A second excerpt from my pilgrimage book.
Bells ring out at six a.m. as I hurry down the cobbled streets of Le Puy to enter the dimly lit interior of the Notre-Dame cathedral. People sit quietly before a white robed priest and I slip in to a pew beside them. Backpacks and walking sticks wait impatiently along the stone walls.
After mass, the group of a more than a dozen pilgrims is invited to gather around a white stone statue of St. Jacques. The figure stands against a side wall of the church, a satchel slung over his shoulder, a scallop shell on his broad hat; his eyes are fixed westward. The priest greets each of us, asks where we come from - France, Switzerland, Germany, Canada - and wishes us a safe journey. A nun at his side gives us each a small pendant of Notre Dame-du-Puy which I pin on the strap of my pack.
Then, standing beside St. Jacques, the priest reads the pilgrim blessing. “Look favorably on your pilgrims who leave for the road to Compostelle and direct their steps in your goodness. Be for them a shade in the heat of day, a light in the obscurity of night, a relief during the fatigue.”
Having been blessed, pilgrims gather their things to leave. We are invited to the sacristy where our credentials are stamped and we sign our names in a book thick with lists of others who have set out from the dark cathedral doors. Then, one by one, we step out to the grey light of morning.
The doors are capped by arched outer walls of the cathedral; a huge, uneven stairway leads down into town. This is the beginning of the Via Podiensis, the beginning of my two-month pilgrimage to the tomb of an apostle I do not know or believe in. I stand at the top for a moment, looking down the stone stairs and ahead to the western horizon. With a deep breath, I begin to descend, following the signs as the trail weaves through town. Soon I am climbing out of the valley, the Virgin glowing behind me in the first light of day.