A thoughtful little piece published recently in The Irish Catholic about the benefits of walking and how medieval friars got around.
By Fr Conor McDonough
The New Year brings with it a barrage of holiday offers. Travel agents and airlines know that the depths of winter create in us a desire for the delights of summer, and they know how to capitalise on that desire: leave behind the clouds, the rain, the gloom and head for the sunshine!
For me, the idea of a sun holiday holds no excitement but there’s something universally appealing, I think, in the idea of exploring a new place, new tastes, a new perspective. It’s not always a matter of mere escapism. We’ve all experienced the spiritual difference that a holiday can make. Someone might be in a bit of a rut at home, head away for a few days, and come back ready to face their challenges with renewed energy.
T.S. Eliot put it well in his stunning long poem, ‘Little Gidding’: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”.
As a book lover, reading travel literature has almost the very same effect. And there must be lots like me, because the travel writing sections of our local bookshops are overflowing with new publications, as well as reprints of classics of the genre. To read Patrick Leigh Fermor is to be with him, on the same road, wandering through 1930s Europe, ready for adventure.
To read William Dalrymple is to be in old Delhi with eyes wide open. To read a compilation like The Oxford Book of Exploration, as I am doing now, is to be at frontiers everywhere, from Arctic wastes to African jungles. I open these books out of curiosity, but by the time I’m finished them, I’m usually readier to live out my own adventures as a Dominican friar in Dublin 1.
It seems earlier generations of friars understood this secret too, because they played a key role in the production of early travelogues.
The 14-Century Italian Franciscan, Oderic of Pordenone, accompanied by James of Ireland, travelled as far as China. The account he wrote of his travels, including detailed descriptions of Sumatra, became wildly popular.
Around the same time, a Dominican friar, Jordan of Severac, was writing a description of the people, customs, and landscapes of India, where he had been made bishop. And we have, too, the travel diary of two Irish Franciscans – Simon and Hugh – whose journey in 1323 from Clonmel to the Holy Land included an unwelcome delay in a Cairo prison.
Even the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, according to recent research, seems to have worked closely with Dominican friars in compiling and publishing the story of his travels in the East.
Friars didn’t just produce these works, they copied them, translated them, and used them in their preaching. We can see this in medieval Ireland: the Limerick Dominicans had in their library an account of travels among the Mongols; the Franciscans in Timoleague, Co. Cork had an Irish translation of Marco Polo’s travels; and the Franciscans in Kilcrea, Co. Cork had an Irish version of the semi-fictional travels of Sir John Mandeville.
We could put all this down to mere curiosity, but I think there’s a spiritual point to it too. Preaching friars had one major task: to help all their listeners on the personal journey to heaven. Think of a friar preaching in, say, Sligo in the Middle Ages. His hearers might never have left their parish, but if he could tell them a good story about adventures in Mongolia or India, it might spark in them the desire to commit once again to their own personal adventure, to step out bravely on the road to the heavenly kingdom, whose wonders “eye has not seen nor ear heard” (I Cor 2:9).
At the start of a New Year, the same road stretches out before us too. Ar aghaidh linn!
How did friars get about in the Middle Ages? Well, unless they had special permission to ride horses, they were meant to walk, just like Jesus did, just like the apostles did.
The great 13th-Century Dominican scientist and theologian, Albert the Great, was so dedicated to this aspect of evangelical poverty he was given the nickname ‘Bishop Boots’.
At one gathering of friars, he waited on the road to surprise the brothers arriving on horses and carriages…if you’ve got a step counter for Christmas and need a bit of courage to stick to your New Year’s resolution to get walking, ask for the intercession of Bishop Boots!