"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

6 May 2013

A Philosophy of Tramping—Wonderings 2

Why are tramps demonised and hermits canonised?

San Frutos, Patron Saint of Segovia (642-715)

Having recently returned from six month in central Spain, where several of my essays on Victorian tramp writers were written, I want to discuss some thoughts prompted by a visit to the hermitage of San Frutos (Saint Fructos), patron saint of Segovia. The remote hermitage is set high on the side of the Duratón gorge where a horse-shoe bend in the river has left the hermitage guarded on three sides by cliffs, on the remaining narrow spur of land by a cleft in the rock, and from the air by the ever circling vultures.

Duratón vultures on the day of my visit
Many of the walks we took from our temporary home in a small village in the foothills of the Guadarrama mountain range north-west of Madrid, criss-crossed the Camino de San Frutos; a 77 kilometer footpath between Segovia and the isolated cave where San Frutos was to make his permanent home. My interest in hermit monks is discussed further in two essays on this site. But before considering in what ways the asceticism of the Christian hermit monk differs from, or shares, the asceticism of the tramp, I will continue with the story of Frutos, his brother Valentin and sister Engracia.

Children of a noble Segovian family, on the sudden and unexplained death of both their parents, when Frutos was only 15 (we are told that his brother and sister were younger), after an initial period of overindulgence brought on by boredom, Frutos proposed that the three embark on a life of asceticism. After giving away all their money and possessions to the poor, the three set out in search of a remote place in which to give themselves up to 'a life of solitude, prayer and penance for the sins of men', eventually arriving in the remote and magical surroundings of the Duratón gorge, some 15 kilometers west of the town of Sepúlveda. The three siblings sought out separate remote caves some distance apart, Frutos on the heights were the present hermitage stands, and there they commenced their lives in peace, solitude and devotion.

Details of the story are sketchy, with fact and legend mixed, some of which I translated (badly) from Manuel González Herroro's Crónica Imperfecta de la Vida, Muerte y Devoción del Bienaventurado Señor San Frutos Bendito, Patrón de Segovia, cross referenced with other accounts. Even then, there is little or no information on the intervening years—the ascetic lives of the three saints that would have been of most interest to me. Instead, the story focuses on the deaths of the three saints and the history of their mortal remains. What we do know, is that Frutos, Valentin and Engracia lived out their lives of solitude undisturbed in the Duratón gorge until the Moorish invasion of 711, when Frutos was already nearing his seventieth year.

Legend states that a group of Christian pilgrims from Sepúlveda, fleeing from the Moors, sought refuge with Frutos in his retreat. Frutos is said to have pleaded unsuccessfully with the Muslim soldiers to convert to Christianity. When they tried to seize Frutos, he drew a line in the earth with his staff commanding them not to cross it. When they advanced the rock split open swallowing some of the soldiers and their horses. Frutos would not be troubled again, dying from natural causes four years later.

La Cuchillada (cut or gash) of San Frutos, now spanned by a stone bridge
Other miracles attributed to Frutos include taming the Duratón vultures and some wild bulls, and a miracle credited to him after his death, when in 1225 a woman, pushed over the edge of the gorge by a jealous husband, suffered no harm from her fall. Following the death of Frutos, Valentin and Engracia buried his body near his hermitage and fled to another hermitage near the village of Caballar, some distance to the south. There they were decapitated and martyred by Saracen soldiers that same year. The skulls of Engracia and Valentin are preserved in the church in Caballar to this day. A local ritual performed in times of drought, involves dipping the skulls of Engracia and Valentin in a nearby fountain to precipitate rain.

Empty tombs of the three saints in Duratón—image 1

The building of the current hermitage and adjoining monastery by Benedictine monks, did not start until the 1070s, more than 350 years after Frutos' death. The relics of the three saints were re-interred in the tombs pictured above, located next to the hermitage, in 1125 after being moved there from their previous resting place in the Benedictine abbey of Santos Domingo de Silas, over 100 kilometers to the north. The final ignominy for the saints came in 1558, when the great and the good of the Catholic Church removed the remainder of the saints relics from their chosen resting place in the Duratón gorge, bringing them back to lie in Segovia's ostentatious gothic cathedral—some 900 years after the saints had renounced the materialism of that city to devote their lives to asceticism.
Segovia Cathedral
Consider then the philosophy and purpose of the hermit monk. The contrast between the lives of such hermits and those who uphold and promote the institution of the Church (including the wealth, power and privilege of many of its functionaries) is extreme and paradoxical. The hermit follows the original teachings of he whom Christianity claims as their founder—himself an ascetic—who, according to Mark, urged his followers: "Go sell all your possessions and give them to the poor." Fat bishops clad in ermine robes and gold chains strutting their cathedral palaces (never mind the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands, both during the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, and the three centuries during the Spanish Inquisition and witch-hunts of Europe and America) are a perversion indeed of the original life and teachings of their messiah.

I have suggested in a previous post that Jesus may himself have been influenced by the Cynics, who in turn were influenced by Buddhist teachings based on the injunction that: if one desires nothing, one lacks nothing. Personal hardship and suffering provided the key to the elimination of physical and mental discomfort. The Buddha, the Cynics, Jesus, hermits, and many vagabond tramps, could all be said to subscribe to this view that contentment, or rather, as Nietzsche put it, ‘an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance’, is to be found by living a life in harmony with nature and free from the anxieties that material possessions inevitably bring. All are also self-exiles from institutionalised society, be it religious or secular institutions, that have corrupted their original principles and teachings to advance their own self-interests. Institutions made up, of course, by individuals desperate to secure power over those who serve those self-interests; be it the paedophile priest, the rogue banker, or even an abusive partner or relative in that most basic of institutions, 'the family'.

In the Western world today, with the collapse of free market economics, loss of faith in politicians, and a resurgence of religious fundamentalism, it is a wonder that more people have not renounced materialism, as did the Cynic movement of ancient times or the tramp scare of late 19th century America? Perhaps it is because we are entering new and unpredictable territory, with no blueprint of how to respond to the new threats and fears that daily assault us. Having imagined that we were well into a new age of enlightenment and optimism for the future, we were not prepared for the events that have overtaken us since the turn of the millennia.

To return to our theme of religion, who could have imagined that in an increasingly secular world, we would be overtaken by a resurgence of religious fanaticism and holy wars, bringing in their wake acts of gross barbarism and inhumanity. But then perhaps what has come back to haunt us is entirely human. May not the whole human project have been flawed from the beginning? To quote Nietzsche again: “What? Is humanity just God’s mistake? Or God just a mistake of humanity?” Take the absurd example of Israel today. Surrounded on all sides by increasingly hostile and unpredictable neighbours, rather than employ their intelligence and advanced technology to create better lives for both Palestinians and Jews, Israelis drift ever closer to their own destruction. Half the Jews of Israel, mainly secular, are armed to the teeth and bursting with machismo, having achieved a spectacular makeover from, as Andrea Dworkin put it, the stereotype gentle Jewish Yid of the Holocaust era. Then there are the growing numbers of ultra-orthodox extremists—only males of course—studying in yeshiva; not only exempting themselves from military service but also subsidised by the state to exclusively study the Torah and hence avoid the broader education compulsory for those in the West—thereby ensuring a continuance of their medieval mindset.

Now this strange digression from hermit monks into Israeli politics may seem, on the face of it, like an argument against more asceticism in our lives: make military service and a secular education compulsory for all! The point I want to emphasise is: how tolerant, even encouraging, we are of people who wish to opt out of mainstream society for religious reasons (even when in the case of Israel, the nations very survival might be threatened by large numbers of the population doing just that) yet at the same time outlawing those who wish to adopt a similar lifestyle for non-religious reasons.

The Church establishment's way of dealing with rebellious hermit monks was to sanctify them and immortalise them as icons—in the same way was San Frutos brought back into the bosom of his Church, even though he had renounced that institution for his own version of Christianity. Secular societies way of dealing with its tramps and hermits is many and varied, including shutting them away in prisons and mental institutions. But rarely do we stop to consider what it is about our society that they rejected in the first place, nor what it is that they have set their faces towards. Why do we not celebrate tramps for their courage and tenacity, in the same way we celebrate monks—or, in the case of many of those featured in these pages, celebrate their literary works? It is the intention of this website to rescue tramping, as I attempted to rescue Cynicism in my book, from the dustbin of history and to address just these kind of omissions.

Footnote: the feast and procession of San Frutos, Santa Engracia and San Valentin, is celebrated each year on the 25th October.

Empty tombs of the three saints in Duratón—image 2

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