The Stones Speak

Walking to the Saintsby By Anne McPhersonBasic Books. 650p $35.

In the era of air travel and bullet trains, what most people understand by “pilgrimage,” says Anne McPherson, is “a beeline trip to a distant goal.” She herself has lived by an older French notion, “walking to the saints.” For the pilgrims to the shrine of St. James in Compostela in northwestern Spain, that meant turning aside often along the way to venerate some local holy man or woman at a shrine church.

For some years the author and her husband, both Canadians from St. Catharines, Ont., have had a summer home at Campagnac in the hill country midway between Toulouse and Lyon in south-central France. This second home, named “Colomba,” has allowed her to go fanning out repeatedly to many of these sanctuaries; she is led by “the pilgrim spirit...the search for another perspective” than that of busy modernity.


For the reader, Walking to the Saints offers a circular tour, starting in Vézelay, the rallying point for the Second Crusade and the eastern assembly point for the Chemin de St-Jacques, and proceeding counterclockwise through Tours, Poitiers, Toulouse, a few Cluniac Benedictine sites (especially the cloisters of Moissac) and other devotional centers, such as the shrine of Ste. Foy at Conques. The author has plenty of ruins to cope with, thanks to the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution and World War II. But even here “the sacred stones of our ancestors” fascinate her. Her focus, nonetheless, is on the architectural high points, Romanesque and Gothic.

The terminology of old churches often requires a dictionary. My own particular find here was “ambulatory,” a noun. It refers to the walking space behind and around the sanctuary—and also suggests the untiring mind of the author. The Romanesque tympanum keeps drawing the author’s attention—a Last Judgment scene, benign or threatening over the entrance portal. (There is no better example, say the art historians, than Vézelay.) And she scrutinizes the capitals, those blocks on the top of columns that are carved with biblical scenes and bestiary motifs.

Anne McPherson struggles continually with what she is seeing. She notes, for example, the high quotient of savagery in the stone carvings—the messages “of pressing guilt and gnawing punishment.” They seem to imply, as Prosper Mérimée put it, a church trying “to convert people through terror rather than kindness and forgiveness.” She wonders also about the tranquil faith of people who can venerate the multiple heads of John the Baptist, and has to conclude, in one of her best bons mots, “Deity beats logic hands down.” As to the passion for relics, including their pious theft and even their fabrication, this too, she says, comes from an “old sacred world view that still lingers in my wishful, wistful remembrances.”

The cathedral of St. Mary Magdalen at Vézelay was what spurred the author to this holy visiting. “The wanton, world-affirming attractiveness” of its Romanesque facade, porch and nave worked a change on her Anglican religious sensibility; it moved her inner life from the very personal, individual “bid for God’s attention” to something much more inclusive. Vézelay, she comes to realize (as so many have), “is a church for a community.” Given an impulse for reinventing herself, she appreciates this broadening.

McPherson cannot help noticing that medieval France, full of untamed forests and subsistence farming, had many trace elements of pre-Christian rites and deities and of magical views. She quotes Aron Gurevich in Medieval Popular Culture, to confirm this. According to Gurevich, a good saint was “a nimbus-crowned magician filled with goodness and compassion.” She warms up, in particular, to evidences of the goddess Cybèle, and of Minerva and Aphrodite. Not that she is about to substitute them for Christ, but she affirms that “they can be assimilated into the Christian understanding of life and salvation, because they already have been.”

The author does not equally warm to the cult of the Virgin Mary, because she does not consider the “humble and obedient” image to have been a healthy one for women. For what, historically, was the Marian Age, this estimate may strike one as reductionist. McPherson is led to it by something she finds more generally—the church’s depreciation of woman, the lack of “authorization” of women. Exhibit A of this patriarchal and “monkish” attitude is a life-sized relief she finds at the entrance to Moissac, a vivid figure of unchastity, female, with two serpents at her breasts and a frog at her genitals. Despite such indictments, the author expresses nothing but admiration for such Catholic heroes as St. Martin of Tours, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Bernard of Comminges. As to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Cistercian piety, which she considers carefully, her verdict comes out genuinely mixed.

Thus does Anne McPherson go along her road to the saints, ruminating all the while, “a very-late-twentieth-century woman in a post-ecclesiastical age.” She is humble and honest about her own lapses of fervor and even faith. She admits that back in Canada, earnestly exploring theological questions, her religious devotion has cooled. Here in France she walks to the saints so as to reverse that direction. To follow in her steps, the reader gets some help from the drawings by Tony Urquhart at each chapter division. Less helpful is the choice of reddish brown ink for the text, to match these prints; but once engaged in the author’s footsteps, one adjusts.

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