The call to the sacred journey your secret heart longs for won’t come by expectation, will not arrive in a logical way. – Phil Cousineau
“You’ve got to see this,” said Andi, a fellow pilgrim who has both an artist’s eye and a camera with all sorts of fancy lenses she knows how to use.
I followed, point-and-shoot camera phone in hand, wondering what I was about to discover on the other side of the Refuge Des Mottets.
The refuge, a converted dairy farm, is nestled among a number of other farm buildings on either side of a dirt road which passes through the small village of La Ville des Glaciers. Those who live in the village go about daily life much as they have for centuries, I imagine, as hikers travel the road following the Tour du Mont Blanc. One enterprising farmer evidently recognized there was money to be made by offering hot showers, meals, and lodging to hikers passing through his land.
Those who wander into the village are greeted by the music of cow and goat bells clanging and tinkling in thin mountain air. And as I followed Andi, stepping through the opening between the refuge bunkhouse and shower buildings, I discovered an alpine meadow awash in wooly sheep. We watched as two shepherds and their dogs led their flock up and into the hillside for their evening meal.
I grew up in the church. I’ve heard all the biblical references to shepherds and sheep and understand the metaphors. I get what’s going on. Sheep are too dumb to know what’s good for them. They need shepherds to lead them to safe places to graze, or else they will either starve or pitch themselves tail-over-wooly-ears into deep ravines.
For one thing, despite what every Christmas pageant may have led you to believe, real live shepherds aren’t cherubic children who work in bathrobes and wear towels on their heads. The two I watched were weather-worn, hard-working men wearing the clothing of hard-working men. The shepherds assumed positions of watch; one stationed at the very crest of the hill, leaning on his staff and looking out over the flock. The other had climbed to a bend on the trail where he stopped to work on repairing a gate or a section of fence–something I couldn’t quite make out.
But the dogs. Each sat poised, as if frozen in place, muscles taught, ready to spring into action at the slightest signal. I could almost hear their internal sheep dog dialog:
I’m ready. Send me. Just say the word. Or don’t. Give me a gesture, the slightest hand movement, and I’m off. See that sheep, that one there? You want me to go after that one? Do you? Please? Send me–I’m you’re dog. Please send me!
In that I was in France and am neither fluent in French nor in dog, I can’t be absolutely certain those were the exact words swirling around in their brains. But I’m reasonably sure that’s what those dogs were thinking.
And all it took was a single word. A gesture. The muscles which had been holding them in place, released those dogs to do the very thing they were put on this earth to do. They ran, they chased; they flew toward the sheep, nipping, barking, and sheep-dogging for all they were worth. They got those sheep just where the shepherds wanted them.
We began the next day’s hike by considering the idea of calling. What was it we had seen, heard, felt, or sensed which had moved us to take this journey? How had God called each of us to go on pilgrimage?
Calling, to me, sounds like something which is sacred and transcendent; a blinding light, road to Damascus kind of thing. Or, I thought, a calling should be something one discerns after an extended period of reflection and prayer. A calling, it seemed, should be clear and direct, and pointing me toward something important and big.
I had simply gone hiking the Alps. I’d wanted to travel to Europe with my husband, see some cool stuff, eat good food, meet interesting people, and maybe find something I could write about. And bring home a suitcase full of chocolate from Switzerland, of course.
My motives were far more self-absorbed than transcendent.
But if God could call a man in the throes of murderous rage, turning him around on the road to Damascus, he could certainly get the attention of a self-absorbed middle-aged wannabe traveler like me.
The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. John 10:3, 4 ESV.
The sheep I had watched the previous afternoon were hungry. They wanted to eat. The shepherd guided and directed them, moving them by means of a single word or the slightest gesture. He moved them away from what they thought they wanted to what was better and good. Sometimes he sent the dogs after them.
God knows me, and he knows how to get my attention. He doesn’t always use grand gestures, signs, and wonders. Often he works through my own desires, quirks, and self-interests. He tells me I’ll know his voice when I hear it. Sometimes, though, he’s had to send the dogs after me. The shepherd who called me has promised to keep going after me, getting me where he wants me. He’s going to feed me, and he’s going to bring me home.
Perhaps my time in the mountains was a calling; God inviting me to come away with him to drink more deeply of his goodness, dwell in his presence, and bear witness to the splendor of his works. And maybe that’s a calling which is important and big after all.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about my experience on pilgrimage in the Alps. To read others in the series, click here: The Pilgrimage Posts
Source cited: Phil Cousineau. The Art of Pilgrimage: A Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (p. 39). Kindle Edition.
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