At the beginning of last January, Red and I made the decision to do the Chartres Pilgrimage in France. Over the course of 4 months, two times the choice came upon us, and both times we turned it down, due to particular circumstances, despite desperately wanting to go for it. Finally, something threw itself into our path which allowed us both to make the much anticipated decision to go ahead with our travel plans! We booked flights, and with our dear friends (hence forth known as Relationship Goals) at Orbis Catholicus travel. We planned for 3 days in Paris with them and another acquaintance from home, followed by the 3 day Chartres Pilgrimage, and a 9 day tour through France with Orbis Catholicus (which we knew would include a bus load of other pilgrims).
The daily grind had been wearing on me for some time, perhaps a combination of being in the same job for as long as I had, the feeling of not using my abilities to their full potential, a huge desire for a change but being at a loss as to what that change should be.
So I packed my travel bag, and headed to France for three weeks, with a heart full of prayer requests and my best gal, Red.
Neither of us had been to Europe before, so our natural spirits of adventure were soaring sky high! I don’t detest long flights, I find I actually enjoy the strange non-time that exists while flying. I am always well equipped with my writing materials, rosary, books, music, memory foam neck pillow (which, by the way, is probably the single greatest $40 I have spent in my entire life), comfortable clothing, and of course there are in-flight movies (which I often don’t even use much). It was a four hour flight to Toronto, where we walked off one plane and immediately onto another, for an additional six hours to Paris. While searching for my seat on the Paris bound flight out of Toronto, I heard my name called out from somewhere, and looking around, I see Carmelite K smiling at me from the seat next to her new husband. We had known we were both doing the pilgrimage, only the smallness of Canada becomes very apparent when you live on completely opposite ends of the country, yet end up on the same flight to Paris from a part of the country that neither of you live in!
Upon landing in Paris, we taxied into the city with Relationship Goals, and were dropped off at the Airbnb I had booked in Oberkampf. It was a tiny room with a tiny washroom in an apartment building, overlooking the courtyard. We were so very exhausted, but it was only 10:30am or so, and we knew we couldn’t sleep yet. So we grabbed the camera, our packs, and headed out to find a bite to eat. Walking in the general direction of Pere Le Chaise Cemetery, we popped into a bakery for a snack and had our first French croissant. It was buttery heaven. We walked all around the cemetery (if you don’t know by now, I love cemeteries!), finding Oscar Wilde’s grave, and eventually sat down for a short rest on a park bench. Twenty minutes later, we both woke up. After that, we realized it’s probably better to just head back to the Airbnb then to be wandering about an unfamiliar city as exhausted as we were, passing out on random park benches! With a stumble along the way where I rolled my ankle (story of my life), we managed to get back to our room, I iced and elevated my swollen ankle, and we were both in bed, black-out curtains drawn, and completely passed out, by 6:00pm.
The next morning we met Relationship Goals and their niece, Sweets, at a nearby church. And there began our first day in Paris, with a ‘cafe au lait’ from a bakery beside the church. Those three days were full of walking throughout Paris. The man side of Relationship Goals is a travel expert and took us to many of the beautiful things to see there, stopping to eat lunch along the Sienne, or for a drink at a cafe. One of the highlights during those first three days was of course seeing Notre Dame Cathedral, Sainte-Germain church, and Sainte-Chapelle.
On the fourth morning, the morning of the pilgrimage, after our alarm not going off, we made a mad dash to Notre Dame via running and a taxi, but wound up sitting away from our foreign counterparts because the cathedral was already so packed full by the time we arrived that we couldn’t get to where they were. We were in a wing, with a perfect view of the altar and the gothic stained glass windows. The acoustics were unlike anything I’d ever heard before; I revelled in the music all throughout mass.
The pilgrimage itself was one of (if not the most) incredible experiences of my life. It was grueling, but sweet. I don’t think one can properly express what goes on interiorly during a pilgrimage. I think it has to be experienced to be properly understood. Our chapter chaplain was a stellar general the entire time, keeping up moral through leading the rosary, meditations, hymns, fun songs, hearing confessions throughout, and an over-all strength of priestly presence. In between all of this, there were moments of silent perseverance. But also much jolly camaraderie, leaning on each other and encouraging one another’s spirits, which encouraged our own in the process.
I won’t get into too much of the gory details, but suffice it to say that within our chapter there were cases of heat stroke, illness, severe swelling and blisters, and weeping fatigue. I parted with Red on the second day breakfast break due to her impending illness, and she was brought ahead on the bus to the lunch/Pentecost mass break. But when I arrived I was greeted by Sweets, who was waiting for me at the field entrance to take me to Red, who was currently with the paramedics after passing out and being carried up on a stretcher. Naturally panic stricken, I raced through the sea of hot pilgrims, reaching the shady spot where the paramedics were. All was fine, aside from Red looking awful as she lay in the ambulance, a doctor and medic on either side of her. After an hour or so, she was recovered enough to take away, and we hobbled out of the medic area and over to a high spot of field under the shade of the only trees in sight. There were eight from our chapter stricken with woes of invalids, and three of us sat with them, ensuring hydration, some food, and attempting to keep a calm and positive spirit amid a physically and emotionally exhausted lot (as we ourselves fought off the same).
Red and I went to Adoration that night in the farmers field the camp was set in. It was humbling to be part of the sea of young pilgrims kneeling outside in the dark. Needing some time away from the tent of emotional females, we sat outside the men’s tent for a while, chatting with them. A male Swedish pilgrim I’d seen earlier in the day came to join us. It is a well known fact that many Catholics meet and marry their spouses on the Chartres pilgrimage. This Swedish pilgrim was present for such intentions. Kudos to him, I thought. But alas, nothing came of it, poor fellow. The Swiss sang outside their tent again, and after standing close and enjoying it, we toddled off to our tent to get to bed. The English were pitched beside us, and in no other circumstances would it be socially acceptable to meet a young man behind one’s tents, and exchange pleasantries of introduction and information while foaming out of the mouth between brush strokes and spitting, except while on the Chartres Pilgrimage.
On the following day, mild heat stroke crept up, but this time on me. Red’s knee was swollen too large to walk, and we caught the bus to the lunch break. But after taking oodles of wrong turns, we wound up at the lunch break only after all 13,000 pilgrims had already come through. And so we bolted as quickly as we could to catch up with the tail end. Poor Red was limping, but we were determined to walk the majority of that day. Truth be told, we were both sick to death of the French and their bossy antics, and I was determined to catch up with any English speakers who didn’t yell at us. This, combined with a staunch determination to finish this pilgrimage, we picked up the pace, passing chapter after chapter after chapter. In the distance we saw a tiny cathedral silhouette against the flat and bright horizon. We kept going, and Red was a real sport as she allowed herself to be verbally and physically encouraged by me alongside her. The heat of the day was astonishing, but jaws set, we ended up passing the English chapter because our steady pace had hit and we didn’t want to slow down to walk with them. Every so often we would look up and see the distant cathedral had grown in size, indication we were shrinking the distance between us and our destination. Eventually we caught up with the Man side of Relationship Goals, and Sweets. Wiped, we slackened our pace and were passed a rejuvenating can of pineapples and it’s juice. The four of us walked together, reaching the cathedral, in all the spiritual glory that goes with reaching your pilgrimage destination.
We had a front curb seat on the street block outside the cathedral, and we sat with our chapter through mass in the peak heat of the day, simply basking in the cathedral bells ringing! Cardinal Sarah said mass, and I followed a good portion of his sermon, translating it in my brain from the French into English, until I was finally too drained to continue. Relationship Goals brought Red and I a bottle of ice water – he took such care of us through the whole trip. I will most likely forever remember that bottle of ice water as the best bottle of water in the history of my life.
After mass, we checked into our hotel and headed over to the restaurant for dinner, where Relationship Goals had reserved dinner spots for our entire tour group, since the following morning we were to leave for our 9 day tour. It was steak and beer all around, and our table of new pilgrimage-journeying young friends enjoyed many laughs and much camaraderie together.
Despite the travails of those three days, I would do the Chartres Pilgrimage again in a heart beat.