August 8, 2010

Author Q&A: Running on faith

A USM professor makes the trek to a shrine in Spain with a photographer to capture the arduous journey made by pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Imagine walking the Appalachian Trail, but doing it barefoot.

Bandits lie in wait for you around the bend. You have one set of clothes and nothing to sleep on, and you sometimes have to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and water. And if you injure yourself? No antibiotics.

Such was the life of a medieval pilgrim traveling to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to be buried. The journey to the shrine at Santiago was once as important to Christians as pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Rome.

Thousands of modern-day pilgrims still walk one of the many routes to the shrine, hoping for adventure or some kind of spiritual renewal. The attraction is especially strong this year because it is a "holy year," when the saint's feast day (July 25) fell on a Sunday.

If you don't have the time or inclination to make the trek yourself, let Kathleen Ashley and Marilyn Deegan show you the highlights in their new book, "Being a Pilgrim: Art and Ritual on the Medieval Routes to Santiago" (Lund Humphries, $60).

Ashley and Deegan spent two summers, and vacations in between, traveling the pilgrimage routes and photographing the art and architecture along the way. It's the next-best thing to being there.

Ashley, a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, is a medieval scholar who grew up in Angola, where her parents were missionaries. The family left when civil war broke out, and a college-age Ashley had to adjust to life in America. She attended Duke University in North Carolina, where she earned her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

"It was very strange," she said of her new life in America. "Of course, my parents were American. I spoke English very well, but I did not know the United States at all. I mean, I really, really did not know it. It took me about 10 years to adjust to the fact that I was probably not going to live in Africa. At that point, Africa was pretty much in turmoil and war, falling apart, so it was not a place you would go unless you had ended up in some practical field, like being a nurse or doctor or engineer."

"But I became a medievalist," she added laughing. "I don't think they need medievalists in Africa."

Ashley lives in Gorham with her husband, who is a retired USM English professor. Her son Christopher Ashley directed the Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis." 

Q: Have you done any of these pilgrimages yourself, before working on the book?

A: I'm a total fraud (laughing). I have written tons of books and tons of articles on medieval cultural history and literary history, and I've written books on saints' cults, and of course many of the places along the pilgrimage routes are saints' shrines. But I had never really worked seriously on the pilgrimage to Compostela in Spain. This was a totally serendipitous project for me. It was not something in my wildest dreams I ever thought I would write, but it was fun. 

Q: I don't know how many of the modern-day pilgrims you talked to, but from listening to them, is the journey still as hard as it's described in the medieval texts?

A: It is. Basically, you're still walking. Your feet break down. There's still a lot of weather. At the end, people who walk 100 kilometers to Santiago can get a compostela, which is the official stamp (showing that) you've done the pilgrimage. But most of the people I've talked to have walked from Belgium, Switzerland or somewhere in France, so they've walked a long, long way. It is very arduous. It is physically taxing. It's a psychic kind of experience that's very profound.

(Continued on page 2)

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