Turbocharged with the cherry juice from the orchards of my hosts (Cherryfarm Bakkershof in Brustem) and the memories of the eccentric gifts of the historic Christina, who was born in this very place, I set out into a warm and grey mid-winter day. 13 degrees Celsius, I need to dress down significantly!
The showers were frequent throughout the day. As I walked along the trail, I started to understand why the oldest settlements were in locations that we would call ‘holes’: These depressions are a natural protection from the strong winds that happen to blow frequently in this flat landscape. If it weren’t for the many groves and rows of sheltering trees, it would feel like on the islands in the Canadian Arctic.
Today’s journey took me along the old Roman overland trail from Kassel to the coast of the English Channel (to Bavay, France). The trail does not look any different from the majority of agricultural roads in the area. Within minutes, I was walking by a Gallo-Roman or Celtic burial mound of sizeable proportions.
The old road is fortified with concrete tracks (a blessing on a wet day like today – just imagine the mess on my boots if I had to walk on the clay-rich ground that supports the brick industry). However, there was a curious observation: Whenever there was a hill or a gradient, the old Roman trail climbed at a steady incline, dug into the hill and lined with hedges.
I was wondering if the Romans actually built those grades, not unlike a railway grade that has very gentle inclines, or if these grades evolved from centuries of use and influence of the weather (more of a non-intentional rut that washed out and that became very practical). Since the overland trail follows more or less a straight line, it could have be engineered.
I picked up the trail at the edge of a former NATO air force base (today the Limburg Regional Airport). It was well marked as a bicycle route and hiking trail. Belgium does have an extensive long distance network of human powered travelling. I went east, with the prevailing winds and showers coming from the back. Initially, the trail was lined with orchards. They are monocultures, but nonetheless support some wild life. I spotted a rabbit, a pheasant, some fox dens, and many raptors hunting from overhead.
Right after my lunch break at a nice picnic table in a walnut grove, I interrupted the meal of a hawk in a hedge. She left a bed of feathers and some meaty parts of a pigeon she hunted only minutes earlier. The hawk was apparently not used to pilgrims along that trail, especially on a rainy day during the winter months.
Before lunch, I took shelter from the rain for a few minutes in the small church at Helshoven. It was a small village, likely in the same spot as some Roman installation and continuously settled during feudal times. There were many estates along the way, some just large farms, some of them with attached castles and palaces. One of these estates is called Voort – the ford. It is the place where the trail crosses the main creek. The farming operations seemed to have moved elsewhere, some of the estates provide services for equestrians and owners of fancy SUV’s and luxury cars. As inviting as these majestic gates look to the pilgrim from afar, there are clear signs of exclusion of the common man posted: Private property – Keep out!
It felt good to walk completely separate from the normal life. The old Roman route serves no longer as the main traffic artery. The newer, medieval and modern roadways connect the Towns, villages, and some noble estates. The highways can be seen or heard at a safe distance. Only upon entering Tongeren, the oldest city in Belgian territory, did the Roman road intersect briefly with modern ones. But it lead straight forward as an alley way from the outskirts of the city to the main square with the cathedral!
About halfway along the way, there was a curious, permanent art installation at the edge of a wooded hill. I have to say, the Belgians would likely call the second part of the trail I covered as mountainous… The installation looked like a crooked, useless fence. It is named “Twijfelgrens” – the border of doubt. Looked at from the right angle, the Dutch spelling of the name is readable as handwriting. Fred Eerdekens, the artist, uses language as a medium, but also explores how language works in various ways. The installation marks the extension of a property line visible for many kilometers in the landscape below.
The border of doubt: This title made me think back to my starting point this morning and the life story of Christina the Astonishing. The accounts of her gifts and the way she lived and was perceived in this world leave much doubt. Did she cross that border when she claimed as a young woman that she was able to smell sinful people? Did her near-death episode after a seizure leave some doubt about her gifts among her contemporaries? After all, they believed her dead and were about to bury her when she woke up during the funeral and levitated to the ceiling of the church in Sint-Truiden. During that near-death experience, she reportedly has witness heaven, hell, and the purgatory – pretty powerful places for the imagination of every human being.
Shortly after my rest stop at the little church, I came across another curious way point: It is not unusual in Belgium to find all sorts of religious imagery and monuments at street corners and along roads. But there was a very modern one that must have a definite link to the border of doubt. It is a statue in memory of a local woman, Tjenne Michiels, that was tortured and burnt at the stake at this location in 1667. Hundreds of years after the fact, someone must have had a serious doubt about the righteousness of the church and state authorities who were so efficient at determining who was a decent human being and who was a witch. Were the witches not just human beings with special gifts or unconventional world views, resisting the dominant discourses of their times?
Last night, I stayed at the birthplace of a gifted human being. Tonight, I am checked in the youth hostel that is located in one of the twelve béguinages in Flanders that are recognized by the UNESCO as a world heritage site. The Beguines chose a life style that is described as a third way, between marriage and ordination with a cloistered life. The béguinages here is a small city within the larger city, separated by wall and a big portal that was closed. The women dedicated their life to the will of God, stayed single and unattached, and were known to contribute extensively to the common good through charitable work and their gifts in life.
The life in the béguinage was a mix of communal and individual life. Many of the communities were economically independent through textile work as well as urban agriculture. These communities also emphasized the care for the sick and the poor as part of their testimony.
I take this historic idea – the Beguines movement is all but extinct today -and use it as an inspiration for a vision for the future: A disciplined community following the example of Jesus in a seemingly independent and democratic way. A form of simplicity and contemplation without retreating completely from the world, using their unique gifts. Fascinating stuff to research further. I remember that Dorthee Soelle spoke highly of some of the Beguines in her book “The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance”. What stands out in my memory of Soelle’s comments is that Beguines have been known to maintain the joie de vivre as part of the disciplined following of a deeply religious life path; a joie de vivre that is documented in some of the psalms and the Song of Songs.
Before nightfall, I took a tour of Tongeren. The city is built in a round shape with the medieval fortifications still visible. These are surrounded by the remnants of the Roman fortification in a much wider circle. As I wandered the streets in search for food, a saw blue sky and a glimpse of sunlight touching the tops of buildings and church towers. It was like a sign that this was the place I was meant to be today. At the cathedral, I saw the simplicity of true Romanesque architecture.
But I also learned that this is one of the waypoints of the Way of St. James, the Flemish section of the Camino. I am a pilgrim, but I am going crossways to the more traditional routes. I have no doubt that people might doubt my intentions. But then, I am not committed to a particular church, or even the church: I am only committing myself to the Divine, the All-Loving life force that I experience here and there on a daily basis.
As I started my day with a local beverage, so did I finish it with one: This one did not come from the orchard, but from the local brewery. Hopefully, some of the ingredients have been grown in the region. It is one of my habits when traveling and as a visitor: I like to ingest locally grown products as one more way to deeply experience and appreciate the people and the land that hosts me.