema Paradiso, Babette’s Feast, Schindler's List, The Seventh Seal. If Père was moved by something, he lifted both his arms, lowered them. Or sometimes lifted only one arm, as if he were about to conduct an orchestra. Or, in the long silence at the end, pronounced the word “yes.” Each night we stood at the doorway as we left, repeating the same words: Merci encore, dors bien, a demain. The poplars were swallowed by darkness a little earlier now. Our summer’s day withers away. Too soon. Too soon. Each of these goodbyes at the doorway was a striking of the clock, a reminder that the days were being counted off, one at a time. The piece I was writing was coming to me easily now, I scarcely knew what I was writing. And then it was finished.

One afternoon, looking out from my window, I saw Père sitting on a bench, an old man in the sun surrounded by moving trees and shadows. When we left the monastery we would be abandoning him to dark November evenings when he would enter the refectoire and eat his dinner alone, to rain-lashed days in December when he could no longer sit outside in the sun. I said to myself that there would be no one to bring him more coffee in the morning, no one at dinner to jump up to offer him more salad, more fish. I could so clearly see his back, slightly stooped, receding down the corridor as he returned to his apartment. Yet he had been fine before we arrived, he wasn’t alone. What could it be that made this separation seem unbearable?

On the last night of all we watched Forbidden Games: Jeux interdits. It is Paris, 1940, and the Germans are entering the city. A little girl about five years old is leaving with her parents in a car, the car stalls, they continue on foot. Crouching on a bridge both parents are killed in an air attack while Paulette holds on to her injured dog, carries him into a field where she encounters a boy, Michel, about ten. Now she is carrying the dead dog, weeping; she is going to stay with Michel’s family who are very poor. Paulette becomes intensely attached to Michel who knows his prayers and says them over the little dog she’s trying to bury. Together they make a cemetery, make graves for a mole, a cockroach, a chick, a robin. They are dearest friends. The Red Cross comes to collect Paulette, she’s taken away, is sitting in some way station in Paris. She hears someone call “Michel,” herself calls out, “Michel, Maman.” Now she is running wildly into the crowd screaming: Michel! Michel! Le fin.

By this time I felt I was present at my own undoing. Was it the loss of Père I feared? Or was it my own death? Or were they the same, was the loss itself a death. I remembered how when I was thirteen I’d gone with my father to the movies to see Roman Holiday and how the parting at the end had seemed to me then beyond what anyone could endure. “I have to leave you now”: words that spell the end. And yet facing it together, the lovers had triumphed. It was what I had not done with my father, I had not been there when he died. And certainly I would not be there when Père died either. I thought how love is always the same: the fear of losing it surpasses everything else.

Had I known before that the greatest gift of the road was the love of another human being? Of course I had. But I had not fully understood that in each love we seek the ghostly image of another. I saw now that the task of love, as the prieure had put it, includes making space inside oneself for one fatal parting after another, each one calling up all the rest. If a pilgrimage means anything, it means that although the road may be long, any one of us is given only a short time to follow it. And despite the rapture of love, our keenest joy, we reach our end in solitude. A fatal parting can happen at any time. And does. If a parting feels like a death that’s because it is.

 

As it happened, there would be no aftermath, although we pretended there might be. In the last days at Muret we often talked to Père of his coming to visit us in New York, the wonderful visit we’d have. C. said he’d meet him at the airport and bring him directly back to our apartment. We spoke of our return. We remembered all this only afterwards. Then, less than a week before we were to leave, Père had an appointment with his doctor and was laconic when we asked him how it had gone. “Tu sais,” he replied when we asked. “A mon age.” And then: “Je suis pret.” 

It was only in the first days of fall, a month or so after our departure, that we learned through Chantal and la prieure that Père was dying. Early in the new year he was gone. In retrospect we wondered if it was at the appointment we remembered that he’d learned he had pancreatic cancer.

But by then, for me, the drama of departure was over and I took comfort in the thought that we’d shared his final summer and that it had been a radiantly happy one. Père had a gift for friendship and we had become friends at the very end. Perhaps we were like the assassin that the Trappist monk of Des hommes et des dieux addresses in his final letter as “friend of the last minute.” What I hadn’t seen was that his destination was in plain view and would be reached before my own, just as my father’s had been. It wasn’t we who were leaving, it was he who was making a departure. Nor had I understood that the grief I’d felt for what I thought of as my abandonment of him had everything to do with the fact that I, not he, must travel on alone. That my own destination waited for me at some point still unknown. 

On our last afternoon at the monastery I walked outside in the meadow that reached to the gate. It was a bright cloudless day in early August and the grass was high and very green. Stepping carefully, I tried to avoid crushing the pink clover, Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, and little butter-and-eggs flowers, bright yellow. I heard the poplar leaves rustling behind me and looking back saw the pine tree, at four-thirty in the afternoon, half sunlit, the deep blue sky beyond. The lower half rested in shadow. The time had come to leave. The gifts of the day had overflown the banks of the road and flowed off into the meadows where the poplars were standing.

Published in the January 2020 issue: 

Kathleen Hill is the author of two novels, Still Waters in Niger and Who Occupies This House, as well as a memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons. She teaches in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

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