Witches, vampires, lust, Church, pilgrims and a donkey

More than half way through my week’s holiday and I’ve only managed to read two books. This was because Son #1 came to stay and needed my assistance in setting up a new business. In return he made copious quantities of coffee and food and occasionally left me alone for 30 minutes to read. I took him back to Edinburgh yesterday and let out a huge sigh of relief. Bless him.

The first book was sent to me by a friend whose taste in books I share. It is A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and a Sunday Times Bestseller, no less. Now, I wasn’t really sure that I was going to enjoy it when I saw it was about witches, vampires and daemons albeit set in the world of academia. But in fact, I really enjoyed it. There was forbidden love (vampires and witches don’t usually get it together), adventures, baddies and goodies, and history too. In fact, it is Twilight for grown-ups or as Entertainment Weekly said ‘for the tweedy set’. Anyway it was great escapism and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My only complaint was that as I neared the end I realised the story was not going to be sewn up neatly but would be continued in the following books of the trilogy, as yet unwritten. I hate that! It’s like when ‘To Be Continued’ appears on the screen and you didn’t expect it. But at the same time the book also journeys into the world of time-travel and I can see that it will be like those old favourites by Diana Gabaldon beginning with Cross Stitch.

The next day, as the interruptions were many, I decided not to read but to watch the whole series of The Borgias. What a treat, that was. Sex, intrigue, politics, incest, murder, more sex, and all set within the confines of the church. Delicious. The vestments were lovely too.  Really one feels that one should never complain about the College of Bishops in our little church ever again.

The next book was Spanish Steps: One Man and his Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago by Tim Moore. This was a Christmas present from the non-church-going husband of the Rector’s Warden who’d seen it and thought of me. Wasn’t that nice? Santiago is, as regular readers will know, on my bucket list but it is the walking that keeps it there. Tim Moore is a very funny writer and almost too funny to write a book. The jokes just came so thick and fast that I had to stop reading for a while every so often because it was just too much. Anyway, the story is as it says on the cover – his pilgrimage to Santiago with a donkey. He’s not religious so is not doing it for that reason, but is intrigued by the epic accounts of a pilgrimage undertaken by one in three medieval Europeans. Realising that walking all that distance with a rucksack ain’t gonna be a lot of fun, he decides to take a donkey along with him to carry the load. Of course, he knows nothing about donkeys. There is a wee bit of The Way in this story – non-religious person finds ‘spirituality’ on the road through the other people he meets. But there is also irreverence, amusing characters, and enough eccentrics to keep you going for a long time. There’s a touch of the Bill Bryson about it too, if that’s what you’re in to. I enjoyed it in doses.

The Way

I first became aware of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella through Cursillo, a Christian renewal programme. Cursillo borrows many of its words from Spanish, including Ultreya – a word of encouragement to fellow pilgrims on the way. It became a place that took hold in my heart and I have always longed to go. Not least to see the botafumeiro – the largest swinging thurible in the world. (Some kind friend brought me back a pair of silver earrings which are the botafumeiro and are much admired in churchy circles.)

But I have never been. There are many reasons for this. One is that I don’t do walking. And really the best way to pilgrimage to Santiago is by foot along the Camino. I have many friends who have done part or all of the way and their stories have inspired me and made me more than a little envious. I also have friends who have visited Santiago without walking – on tours and by bus. For them it has also been an inspirational place. (Cost has been what has prevented me doing it this way.) And I also know some people who are almost addicted to walking the way – friends who do parts of the journey every year, if not more. What is it that makes them want to go back time and time again? Some tell me it is the people you meet on the way, the fellow pilgrims all with a story to tell about why they are making this pilgrimage. Friendships are made and some of those last.

Last year I read about a film called The Way starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez. Unfortunately it didn’t come to the metropolis that is Falkirk and I have eagerly awaited its release on DVD. Yesterday afternoon I settled down to watch it and what a delight it was. (Not least for watching the changing shades of colour in Martin Sheen’s hair.) Martin Sheen plays the part of an Opthamologist in California whose only son (Emilio Estevez) has given up his studies to go travelling round the world. His father can’t understand this and is angry that he is throwing away his career.  Then a phone call comes to tell him that his son has died in an accident in the Pyrannees so he cancels all his appointments for 2 weeks to go and bring his body home.

The gendarme tells him that his son had started to walk the Camino, the route to Santiago. He had only just begun when a freak accident took his life. For some reason he decides that he now will stay and walk the way with his son’s ashes, using his son’s equipment and maps to guide him. His reasons for doing this aren’t clear. Is it anger? Is it to try and understand his son and the way of life he chose? Whatever the reason, he sets out with anger in his heart and little time for ‘pilgrimages of  the heart.’  At points along the way he sees his son encouraging him and waving him on, and he stops to leave some of his ashes at different pilgrim places.

Of course, along the way he meets other pilgrims: a jovial Dutchman; an angry Canadian woman; and a crazy Irish writer with writer’s block. He doesn’t want to walk with them. He doesn’t want to share his story or talk about why he is walking the way. He wants to wallow in his own misery. But the Camino has ways of turning things upside down and a transformation takes place.

That’s enough of the story spoiler, but I highly recommend this movie. It would be a good Lent one to do with a group, but suitable for any time really. It is still with me today and has made me all the more desperate to visit Santiago. Another thing for the bucket list.