Before the Rabbits Scatter

Let's A-Pilgrimage Go

What is up, on the slopes, this May morning ?
Look at them, at the gold of the broom and the laburnum,
The glowing surplice on the hawthorn's shoulders,
The alert emerald of the grass, and the tranquil calves;

See the chestnut-tree's candelabra alight,
The bushes genuflecting and the mute birch nun*
The cuckoo's two notes across the streams bright hush
And the mist wraith curling from the meadow's censer:

Come out, people, from the council houses before
The rabbits scatter, come with the weasel to see
The raising from the earth of a spotless host
And the Father kissing the Son in the white dew.

* " a'r Ileian fedwen fud"/"and the silent birch-nun", but the tree, not the nun as bird-name and noun.

It's May-time, spring-time, pilgrimage-time too. This appeal, from the Welsh of Saunders Lewis and the translation of the Irish-American Joseph P. Clancy, is from his 'Difiau Dyrchafael', 'Ascension Thursday' (1950). It might be made to the people of our own city and satellite towns and estates, Cardiff and Cwmbran and Penrhys. And Bedwas (perhaps from Bedw, Birch trees). And.... It's made for a start to council house tenants. It's made to the inhabitants of the small terrace houses of the Valleys. It's made to us. It's made specifically for people to come out, to come up on the slopes, to observe the outdoors and the season. Such call might have been made not only to witness the Ascension of the Son 40 days after the Resurrection at Easter, but also the Descent of the Spirit at Whitsun or Pentecost 50 days after the Easter event. Both sequels occur in the early part of the pilgrimage season.'
By the art known as circumlocution, or periphrasis - for these are the terms for asking what the poet is about - the first 12 lines of the Canterbury Tales, of The General Prologue, expand upon the theme "In April, people go on pilgrimages." People begin to go afield, indeed "to go a-roaming" - originally, before corruption of the phrase, "to go a-Roming." Among such people no less than 4 Anglo-Saxon kings were actually a-Roming kings according to St. Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (chiefly bk. 5). These kings went so far in their devotions as to abdicate in order to travel to the shrine or church of Peter as pilgrims and end their days as monks. Their names (with dates of abdication and place in Bede) were Cadwalla, King of the West Saxons, baptised Peter in Rome (688), his successor Ini or Ine (725, both in bk. 5, ch. 7), Coenred, King of the Mercians (709, bk. 5, ch. 19), and Offa, King of the East Saxons (same date and place).
April and May, and in the year 2000 June, embrace Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. Cardiff's own pilgrimage, the three-day Llantarnam Abbey (Cwmbran, Torfaen) to Penrhys (Rhondda) Walk, has been a regular Pentecost event since 1995 though it takes place at the official Whitsun Bank Holiday which tags after Pentecost. Another British pilgrimage, the Anglo-Catholic Saturday / Roman Catholic Sunday Glastonbury Pilgrimage, founded in 1924, follows in June or July, in the weekend nearest the Octave of St. John the Baptist (e.g. July 3-4, 1999). While on the Continent a well-patronised pilgrimage which attracts some British contingents ('chapters') takes place during the real Pentecost (this year) or, in year 2000 with its late Pentecost, before it, in early May. This is the three-day Paris-Chartres Pilgrimage, initiated in 1989, which has also spawned 'sympathy group' pilgrimages abroad, two in the USA and one each in Australia, Belgium, and Ireland.
The pilgrims of Chaucer were, deliberately, an eclectic, across-the-board bunch, who betook themselves astride hackneys unless dismounted in order to walk and talk more closely:

And forth we rode, a jog-trot being the pace,
Until we reached Saint Thomas' watering-place*
And there our host pulled horse up to walk,
And said: 'Now, masters, listen while I talk.'
(The General Prologue, lines 825 - 8.)

*somewhere in London's Old Kent Road.

In our striving-for-egalitarianism consciousnesses (and insufficient familiarity with horses!) the modem pilgrimages listed have been conducted on foot, Shank's pony, Peter's feet. As late as Victorian times walking was considered as unseemly and in the novel of 1969, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Charles Smithson's resort to his pins to pursue his fossil-searching of the Dorset coast, his 'wretched grubbing' (ch. 16), was breaking new ground (literally too with his hammer). John Fowles said of him in ch. 3: "He had an unnatural fondness for walking instead of riding; and walking was not a gentleman's pastime except in the Swiss Alps. He had nothing very much against the horse in itself, but he had the born naturalist's hatred of not being able to observe at close range and at leisure."
Charles too dabbled with religion : "Charles saw what stood behind the seductive appeal of the Oxford Movement - Roman Catholicism propria terra." Mr. Fowles doesn't pull his punches: "He declined to fritter his negative but comfortable English soul – one part irony to one part convention – on incense and papal fallibility.... In company he would go to morning service of a Sunday; but on his own, he rarely did" (ibid.).
Which is the rub. The comfortable, peacetime English or British soul is lulled, if not sidetracked, by its seemingly stable, consumer-based lifestyle, often removed from balanced example of an acknowledgment or participation in the spiritual, and the sources of sustenance, stomach-supplying and sacred. Like Labour support at the EU elections, the soul has assumed a complacency which competes with any regular call to be reminded of our fragility and of the eternal, especially as a duty upon the individual. The kind of example that is set is the current TV ad that takes as theme song the prayer "Please Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz." While the ego is raised, the soul is stretched to be raised above the bottom line ("above a sixpence"). Sensitivity over the conflict is evident when in Cheshire's "Golden Triangle," home of the "Cheshire Set," the "NCNR" (North Cheshire Nouveau Riche), an incoming canon is obliged to write a letter to be read out in churches to assuage ruffled brows. These had been creased and wounded by a locum curate's parting shot in a parish magazine from the town of Wilmslow that attained national attention, e.g. Adrian Addison, Cheshire set are the most pagan folk .... The Sun, Thur. June 10; Dave Gaskill's op. ed. p. cartoon the Fri.; Sunday, BBC Radio 4, June 13, with as guest the flamboyant Christine Hamilton, spouse of ousted Tatton (and Wilmslow) MP, Neil. Under the title 'Questions of Wilmslow,' archetypal questions epitomising people's valuations of others, the curate has singled out persons of Charles's approximate age group in the mid-30s (Charles "was only 32," ch. 3).
Under these conditions, attendance at worship falters and clusters around nuclei, and associated events cry out for better support. A pilgrimage walk like the Cardiff one imposes extra, physical demands, yet for a city and environs the most densely populated in Wales it seems a pity that though some support has been consistent, its pleasures are disproportionately appreciated. The 30-odd pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales set off hot to trot from a mediaeval London of some 40,000 inhabitants, a take-up rate given which, by the art of proportion, a pro rata reckoning, suggests present-day South Glamorgan's resident population of nearly 400,000 (Cardiff almost 300,000, census of 1991) might be expected to yield a turn-out of 300 persons. But such simple calculation is to ignore the modern mind-set.
While Glastonbury was jointly founded, independently by a layman and a churchman, a Mr. H. B. Salter of Bristol and Fr. Knapp, Secretary of the English Church Union, the later Church Union, an organization of Anglo-Catholicism, the Cardiff pilgrimage walk is non-church founded. Its prime movers were university lecturers Dr. Madeline Gray and Mr. Anthony Packer, members of an organization called the Fellowship of St. David and St. Nicholas that was founded in 1992 at the instigation of the then Parish Priest of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff's Butetown (appropriately, in Greek Church Street), Fr. Anastasios Salapatas, an historian.
Ecumenicists foremost, Maddy, of Caerleon Campus, Dept. of History, University of Wales College, Newport, describes herself, tongue in cheek, as "semi-detached Anglican"! At Cardiff University's Education Dept., Anthony is a member of the Annibynnwyr Cymraeg (Welsh Independents), and wending his way home of a Friday evening is wont to take in a Catholic Vespers Service at St. David's Cathedral, such is his enjoyment of the music!
As well as Maddy and Anthony, an enthusiastic and regular participant in the walk has been Fr. Luke Holden, Chairman of the Fellowship of St. David and St. Nicholas, from the Greek Orthodox Church of St. David at Furnace, Llanelli, in Dyfed: there are only two Gk. Orthodox churches in Wales. Luke is a Surrey-born Briton who, on admission to the priesthood in Cardiff in 1997, became the first native British Greek Orthodox priest to be ordained in Wales – at least since 1054's Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Before the schism, we were all Orthodox Catholics.
By his archbishop's choice of the day of ordination, the ex-Anthony Holden acquired the priestly name, 'Loukas' - to all Greek symbol-using students of maths and science, Loukas, to us, Luke – for he entered his vocation the Sunday nearest October 18, the saint's day. His next day, Sunday, was therefore the fruition of a long interest developed since a meeting that took place in his late teens. This meeting, involving an Orthodox student of the priesthood, occurred of all places at Glastonbury, not at the pilgrimage (or any pop festival), but upon an archaeological dig. Its consequence was Luke's reception into the Gk. Church at age 21. In such ways may lives be changed.
Luke is a sprightly, slightly built figure characterised by his Orthodox beard, black clerical robe of a service day, and sturdy ashplant like Charles's (Fowles, ch. 10). As well as affording fascinating insights into Orthodox history and practices, Luke's chief contribution to the pilgrimage is to conduct as a set feature of the first day of the walk, weather permitting, a splendid open-air service in a beautiful hill-side setting, among the stone foundations of an old church above Cwmbran called St. Derfel's Chapel, Capel Derfel (Anthony's name) or Llanderfel ('21/2-inch' O.S. map), which overlooks a farm, Llanderfel Farm, that gives access. Luke's children and grandchildren have been given the task to carry icons on sticks and at the service these are set up in the ground at the old altar area. In such a setting it is easy to switch our speculations from the altar to the earth, from the divine, numinous to the observable, from the saints to selves, and vice versa.
Until his new Sunday morning priestly commitment in Llanelli which this year necessitated his return home Saturday night (to return Monday), Luke prepared superb evening meals in the church halls which give overnight accommodation during the pilgrimage for those wishing to avail themselves of the privilege. Undoubtedly the church hall fails to match up to the mediaeval experience of the pilgrim who, like Chaucer's John the carpenter on an errand in The Miller's Tale, lodges at a grange, a grange-farm. The term describes an outlying farm-house belonging to a religious establishment like Llantarnam, inhabited by a monk, steward, or tenant. Pilgrims might overnight at a grange, offering a hand or say a halfpenny for a straw mattress in a barn, a threepence bit for a room. Of John the chippy:

He is wont for tymber for to go,
And dwellen at the grange for a day or two (lines 481-2).

As a Cistercian foundation, an institution of the White Monks (Sacred Order of Cistercians, SOCist, began 1098), Llantarnam was a daughter establishment of the French Abbey of Citeaux in Burgundy (23 km., 14 mi. S of Dijon). As St. Joseph's Convent, it today belongs to the grey-habited, likewise French-founded Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy (SSJA, began 1650), as their Provincial House. Upon our pilgrimage route the Abbey possessed granges at Magna Porta (outside the Abbey estate's W. wall), at Llanderfel (Upper Cwmbran), Pontymister (Risca), and Mynachdy ('Mynach-ty', 'Monk's House', 'monastery') near Ynys-y-bwl, and at Penrhys itself.
As well as ministry to pilgrims and the poor, houses like Llantarnam provided such mediaeval services as bridge building and maintenance. They were the 'local councils' of the time. Along our route, Monks' bridges numbered Pontymister bridge, Pont-y-ty-pridd bridge (which is Pontypridd bridge, the White bridge), and Pont-y-gwaith (Bridge of the Works).
And in South Wales, along with their fellow Cistercians at Neath and Margam, the LIantarnam monks were also involved in the field of coal-mining. Old workings and stone quarries exist all along our route, as near Capel Derfel (and there are old lead mines near Lower Machen). Of necessity the monks ventured into capitalism. We cannot have a world without some capitalism (June 18's 'Carnival against Capitalism' London riot notwithstanding).
The monks played an intimate part in local life, economy, and history. Religious and secular lives were closely interwoven and to approach the future sensibly, taking cognisance of the past, we cannot ignore the contribution of the spirit and this contribution we distort at our peril.
To appreciate the interconnectedness of religion and lay affairs we have only to walk our route and learn some of the legends and stories to be met along it.
The purpose of this 'walk for Jesus' is simply to ask Him to strengthen our witness to His truth and to help us in the search for Christian Unity.... Although the pilgrimage bears the past in mind it is more concerned with the future" (poster in 1998). Forward thinking therefore without dismissal of the past.

: William J. Mathias, a Londoner now living in Cardiff and a regular contributor to the Roath Parish Magazine (Church in Wales).
Published in: The Green Dragon No 11, Summer, 2000.

Other articles by this author:
Of Cats and Men

Will you walk with us a little way?

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