Rain usually dampens people’s spirits. But, when several thousand gather together for a grueling march across French countryside, from the heart of Paris to the cathedral of Chartres, spirits don’t stay damp.
This was an annual three-day pilgrimage that I was privileged to undertake in 2005. My family and I were living in France at the time, and I was enrolled in an English boarding school. When the school offered the chance to do some rigorous penance, several hands went up around the refectory. What convinced me most were the chaplain’s words the night before we left; ‘this will acquire you a clean slate, as if you had just been baptized’.
That did it for me.
A Pilgrim March
Within three days I was standing on damp flagstones next to the school principal outside the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, with the rain drizzling down the back of my neck. The church, choking with pilgrims, disgorged them around midday as they formed a long procession divided into chapters, led by captains who immediately relayed hymns and prayers.
We fell in with the English chapter and slogged out of Paris into the countryside. The rain increased as we cheerfully thought about things like self-sacrifice, martyrdom and pneumonia. By lunchtime, we had reached a forest and the entire exodus dropped to their knees in the puddles to attend Mass. It was as if we had slipped a time barrier back to the Middle Ages. I was enthralled to the see the exhausted devotion of the pilgrims, especially around the time of the consecration, when every flag, banner and pennant dipped in homage of the King of Kings.
The pilgrimage seemed to be chiefly composed of battalions of the French Scout movement, who displayed an incredible sense of Catholic militancy and confidence. They regard themselves as modern knights, and were a great source of morale for the rest of us when we flagged, wondering if another step was humanly possible.
After 30 or more kilometers, we arrived at base camp around midnight. That was a relief. Putting up the tents wasn’t. Most of us would have been content to sleep outside if it not for the ominous weather. We collapsed.
And just as quickly rose to the melodies of classical music pounding from loudspeakers. We fell back into line after receiving coffee and bread from massive distribution lines. Then we marched all day.
One sight stuck in my mind; a field ringed with great tractor-trailers, their trailers open like great loading bays in a starship, and a sea of a thousand pilgrims tossing their backpacks into the open rears. It reminded me of a modern Noah’s ark scenario. Also I’ll never forget the indomitable Scouts creating human pyramids during the 15 minute breaks, while the rest of us created tepees from our sore feet.
But what was most touching was walking through the encampment during the night; the mud-churned paths bristling with torches and tents like a vast, slumbering army, the air filled with the murmuring of a million voices, and in the center of the camp, the Blessed Sacrament standing en-monstranced for all night adoration. He was surrounded by legions of adorers who knelt under a forest of flags and banners, gold thread and mud-spattered velvets rustling in the midnight meditations.
Keeping the Faith
It was difficult, but there was a constant murmuring that kept our spirits up, ‘just wait ‘til you see Chartres! It’s all worth it!’ Being a newcomer, I was skeptical. But when I finally saw the shadowy spires rising above the dusty wheat-fields, my attitude changed. I picked up my feet with more enthusiasm, thinking about how wonderful a pilgrimage was, and the freedom of a plenary indulgence. It was exciting to think that I was doing the same thing people had done ever since the Middle Ages, seeing the same sights, experiencing the same sores, feeling the same sense of happy accomplishment.
We finally entered the vaulted front doors, filing in among thousands of pilgrims who had collapsed on the stone floors all the way up the nave. We crushed ourselves back against the columns to make way for the rest that kept coming and coming. Finally the Scouts arrived, proudly flying their banners, row after row marching in up to the high altar. Mass was celebrated with all pomp and circumstance, with the crowning glory of seeing every flag, banner and pennant dip low at the Consecration.
Those sights will be burned into my memory as some of the most wonderful in my life, especially to hear the scouts chanting and the thousands walking and the countryside rolling by. Chartres came to symbolise Heaven, the place of peace where I could rest after the grueling trials of my journey from Paris.
Grace certainly ‘came down like rain upon the mown grass; as showers that water the earth’ (Psalm 72:6).