The musty smell of the ancient cathedral wafted out the door mixed with a layer of incense that had begun to burn for Mass as the aching feet of we, persevering pilgrims, passed the threshold.
Our group was one of the last inside the massive door. We settled our weary bodies on the cold, stone floor. We slow-blinked our way through Mass, desiring to give thanks to God for the gifts given on the way, but fighting against our somatic need to simply rest.
So many miles crossed, from one gorgeous Gothic cathedral dedicated to Our Lady to another. In actuality, only a short physical journey exemplifying the longer spiritual one we all travel on throughout the course of our lives.
A Prayerful Journey
Every year on the feast of Pentecost, a pilgrimage takes place in France that has been occurring off and on since the Middle Ages called the Pèlerinage de Chartres. Pilgrims walk from Notre Dame in Paris to Notre Dame in Chartres. The one that took place this year, in 2017, is the 35th since the modern day renewal by Notre Dame de Chrétienté (Our Lady of Christendom) of this longstanding practice. The pilgrims cover a distance of about 60 miles over the course of 3 days. It is intensive and arduous.
The pilgrims walk the path split into “chapters.” As most are residents of France, the majority of the groups are divided by parishes or other prior established groups. Pilgrims that come from outside the country are part of the “etrangers” (foreigners) group. The “chapters” are a wonderful blessing along the way as fellow pilgrims pray, sing, and bolster one another as they walk together.
Pilgrims meet at dawn the first day of the pilgrimage, as the sun rises up behind the majestic cathedral. Prayers are said within for a safe and blessed walk. Then, the pilgrims embark on the first half of the day which finds them winding through the busy streets of Paris. As the commotion of the city falls away, repasts are taken at midday in the fields on the outskirts of the city and Mass is offered for all. The end of the day requires the most determination as the pilgrims drag their tired bodies into camp and set up tents for a night of rest.
The second day arrives with a renewed conviction of making it to the end. Wandering across fields and through small towns in a spirit of prayerful vigilance, the pilgrims offer their sufferings for the intentions they carry in their hearts and those asked by loved ones back at home. The days can be heavy with scorching heat or the drenching rainfall of a warm summer rain. It is all part of the pilgrim’s adventure, and there is ample supply of opportunity for offering up in your days.
The second evening’s sunset reveals the silhouette of Chartres cathedral on the horizon. It is a welcome sight that buoys your resolve to make those final miles the next morning. Tomorrow will find you inside.
The songs that carry the pilgrims on the third and final day are always like those of soldiers advancing into battle. The marching tunes aid in making an even, continuous stride as the pilgrims ascend upon the magnificent, towering cathedral. The path winds up, up, up, every step an inch closer to the journey’s culmination. Many times, you feel as if you cannot make it, but here you are having achieved what seemed impossible, for with God, all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26)
The triumphant notes of the grand organ come spilling out the doors as the last steps are taken up to the doors. Banners are carried high as each chapter’s representative crosses the threshold marking their achievement. These represent all that we have offered in our millions of steps across the miles, our hearts full of thanksgiving for a pilgrimage finished.
It has been a time for reflection, for penance, and for fellowship. A time to converse with God about all the things on your heart. A time for remembering and asking pardon for your sins. A time to work together as the Body of Christ, carrying each other when times are tough and rejoicing in each others’ accomplishments.
My Personal Journey
I have participated in the Chartres pilgrimage twice, in 2003 and 2007. Both times have proved a tremendous, long term blessing on my life. In addition to many other intentions, I carried on my heart the desire to know and carry out well the vocation God was calling me to. The minutiae of my vocation continues to be discerned but I know that the seeds of the journey to marriage began to form on that dusty path.
For the duration of the pilgrimages, we were encouraged to take upon us the patronage of certain saints as examples and help to us along the way. Our heavenly friends that first pilgrimage in 2003 were Saints John the Baptist, Margaret Mary, and the martyrs of Compiegne, and, in a special way, Saint Joan of Arc. I felt very close to them during that time, and continue to rely upon their intercession. My eldest daughter, who is only four years old, surprised me recently as she has, inadvertently, too “chosen” Saint Joan. This is a sure sign to me of my dear friend’s continual influence in my life.
On my second pilgrimage, in 2007, my pilgrimage took an unexpected turn. I became very sick on the second day with a recurring illness that can incapacitate me. It knocked me flat and there was no way I could walk on my own two feet those many miles still left to cover. I managed to find a ride with a man shuttling supplies between rest stops. He took myself and an elderly woman who couldn’t make the journey by foot either that afternoon to the town of Chartres. I found a hotel room and slept straight through until late the next morning, sloughing off the worst of the illness. In the early afternoon, I made my way about a half mile to the cathedral to witness the pilgrims triumphantly coming up the hill to enter the cathedral. I had the temptation to feel defeated, as if I had failed the quest. But, as often happens in life, the journey can undergo detours and not end as you had envisioned it would when you began. It was great reminder that God is in control, not me.
I hope someday to make the journey of this Pentecostal pilgrimage with my family. (There are also chapters offered for families and young children with abbreviated miles interrupted by bus rides to aid shorter legs.) It is a blessing I wish to share with them.
The Journey of a Lifetime
A pilgrimage is an abbreviated representation of that lifelong journey we are all on as we make our way to our heavenly home. It gives us an opportunity to take some time out of the busyness of our daily lives and reflect on what we should be truly striving for in this life. In many ways, it is like a retreat, but with the added penitential aspect of traversing many miles over a short time span and an emphasis placed on the communal aspect of the Christian life. It reminds us of our duty as Christians to live a life in Christ, to find our hope and strength in Him.
Chartres Cathedral’s site states it well:
The pilgrimage of Christendom is Marian and missionary. It seeks to bring together all those who are motivated by the desire to promote the reign of Christ. It is in this spirit that each pilgrim is invited: during the pilgrimage, to deepen, discover or rediscover all the dimensions of the Catholic Faith and its necessary incarnation in the midst of men.
It promotes the vision of a Church where all the faithful strive to make effective Christian values in their lives and at the level of society.
(translated from the French)
The spirit of a pilgrimage should not end with the final steps crossing the threshold, but should spark a fire that enlivens our every day life with the joy of Christ as we return home. It should be a catalyst for diving deeper into our relationship with Christ. It should be a renewal of our commitment to serving others in His love. It should change our hearts as it does our feet with the callouses formed through the effort.
Written by Laurel Muff. Find out more about her here.