Excerpts from Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage


The Virgin at the End of the World: Finisterre

Virgin at Finisterre

And then, in a rear chapel, I came upon an image different from any I had seen on the Camino. It was the Virgin Mary walking upon a storm-tossed ocean with the infant Jesus in the crook of her arm. The gaudy silver crown on her head identified her as the Queen of Heaven, but she had the curly auburn locks and straight, narrow nose of a Galician beauty. As she gazed towards heaven with eyes full of glory, a pair of sodden mariners in oil-skins hauled themselves from the deep by the hem of her gown.

This was the Mary of the local sailors and fishermen. It was not a particularly attractive statue, nor a famous nor even a venerable one. In a snide mood, one might call it kitsch; but three weeks in Lourdes and five more on the Camino had worn some of the snide off me and I could see a beauty based not on the judgment of the eye, but of the heart.

As I admired the statue, it occurred to me what a faithful, though silent, companion Mary had been over the past three months. I had hardly noticed her, but she had always been near: in Lourdes as a creature of light and air, presiding over the thousand small miracles that took place there each day; on the Camino as a queen of the earth, enthroned in every church with her child in her lap. Now here she was again, at the end of the world, strolling over the waters of death. Truly, she was Our Lady of the Four Elements, at home on the sea, on the earth, in the heavens. And though I had seen her wear many faces, many names, she was always herself, Mary the Mother of Jesus. Perhaps this was why I had taken her for granted; it was easy to feel that one knew her, when really one knew nothing at all.

I stood in the church, as the shadows of seagulls criss-crossed the floor and waves broke on the shore beyond, humbled by the depth of the love that had crafted this simple statue and placed it here. And it occurred to me that if I were the kind of person who believed in signs, I would take this as a sign that I should write something about the Virgin Mary.

Unfortunately, I am not the kind of person who believes in signs…



The Labyrinth: Chartres

Labyrinth at Chartres

The labyrinth of Chartres cathedral is circular. Its diameter, at just under thirteen metres, equals the width of the nave from pillar to pillar, but the path to its center wriggles 261.5 metres, a good four-minute walk. The path is of white stone laid within black marble borders. It meanders in and out, left and right, through eleven concentric circles to the center where there once was a copper plaque depicting Theseus and the Minotaur.

One’s first impulse on seeing a labyrinth is to walk it. It looks like a bit of whimsy, a challenge, if not a daunting one. It would call for a certain concentration, and this, combined with all the righting and lefting, would doubtless still the mind, level out the pulse, and balance the hemispheres of the brain – all the benefits claimed by modern advocates of “labyrinth therapy.”

If only there weren’t two solid banks of pews laid over it…

Labyrinths were once a common feature in French cathedrals. (And not only French: years ago I took a picture of a small labyrinth traced on a pillar near the doors to the cathedral of Lucca, in Tuscany. It is identical to the one of Chartres.) But by the eighteenth century, their original purpose had been forgotten and they came to appear as nothing more than a trifling, archaic distraction from the serious business of worship. The labyrinth of Chartres is one of the few that was not pried up at that time.

A name commonly given to these labyrinths was “The Road to Jerusalem,” though a labyrinth seems an unlikely symbol for a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, after all, tends to make a beeline for its destination, while a labyrinth takes the most tortuous route. The goal of a pilgrimage lies at the end of a road, but the end of a labyrinth is its center. And where, at the end of a pilgrimage, the pilgrim turns his footsteps home, the center of a labyrinth spells game over.

To perceive that the straight path of pilgrimage and the winding way of the labyrinth are in fact one, we must first ask what pilgrimage signifies. A time honored answer is that a pilgrim’s journey is a distillation of the journey of life, complete with all its riddles, doubts, hardships and temptations. Thus, even though a pilgrimage looks like a straight line on the map of the world (as life looks like a straight line on the map of time), spiritually it is a winding and uncertain way, liable to backtrack and turn from its goal even when that goal seems nearest.




The Baths: Lourdes

The baths at Lourdes

The baths are housed in a long, featureless concrete pavilion, with separate entrances for men and women. There are five baths for men, ten for the women, who come in greater numbers and require more attention in dressing and undressing. Entering from the men’s end, the pilgrim sees five curtained-off bath stalls. An attendant shows him behind a curtain to a changing area, and instructs him to strip down to his underwear and say his prayers. In the seats lined up against the wall, other men in their underwear are already waiting their turn like clients in a barber shop.

When a pilgrim’s time comes, he passes through the next curtain into the holy of holies. This is a room walled with simple grey stone. High on the wall that faces the pilgrim there is a statue of the Virgin. In the center of the room, three slippery steps down, is an oblong trough of waist-deep water. This is the bath. It is long, but not wide, for space is allowed on either side for the attendants who will guide the pilgrim in.

Before the pilgrim can take the plunge, however, an attendant steers him into a corner and instructs him to finish disrobing. (Thanks to my mornings in the baths, I can rattle off the phrase, “Please take off your underwear” in four languages.) The attendant holds up a large blue towel to shield the eyes of the Virgin from the pilgrim’s nakedness, then wraps it snugly around the pilgrim’s mid-section. “Always above the stomach of the fat man!” was my first lesson in this skill, as it is most embarrassing for a pilgrim to lose his towel while being immersed.

The attendant next directs the pilgrim to the top of the steps, where he is joined by another helper. The pilgrim pauses to recite the Hail Mary. Any of the attendants who speak his language pray along with him or, if the pilgrim isn’t Catholic or hasn’t had much practice lately, fill in for him. Then the pilgrim makes his personal petitions to Our Lady of Lourdes.

There is something deeply touching, and often comical, in these intimate moments. First, there is the physical closeness: wrapping that cold, damp towel around the pilgrim’s naked body, taking him by the hand and leading him to the steps. Then, occasionally, the privilege of listening in on his prayers. It happened several times that I ran into a bather later in the streets of Lourdes. As we had first met under rather different circumstances, mutual recognition was never immediate. But when it came, it was accompanied by a warm smile.

I remember one Spanish man, a slight, chatty fellow with a thick beard. When I asked him if he had anything to ask of the Virgin, he told me that, yes, he wanted to pray for the health of his wife and his parents, and also his brother, who hadn’t been so well lately, and there was also the trouble he’d been having with his leg since the car accident… I kept motioning with my head towards the Virgin to remind him where his prayers were supposed to be directed, but he seemed quite content to entrust them all with me. Another confiding soul, when I asked him what language he preferred, answered, “French. Although actually I was not born in France, I am from Algeria. In fact, I was born a Muslim. But in life, you know, things happen…” Then there was the ancient French priest, a tiny, frail-looking creature with jutting ribs, who stood before the image of the Virgin, joined his hands together, and cried his eyes out for five minutes as we all stood by in silence.





Totus tuus sum, Maria: Fatima

Totus tuus sum Maria Fatima

May 13th, 1981

It is the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. Five-thirty p.m. As he bends spontaneously to caress the girl with the picture of the Virgin pinned to her blouse, the first two bullets whistle through the space where his head had been. But the next ones find him. Now the ambulance must run the gamut of Rome’s traffic to reach Gemelli hospital. The victim of the shooting is bleeding profusely from a bullet wound to the abdomen. He has already gone into shock. As the blood seeps from his body, staining his white robes, the same word passes his lips with every breath:

“Madonna… Madonna…”

The ambulance reaches the hospital in eight minutes. The patient is now unconscious, his pulse almost imperceptible, his blood pressure plummeting. The last rites are administered before the operation begins. Five hours later, though he has lost 60 percent of his blood, it is clear that he will pull through. The bullet has missed his aorta by millimetres, passing through his body without striking any vital organs or causing irreparable damage.

“It’s a miracle,” the doctors exclaim.

The Pope concurs in their judgment.



A Madonna on Every Corner: Rome

A madonna on a corner in Rome

They are called Madonnelle (singular, Madonnella), the images of the Virgin that populate the streets of Rome. Usually they are set high on walls, most often at street corners. Some are painted in fresco, on wood, or on canvas; others are sculpted in marble, stucco or terracotta, or figured in mosaic. Some are no more than photographs of Virgins purchased from souvenir stalls. A few have artistic merit, but the majority are conventional, sometimes crude, portrayals (not that aesthetic judgments weigh too heavily with worshippers; results are what count). Some of the Madonnelle are ornately framed by angels and cornices and lit at night. Many are set behind glass, which preserves them from the elements but makes them difficult to see or photograph…

The Madonnelle reached the height of their fame in the years 1796 to 1798, when the terrified citizens of Rome were awaiting the arrival of Napoleon. The prodigies began on the 9th of July, 1796, when the Madonnella of the Via Archetto was seen to move her eyes. In the days that followed, ever-greater crowds, which soon included the Pope and his cardinals, crowded into this obscure alley to see the miracle repeated. According to one witness, it was when the worshippers kneeling before the effigy, reciting her litanies, reached the invocation to Holy Mary that “she turned her eyes from one part of the crowd to the other, casting a loving gaze over all the people.” One empirically minded observer scaled a ladder with a compass in hand to measure the movement of the Virgin’s pupils.

Before long, an epidemic of eye-shifting Madonnas had swept the city. Everywhere, Madonnelle were rolling their eyes, raising them to heaven, weeping. The Madonna of the Via Baccina caused a bunch of dried lilies to bloom. Pope Pius VI proclaimed days of fasting and penitential processions before launching a canonical inquiry into the phenomenon. The tribunal concluded that twenty-six Madonnelle had expressed their love and mercy to the Roman people in one miraculous way or another, and the Romans showed their gratitude to these Madonnelle in their usual manner, by detaching them from the walls and setting them up in their own churches.