Hitting the pause button: Conques

Although I’m already several days behind with my daily posts, I’d like to skip ahead to a nearly 24-hour period when I didn’t make any forward progress at all. It was in Conques, and it wasn’t entirely planned.

When I woke up yesterday morning in Sénergues, I decided to take my time getting to Conques. I knew there would be Mass at the abbey church at 11:45 am, which was more than enough time to make the six-mile hike — even after getting lost briefly, but that’s a story about the route, so I’ll save it for later.

Once I arrived in Conques, I quickly realized that the abbey and its church were the main attractions, and immediately I was taken in by it.

The abbey church is the focal point of Conques.

Conques is an ending point for a lot of people who started the Camino de Santiago in Le Puy, and it’s a starting point for a smaller number. So a lot of people were enjoying their initial or final moments there.

Even before I went into the church, I was shocked by how many familiar faces I saw — faces I’d seen along the way and assumed I’d never see again. Even though we each had our own cadence, somehow we all ended up in Conques together.

Once inside the church, it was like a coming-out party for believers — or at least for those who are open-minded about it. While quietly praying a rosary before Mass, two guys I’d seen a lot along the way put a hand on my shoulder as they passed, just to let me know they were at Mass too.

Reliquary of Saint Faith, martyr.

After Mass, I was deciding whether to stay or to move on, so I thought I’d let the accommodation situation be my guide. I walked around one side of the church, and as if she knew what I was looking for, a woman I’d seen several times told me the accommodations welcome center for pilgrims at the abbey was on the other side of the church.

I walked to the welcome center, and they were closed until 2 pm, which is fairly normal. So I decided to have lunch and a beer, and I went back around 1:45 pm.

Local beer and local beef.

They weren’t receiving pilgrims yet, but I got my name on the list, and it was settled. I would spend the night in Conques.

The abbey accommodations were a bit more primitive than the gîtes where I’d stayed so far. A dormitory with 18 beds, mixed men and women. Honestly, I didn’t care. It was only to sleep.

The volunteer who led me to the room was also welcoming an older French couple I’d seen and had chatted with a number of times. The wife had some questions about noise.

He said, madame, these are shared accommodations. People snore, people cough, people sneeze, people fart, older men with weaker prostates get up three times a night to use the bathroom.

She gave me a glance. I told her, I do all that. She rolled her eyes with a smile.

Staying in Conques opened up a number of opportunities for prayer with the religious community that’s installed at the abbey. In addition to daily Mass, lauds, vespers, and compline are prayed almost every day in the abbey church. The meal schedule at the abbey conveniently allows taking dinner and breakfast and attending the prayer times.

Candle lit at Conques for a friend.

While walking around the village and taking pictures, I ran into another pilgrim I thought I’d never see again. He had shared a room with me several days earlier and wanted to buy me a beer but never got a chance. Three days earlier he said he’d see me in Conques. And he did! And after the beer, he too was at vespers.

Dinner at the abbey was nothing to write home about. However, it was nice to have a priest come to give us a spiritual talk and to bless the food before we ate.

The priest asked if there were any foreigners in the refectory. I raised my hand and said I was from the United States. I thought I was just satisfying his curiosity.

It turns out that they like to do the short reading at compline in several languages. And since I was the only person who raised his hand from an Anglophone country, I was sort of voluntold to do the reading in English. I didn’t have my glasses on me, so I was kind of happy to have an excuse not to finish dinner.

It seemed like every person who was spending the night in Conques was at compline. After the prayer, there was a benediction and a procession to the plaza in front of the church, where another religious gave a talk about the art above the church doors. Finally, everyone went back inside for a nearly hour-long pipe organ concert. I felt as though the music was chosen to evoke a sense of the supernatural, but that’s just my impression.

The pipe organ concert was well attended.

At the end of the concert, everyone returned to wherever they were spending the night. I won’t lie. It wasn’t my best ever night of sleep. I don’t know if I did any of the things the volunteer warned madame about — except getting up to pee — but I know they were all done by someone at some point during the night. Still, I did get some sleep.

This morning, I woke up about an hour before breakfast, ate relatively quickly, and was at the church about ten minutes before lauds. Lauds was far less attended than vespers and compline. I pulled out my rosary. It’s Friday, and I usually pray the sorrowful mysteries on Fridays.

Serenity of an empty church.

I can’t explain what happened next.

The sorrowful mysteries are usually a little difficult for me to meditate upon, but never like today. During the first mystery, the agony in the garden, I found myself getting a little misty-eyed — fairly normal — then shedding a few tears — not normal, but it has happened before — then openly sobbing before I got to the end of the decade. I had to break it off for a couple minutes. I finished the second mystery just as lauds were beginning, so I put my rosary away for a bit. After lauds, I stayed in the church to finish my rosary. During the fifth mystery, the crucifixion, it happened again. I hit the pause button again, collected myself, and finally finished, singing the Salve Regina quietly in an empty church.

Was it the place? Was it the relics of a fourth-century martyr, Saint Faith? Was it the 120-plus miles of walking? Was it the other people with whom I’ve shared the way? Was it the fact that I devoted nearly an entire day to prayer? Was it the lack of sleep?

I have no idea.

Leaving Conques.

I left the church, returned to the abbey to get my belongings, and a half-hour later I was on my way again. However, the impression Conques made on me is going to stay with me for a while.