The Magic of Vézelay

After a recent visit to a favourite town, Vézelay in Burgundy, I dug out this unpublished article I wrote in 2002. Here it is with a bit of editing to bring it up-to-date, and a few photos.

The small town of Vézelay is a special gem. Visit here, and allow yourself to be entranced by its beauty, inspired by its spiritual quality, fascinated by its history, and restored by its natural surroundings.

Vézelay owes its existence to the tradition of pilgrimage. Its Basilica of Mary Magdalene has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe for over a thousand years. The main attraction was the relics of Mary, brought to the then monastery in the 11th century from St Maximin in Provence, where she was said to have been buried. Vézelay became one of four major starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain (Paris, le Puy and Arles are the others).

Set along a hilltop, the Vézelay skyline offers an enticing perspective as you approach from any of several directions. If you park at the bottom of the hill, the main street winds picturesquely upwards past a selection of shops offering, among other things, provisions, crafts, wines, souvenirs and books, also galleries, bars, and restaurants.Read More »

Conques

The village of Conques in Aveyron, France, has been a target of pilgrimage since medieval times, lying as it does on the route from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. The isolated position of Conques in hilly terrain means that it has never been subject to much modern development, so the medieval streets are essentially as they were.

conques rainbow

This view is the first the pilgrim coming from Estaing sees of Conques, nestling in the treed valley. We were lucky on our recent visit when, after a day of rain, the sun came out as we reached Conques. The dramatic welcome became spectacular when this rainbow appeared over the village.Read More »

Le Puy en Velay

I first visited Le Puy en Velay nearly 30 years ago, with Alf, as we traced the steps of pilgrims on the route from this starting point to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain – one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. What a special place to begin a pilgrimage.

st michel aiguilhe

This area of the former county of Velay, in the south western Massif Central, is volcanic. As well as numerous dead volcanoes, it contains various strange landscape features, notably several isolated plugs of rock pointing skywards. On one of these is the chapel of St Michel d’Aiguilhe. The well-formed stairway up this rock brings you to wonderful views over Le Puy and the tiny Romanesque chapel at the top. Linger a while in here and it provides an experience of perfect peace before the start of the journey.

Read More »

Astrology and Religion

OK, so there’s no conflict between astrology and science. Is there one between astrology and religion?

Let’s trace it forward from the origins.

Evolutionary theory tells us that we emerged from a state of immersion into the world, as are the animals. The world was alive and meaningful, and every night we witnessed the full glory of the cosmos in the night sky. It was all one. We made sense of patterns of meaning, calling them what became known as gods. The sun was clearly the most important.

As we developed language and began to be more self aware, religions emerged based around these gods, pantheistic. Astrology was part of seeing patterns of meaning in the cosmos, and very much a part of this. I believe that the Hindu religions today are similarly pantheistic, and astrology flourishes in India.

From the so-called axial age onward, a series of monotheistic religions emerged from the austere Middle Eastern deserts, in turn Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and spread worldwide. From here on, I’ll stick to Christianity, the one I know most about.

When Christianity became a political project, in the time of Constantine, it became necessary to absorb the symbols of pantheism into that Christianity – politicians know they need to carry the people forward with them.

So you will find pantheistic and astrological symbols in most of the Christian churches – most notably in those wonderful Romanesque churches on the routes of the great European pilgrimages, such as that to Santiago de Compostella in Spain – and also notably in that great flowering of the Gothic cathedrals from the 12th century. See the stone signs of the zodiac, stained glass windows, the four elements of the fixed cross (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the wise men following the star, the green men, and so on.

amiens zodiac 2So, certainly at this time, the church was happy to incorporate aspects of pantheism and astrology into its very fabric, their great archetypes enriching the religious experience. Look for it when you next visit one of those amazing religious buildings.

Of course this is all just circumstantial evidence and not a proper analysis. I’d be interested in any evidence that contradicts the suggestion that there’s no conflict between astrology and religion.

Images show the signs of the zodiac and tasks of the year on the cathedral in Amiens.

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Field of stars

It’s Alf’s funeral today – a good neighbour and friend for 30 years. Always ready for a friendly chat and a great fund of terrible jokes. I remember with particular fondness the two weeks we spent together in 1990.

During our chats we had discovered a common interest in the pilgrimage of St James, from various starting points in Europe to Santiago de Compostella (campus stellae = field of stars) in northern Spain. I had been captivated by the idea when I first heard of it – taking time out from the everyday grind to follow an essentially spiritual objective seemed right. Perhaps I had been a pilgrim in a previous life. In Alf’s case it was less easy to understand, as he professed to be an atheist, despite his many religious friends.

In a busy working life it remained a pipe dream for me until one day just after Alf had retired from his work at the BBC. He wanted to follow the pilgrims’ route to Compostella in his caravan, but wife Janet had herself not yet retired, so did not have the time. Eventually, Alf came up with a proposition – why didn’t I come with him on the route as far as Burgos, and Janet would go out to meet him and complete the trip. Could I get enough leave from work and family?

So it was the two of us set out in Alf’s caravan, complete with bicycles so that we could at least cycle small sections of the route.

Alf had travelled the route before, so he knew the places to visit. This included his own favourites – such as Pegasus Bridge, which played a key part in the Normandy Landings – the small village of Putanges, where Alf said ‘bonjour’ to the Madame who ran the restaurant – and Bourges Cathedral. I just had to climb the cathedral tower, much to Alf’s disgust, but in the end he did climb up with me to enjoy the view, the first time he obtained a ‘plus de soixante ans‘ reduced entry fee.

We joined the pilgrim route proper at Le Puy. At St Michael’s church, Alf was most put out that two nuns took him to be my father. He enjoyed telling the tale for ever more. Here began my education into the many magical churches that await the pilgrim: Estaing, Conques, Moissac, Sauveterre be Béarn and St Jean Pied-de-Port. We had a restaurant meal here near the Spanish border – welcome relief from both our attempts at cooking in the van.

Travelling with Alf was an education in itself as he introduced me to various wildlife and flora – I particularly remember the many red kites and celery flowers by the wayside. And, of course, Alf knew all the tales and legends of the pilgrim way, unfailingly recounting them at the appropriate point.

Then came the pass of Roncesvalles into Spain, and on to Puente la Reina, Estella, Torres del Rio, Najera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Burgos. Stopping to pick up something for lunch at Puente la Reina, Alf enjoyed chatting up the pretty lady selling olives, and then proceeded to eat the whole packet one by one as he drove onwards. At Burgos, we chained our bicycles to railings outside the magnificent cathedral and I was overwhelmed by  the magnificent exterior, but somewhat underwhelmed by the oppressive interior.

We then cut across to Santander to pick up Janet and deposit me for the ferry back to England and everyday life. Thank you Alf for sharing this journey, for being a good friend, and for the great pleasure you have given to many along your way.

I think you’re now up there in the field of stars, even if your professed atheism would have denied the possibility…

Featured image shows Alf at the top of the tower of Bourges cathedral