“I reflected on why, over the years, I’d come to think of France as imbued with a ‘Janus culture,’ a nation whose world-view, like the ancient god of thresholds, managed at the same time to look back and ahead,” observes David Downie in Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.
Janus lived simultaneously in the past and present. This struck me as absolutely appropriate… Janus was contemporary France.
Mr. Downie and his wife walk the “2,000-year-old Via Agrippa and pre-Roman, Gallic footpaths, routes predating Christianity, safe in the knowledge that, unbeknownst to most pilgrims, they underlie the Way of St. James just as surely as Paganism underlies Roman Catholicism.” Downie meditates on the nature of pilgrimage, personal reconciliation of faith and family issues, and life in today’s France, the focus of this review.
One passage illustrates the scope, insight and captivating interest of Mr. Downie’s commentary:
And why were religion and spirituality such taboo subjects in France? Everywhere else I lived, people handled faith without undue drama. Everyone was a nominal Roman Catholic in Italy, for instance, and swam in it like anchovies in the Mediterranean. Most Americans wore their beliefs like comfortable, elasticized jogging clothes – exception made for the radical Christian right. The French were different. The practicing Christians I knew – not to mention Jews, Muslims, Animists, Buddhists, and others – were careful, sometimes secretive, about acknowledging their faith, especially the Protestants among them. Religious persecution had marked them. The French Revolutionary heritage of anti-clericalism had survived, and the cult of the secular Republic had supplanted religion. A Frenchman’s first allegiance was expected to be to the Republic, not God, whatever name God or the gods or their messengers might bear. Paradoxically, that didn’t stop the church bells from ringing at 3 AM or prevent Christmas, Easter and Ascension from being holidays.
There is much more to this marvelous travelogue – personal reflection, insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, wit, time-enriched love between husband and wife and abiding respect and fondness for La Belle France. A worthwhile read.
Photo of Mr. Downie courtesy of Bing Images. To visit David Downie’s website, click here.