On a Sunday in the summer of 2010, on a bike trip in the south east of Belgium, Anya and I stopped for the night in the city of Diest. Late in the afternoon we went for a walk around it’s beautiful old centre dating from the early Middle Ages.
Everything was closed and the streets deserted except for one place: a small shrine cum museum. It was over 400 years old and dedicated to a young man who in the early 17th century had walked to Rome on a pilgrimage. It was a hard journey; on the way he was attacked by a bear and badly injured; he had kept going, only to be robbed and beaten by thieves. Recovered, though badly injured, he had continued the journey until he reached The Holy City, where he had died shortly afterwards.
His name was Jan Berchmans (pronounced ‘yan bergmanz’) and he would have been forgotten, slipped into the mists of history, had not been for his being canonized by the Pope. This changed everything. For centuries afterwards, Diest became the destination of pilgrims from all over Belgium. Saint Jan Berchmans was worshipped en masse with ceremonies led by the local Bishops.
In recent times however, Saint Jan Berchmans had been relegated to obscurity.
The caretaker of the shrine was probably fairly typical of the prevailing attitudes:
‘Why he was made a saint? He hadn’t performed any miracles. All he did was walk to Rome. These days you can drive to Rome in a day! The Vatican would probably like to annul his sainthood, but it can’t really, it would set a bit of precedent….’
The memory of visiting the shrine of Saint Jan slipped into the past, lost amongst a welter of other travel experiences, until October this year when it suddenly surfaced again, this time in a very different area of Europe….
On our way from the mountains of north east Italy south to the airport in Bergamo, we stopped overnight in a town called Tirano. Arriving late in the afternoon after a bus and train trip, we settled into the apartment we had booked and in the remaining hours of the day, head to the historic area tucked away amongst the modern buildings and busy roads. It was not large or architecturally remarkable as far as Northern Italy went, but it was nevertheless impressive with its narrow cobblestone streets, churches, flaking apartment buildings, squares and statues. It was its two portals which in particular caught my attention.
The first one, named the ‘Bormio Portal’ was at the end of a narrow and quite steep cobble stone street between flaking old apartment buildings. I’d seen quite a few portals in old medieval era towns before, some of the most magnificent ones in France. In comparison this one was rather unremarkable in terms of its architecture. What was striking was the view which greeted us when we reached the portal: of mountains, the lower areas cleared for agriculture, but the upper areas heavily forested. According to accompanying information board, this was where in the past, people departed for the town of Bormio deeper in the mountains.
We knew Bormio well; we had stayed there for five nights, using it as a base for walks in the surrounding mountains. It was a beautiful historic town surrounded by icy peaks – and it was one hell of a way from Tirano, especially if one was walking there (we had travelled there on the local bus, on the way passing kilometres of vacant ski lodges).
Looking at the scene from the Bormio Portal underlined how in times past, the portal was a gateway between the enclosed world of the walled town and beyond it, a wilderness unimaginable to us today.
The second portal was the Poschiavo Portal. It was at the lower end of the old town and the view was quite different: a cobble stone street lined by buildings, probably constructed in the 19th century and in themselves alluring, but clearly belonging to a different era than the old town. Poschiavo was another historic Italian town which we were familiar with; it was in Switzerland and we had stopped there earlier in the day to make the switch from the bus to the train. The mountains surrounding Poschiavo were particularly steep and in places sheer. And once again the thought occurred to me that in medieval times, it must have been a hell of trip walking from Tirano to Poschiavo.
In medieval Europe, one lived one’s life within the walls of the town and to leave one’s town and embark on a journey into the wilderness was a leap into a great unknown. Having spent two decades trekking in the Indian Himalaya during the 1980’s and ‘90’s, it was possible for me to imagine a Europe where the trail – and not the road – was the main means of travel. For centuries the high ranges and isolated valleys of the Himalaya, one of the greatest wilderness areas on the planet, had been plied by a network of trails. Using maps and local knowledge and carrying all our own equipment and supplies, Anya and I had followed these trails literally from one end of the Indian Himalaya to the other: until they disappeared when Indian government began filling the Himalaya with roads, bridges and tunnels. In a sense, every walking trip we had undertaken since then – including in the mountains of Italy – was a replay of that epic Himalayan journey.
For centuries, the Himalaya was the world’s largest temple. Hindu pilgrims from all over the subcontinent embarked upon a journey into the Himalaya seeking divine blessing at sacred caves, lakes and glaciers. In that supreme wilderness lay the chance to transcend the cycle of living and dying and suffering. In the high altitutde valleys of the Himalaya, Tibetan Buddhists embarked on the journey to Lhasa where their Dalai Lama resided in the Potala.
Near sunset, walking along a side street we came to a small chapel which was cleary a part of the historic town and in times passed would have seen a constant presence of worshippers – instead of being abandoned and empty as it was now.
We pushed a heavy door and entered a sombre darkness illuminated by a weak shaft of light from the turrent at the top of cupola and sat down at a pew.
The chapel was like a mausoleum.
It was sacred in the sense that it was an oasis of that all too rare commodity these days, silence. It dedicated to Maria. There was painting of her behind the pulpit and illuminated by electric candle. On either side of the few bench seats were paintings of scenes from the Crucifixion enshrouded in darkness. As I sat there surrounded by the sacred scenes of a forgotten temple, I suddenly thought of Saint Jan and the world he had inhabited.
In the Middle Ages, Europe and Asia were far distant from one another and yet they had certain things in common. The nation state didn’t exist and the only borders that counted were the natural ones: rivers, forests and mountain ranges for example. The trail was the main means of travel and communication – and worship.
Saint Jan was a symbol of an epoch in our collective history as a species. At the same time that he and others like him embarked upon the journey to Rome, pilgrims on the subcontinent were venturing into the depths of the Himalaya or travelling by horse and foot to Mecca.
What lay behind this almost kamikaze like drive to reach the sacred?
Religious fanaticism? Blind credulity?
Or was the pilgrimage a throwback to our nomadic past?
Perhaps our being settled had brought with it a physic cost, an idea first put forward in the early 19th century by Sigmund Freud. In our pre-settled past, when we moved in accordance with the seasons, the idea of a pilgrimage was inconceivable. We were living the pilgrimage and our deities were all around us, giving meaning to our travels: forests, rivers, lakes, animals, insects; we had stories about them, stories which explained their existence. In Australia homo sapiens had lived like this for between 50 and 60 thousand years and it only changed in the 19th century with the arrival of the British; in other areas of the planet, e.g., the jungles of the Amazon and Borneo, it survived until well into the 20th century.
Thinking back to that Sunday afternoon in Diest, I recalled the caretaker’s cynical remarks about Diest’s unlikely saint. No, he hadn’t performed any miracles – miracles being regarded as evidence of a special blessing from God – and after all said and done, one could drive to Rome in a day.
But taking into account what Jan Bechmans did, the risks he took, the hardships he endured and the injuries he suffered, it seemed to me that his journey was worth remembering, along with the world he had inhabited – especially when measured against today’s so called pilgrims, who fly to their sacred places, stay in luxury hotels, and join thronging masses of other so called pilgrims in an orgy of dead ritualism.
The age of the true pilgrim had well and truly passed; a blessing, but a mixed one.