What makes a pilgrimage sacred is the longing behind the journey . . .
We stood together in a circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, our backpacks filled and hiking poles ready. Many of us were strangers to one another, having been introduced only via email or through mutual friends. Among our group were engineers and artists; a meteorologist, a lawyer, and a dentist; a recent high school graduate and a man who’d traveled in space. We were about to begin a ten-day journey in one another’s company, together walking the trails of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
The tour, which begins in the Chamonix valley in France, encircles Mont Blanc; the highest peak in the Alps and Western Europe. Its route crosses into Italy and Switzerland before returning to France, traversing ten or eleven mountain passes or cols, depending on the particular trails one takes. Seventeen of us had paid our money and prepared for this challenge, each of us in our own way. Each came for reasons of his own.
Each morning, before beginning the day’s hike, one of the trip’s leaders gathered us together to consider the common movements of a pilgrimage as described by Phil Cousineau in The Art of Pilgrimage: A Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred:
The book’s seven chapters follow the universal “round” of the sacred journey, exploring the ways in which the common rites of pilgrimage might inspire modern equivalents for today’s traveler. Like John Bunyan’s famous pilgrim, the book progresses from The Longing to The Call that beckons us onward, then the drama of Departure, the treading of The Pilgrim’s Way and beyond to The Labyrinth and Arrival, before coming full circle to the challenge of Bringing Back the Boon.
We began our climb toward the first col, crossing over a suspension bridge and capturing the first of many views of snow-capped peaks and hanging glaciers. Wild azalea about to burst into bloom grew in abundance, scattered across hill slopes to our sides. Ladies’ Mantle, daisies, violets, and a wealth of other alpine flowers had sprung up in some of the most unlikely places, even among the rocks on our hiking path.
Had none of us traveled this road to see them, I thought, these blooms would have remained, shouting color and beauty heavenward. Each one had been scattered there by the hand of God, for no good reason other than it pleased him to do so. Each was being superintended by his loving care.
As we walked, we found our stride. Some hikers stretched ahead, seemingly unfazed by either the physical challenge or the elevation gain. Others moved more slowly, their bodies struggling to adjust to breathing in thin mountain air. I found myself in the middle of the pack, and often hiking alone. I paused to take pictures and drink in beauty. Now and then I fell into step with one of my fellow pilgrims and asked them to tell me their stories, because that’s what I do.
As I walked, I kept returning to questions about longing. What was it for which my heart was longing? Was it to know God more deeply through his lavish displays of beauty? Was I longing for companionship, someone to walk with me along the way?
Toward the end of the first day’s hike, I found myself hiking next to one of the group’s leaders. He asked how I was doing. He asked if I was hiking at my typical pace. He asked whether or not I thought I could pick up my pace for the next day’s hike, when we would be attempting twice the elevation gain and nearly twice the distance.
And I was crushed.
I’d worked hard to get in shape for this hike and thought I’d been doing well. My husband had taken me on several pre-trip prep hikes and declared me ready. My greatest fear was that, after months of preparation, I’d find out I really wasn’t able to handle the challenge.
And I’d been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
I’d been declared a goat and separated from the sheep.
The sorting hat had placed me in Hufflepuff.
I’d fallen short.
The questions I’d been asked were legitimate ones. The trip’s leaders were responsible for the safety of each member on the trail. The next day’s challenge included climbs up to and over three cols, each one likely to be snow-covered. The refuge where we were to spend the following night served dinner at 7 pm. If our group didn’t arrive in time, we would not eat. And we were expending far too many calories each day to risk missing a meal.
To his credit, the leader recognized my disappointment and acknowledged the work I’d put into getting ready. But we both knew he had a job to do. He needed to evaluate my ability and make a judgment as to whether or not I’d hinder the rest of the group.
I understood these things in my head but, in my heart, the temptation to harbor anger toward my brother was palpable. The conversation had touched a nerve; one which I began to suspect lay close to the source of my longing.
To be continued . . .
(Citation: Phil Cousineau. The Art of Pilgrimage: A Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (pp. xxvii-xxviii). Kindle Edition.)
This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing to help me make sense of this experience. I’m collecting them all on a new page titled “The Pilgrimage.”
Joining Laura @ The Wellspring in her Playdates community: