JENNY RAYNOR is the wife of Fr Michael Raynor, one-time curate of Saint Faith's, now resident in deepest Wigan, and she was a last-minute addition to the Conques pilgrimage party. As the final instalment of the long-running saga of the 2004 visit to Conques, she has written memorably of what she calls:

Conques – an irreverent report of a reverent journey

        When Autumn’s leaves began their merry dance,
        And stern October’s winds began to rage,
        The Crosby Pilgrims left for Conques in France
        (Acting their shoe size, rather than their age)
        To seek the blessings of St Faith’s great shrine
        With fellowship in travel, food and wine.

Well, it was a flamboyant send-off by any standards. St Faith’s Patronal Festival, an extremely flashy bishop, and a very mixed bag of pilgrims sped on their way by music, smells and bells.  (See the introductory Conques page for words and pictures from the High Mass Blessing of the Pilgrims.) Next morning – 7 a.m. at the coach – a bleary eyed bunch took the scenic route to Manchester Airport, only slightly enlivened by the arrival of  “Hattie from Huyton” (a.k.a. Fr Neil) in cassock and ‘souplatter’ – an all-purpose hat to repel rain, sun and pigeon droppings.

Our eventual arrival at Manchester was marked by a dash to get the duty-free booze, while the more sedate collected daily papers and Puzzlers. Then it was breakfast – the few pilgrims sticking with coffee and toast, the rest facing a dreadful choice of English Breakfast or Very Big English Breakfast.

An otherwise boring trip to Gatwick was enlivened by a voluptuous lady passenger who decided to be the in-flight entertainment. Clothed in a dress like a mini-cassock (which barely covered her assets), she struck various poses until a near miss by the food truck sent her to her seat, obviously disappointed at the paucity of film directors / rich men to take up her blatant offers.

Somewhat travel-worn, we arrived at Toulouse and thankfully sank into the seats of our coach for the last part of our journey to Conques. As night fell, the coach climbed up increasingly steep and twisting roads, the darkness only relieved by occasional glimpses of light from small towns and tiny villages. It was a while before some unrest in our gallant leaders, Bill and Margaret, warned us that all was not well. Signposts were scanned, maps consulted, and a hurried ‘parley’ (parlez-vous?) with the coach driver resulted in our interior lights being turned to a ghastly green.  It was at this point that one pious traveller was heard to say ‘Shall I get out my beads?’ and the reply came back ‘This is no time to be checking your jewellery’.

Eventually the lights of the Abbey shone below us, and leaving the coach, we set off, luggage-laden, down the steep path to the village. At last we had arrived in Conques!

Friday morning dawned bright and clear, and for the first time, the panorama of Conques spread before us. Perched on a hill side, the view reached down to the valley bottom, then the tree-clad sides rose again to reach the horizon. It was breathtaking in its grandeur and its serenity. Breakfast came (almost) as an anti-climax, though we did justice to cereals, rustic bread, butter and confitures, as well as huge slices of ‘breakfast cake’ and an endless supply of fragrant coffee.  Holiday bliss!

'All this, and Heaven too!'  We met in a tiny stone chapel on the side of the Abbey, leaving the back door open to the morning light and warm air. As we heard the opening words of the service, the endless prayers offered there over centuries surged round us and held us. Fr Neil’s first address found its meaning in the very place where we were – the French word for bread (pain), the brokenness of self – brought to its ultimate conclusion in the life of a fourteen year old girl who endured in her faith through torture and death.  Then, in the familiar pattern of this service ‘where heaven and earth meet’, we took the broken bread and wine outpoured, joining all who have made a pilgrim journey of faith through the ages.

Our first visit of the Pilgrimage was to the nearby town of Rodez. Leaving Conques, it was apparent that the corkscrew mountain road was not made for large touring coaches. We climbed for a seeming eternity, up a rosary of sharp bends, and as Norbert, our driver, swung the wheel, it seemed best to close our eyes and pray.

Arriving at Rodez as pilgrims, our first priority was, of course, lunch.  In such glorious weather, it had to be taken al fresco, so placing our trust in Margaret’s French, we let her order the plat de jour, lamb. The gammon and vegetables that arrived were delicious! We washed it down with plenty of vin, and duly fortified, set off for Notre Dame cathedral. It was big, with plenty of side chapels. Its most redeeming feature was a bright statue of St Faith, (see this by following the Saint Faith and Saint Faith's link from the home page) but like a ‘good deed in a naughty world’ she shone because the rest of the place was extremely dirty and dilapidated. Fairly recently, the interior had been reversed, the back door bricked up and an altar put in front of it. The huge stone pulpit, balanced on the back of some poor bloke who we thought might be Samson, had been torn down and moved to the opposite end, then badly cemented to a pillar. I wonder what Liverpool’s D.A.C. (=Diocesan Advisory Committee: the Liverpool's C of E 'thought police') would make of that?

Each evening, we ate with other pilgrims in the Refectory. Grace was the chorus of the Pilgrim’s Hymn, that was sung in full after Vespers for the blessing and sending out of those who journeyed on to Compostella. On this particular evening, there was a talk in French, by one of the Norbertine Brothers who administer the shrine, about the famous 'Tympanum' (the semi-circular stone carving over the main Abbey door and featured on the cover of October’s Newslink - and on several of the assorted photographs on previous pages). Even our good French speakers said it was hard to follow, but essentially it graphically depicted heaven and hell, with tiers of the good on the left, hands clasped piously and surrounded by angels, while the bad on the right were being dragged, pushed and prodded by some nasty-looking devils, presumably down to hell.

After this, we were glad to slip into the Abbey, where a Son et Lumière performance had been promised, accompanied by Fr Neil on the organ. At first, all was quiet and dim, and slowly as the light increased, the organ began to play. Faintly at first, the music ebbed and flowed, accompanied by light and shade that moved around the building. The volume gradually increased as the organist moved into Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor – the majestic sound swelling until the whole building was filled with sound, and the lights rose and fell in rhythmic harmony.  Like a great storm, it held us breathlessly enthralled to its climax, then moved into softer cadences with effortless variation on hymn melodies – 'as the deer pants for the water', 'be still for the presence of the Lord' – each one leading us into deep prayer and awareness of God. Slowly the sound died away and the lights faded, save for the golden flickering votives around the shrine. Silently, we slipped out into the Abbey Square, calmed yet uplifted; out into the warm, starlit night.

Saturday morning began with intercession in the chapel. It was a time to hold up to God those who had been unable to come with us, and to pray for the sick. The news of the death of Ken Bigley had reached us, and later, on our trip to Albi, we stopped at 12 o’clock to remember him and his family.

We returned from Albi to see our first pilgrims with donkeys arrive for the night. For us there was time to relax in the square, with pots of tea or ice-cream. A group of elderly schoolboys produced string and demonstrated their lack of skill at ‘Conquers’. No wonder the French won at Hastings! (see the link to this event on an earlier page!)

After the evening meal and Compline, there was a concert by a group of French pilgrims. This concluded with a rendition of ‘Frère Jacques’ as a round, which continued as we were led, singing, down the aisle and into the square – to be met by a violent electric storm with huge drops of rain – and so to bed.

Sunday dawned with a rainy mist over the valley. Breakfast on the balcony, even with an awning, was a soggy affair. It didn’t last, however, and a small patch of blue sky grew quickly, with a bonus of a rainbow, and we went dry-shod to the Abbey for a rehearsal for our part in the Mass. As we practised the French responses under the direction of Frère Jean Daniel, we suddenly realised that we were going to sing 'A faith that lives'. Nor did the Crosby people stop there, for the intercessions, written by Fred and read in English, had been translated into French by Margaret, and were read by Linda. We felt very special. After Mass, we adjourned to the Refectory for drinks, then split up to lunch in our own hotels. Everyone dined well, although one group made the meal and the wine last all afternoon, later playing host to others who had also dined well but more briefly. Rumour has it that the jokes were heard in the next valley.

It later transpired that the quieter group at the Abbey Guest House suddenly behaved in a riotous manner. Norbert, our French coach driver, received a call on his mobile that played a rather strange but catchy tune. What began as rhythmic clapping and singing inspired Frère Jean Daniel to play the harmonium in the dining room, and the impromptu concert ended with an excellent four-part rendering of – guess what – Frère Jacques.

What was left of the afternoon was spent strolling, relaxing in Abbey Square, and generally enjoying one another’s company.  Supper would have been a quiet meal, but 'Norbert’s Theme' was revived, and inspired by our music, the kitchen staff came out and did a lively dance. Vespers and the Sending Out of the Pilgrims followed. There was a short concert on the Abbey piano and then the organ, before we retired for our last night in Conques.

Monday morning found us ready and packed. We went quietly to our lovely stone chapel. Outside, the birds sang and the air was fresh. There was a feeling, not of finality, but of completion.  None of us can have been left untouched by the experience, but life is not lived on mountain tops, and home beckoned. The familiar words and actions of the Mass held us. Fr Neil spoke simply of the symbolism of the towel – that we should continue to wash not only one another’s feet, but the feet of any whom we could serve. We took communion for the last time together, conscious of that great cloud of witnesses down the ages who, from St Faith to the present day, in their diverse ways have walked the way of pilgrimage from which no one returns unchanged.

Ultria, ultria Esus e la
Deus ad juva nos.

Jenny Raynor

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