I live close to one of Europe’s most-travelled pilgrimage routes – the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This proximity has often made me toy with the idea of making a pilgrimage of my own, but frankly, it’s a long, long way to the wild western coast of Spain. Last weekend I had the opportunity of making a much shorter pilgrimage – less than three hundred metres from my front door. How could I resist such an easy alternative?
The hill above my village has been graced by a life-sized effigy of Christ on a seven-metre-high cross since 1943. Usually I can see if from my kitchen window, but for over a year, the skyline has been empty. In a winter storm, the cross fell, and Jesus broke his arm. The original cross was the initiative of a local priest, Julien Salles. He believed it would watch over Saint-Sernin-les-Lavaur during the German Occupation. Since then, it has often been the other way around, and the villagers have had to watch over the cross.
After a photocall, the assembly headed back down to the village. A pause at the church would perhaps have been in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but instead the mayor led us all to the Salle des Fêtes for a different kind of spirit: whiskey or pastis, accompanied by a celebratory buffet.
Over a glass I reflected that my short pilgrimage was a good illustration of the French concept of laïcité – the strict separation of civil society and religious society. The mairie can pay for the upkeep of the village church, repair fallen crosses, and provide a good buffet, but it must not involve itself in religious practices such as entering a place of worship.