Many years ago, when I was beginning to feel my early yearnings for pilgrimage, I came to understand that even if a pilgrim walks alone, pilgrimage is a community experience. Pilgrims need support along the road just as they need the prayers and blessings of their friends and families. In return, they pray for others, while walking and upon arrival. Later, like heroes, they also bring the boons and lessons of their adventure home to benefit their communities.
When Angela and I shouldered our packs, with their distinctive scallop shells attached, we were noticeable, in the same way that we noticed others who were undertaking similar journeys. I knew from my past experience that people would see us and bless us as we walked, by waving, touching our scallops, or showing by some little indication that they were encouraging us on our way.
I almost walked right past one of the most interesting places on the old pilgrim route leading out of Paris. I must have been watching my feet rather than looking up because I completely failed to notice the tower or register the fact that we had arrived at a church.Thankfully, Angela was a bit more keyed in than I was, because all I saw was a squarish building with a little sign indicating that it was one of the official sites for the support of pilgrims on the Camino.
My companion urged me forward, so I opened the door, fully expecting to see an office — but what we stepped into was actually one of the most beautiful and meaningful stops on our route. Had I looked up before entering, I would have seen this:
The church of St. Jacques du Haut Pas is is a veritable wonderland of pilgrim symbols.
There are scallops on the carved capitals:
on the confessional:
and there are beautiful images of St. Jacques of varying ages:
There is also an amazing 17th century carving of the apparition of the Virgin of the Pillar, which relates to la Vierge du Pilier who would greet us when we walked in through the North Portal of the cathedral in Chartres:
Even the lace on the altar cloth was scalloped:
The best was yet to come however. As we explored the church, our packs – with their scallops shells attached – were noticed. A lovely woman who was clearly caring for the church and readying it for services approached us, confirmed that we were pèlerins (pilgrims) and proceeded to welcome us and share the story of the carving. A few minutes later, as the priests processed to the altar for the noon Mass, the last in the procession paused, then turned and quietly blessed us with a smile and a pilgrim’s blessing.
We were ready; it was time for us to depart from Paris and walk into the French countryside.