This is the fourth in a series of posts I’m writing about my experience on pilgrimage in the Alps. If you would like to read more in the series, all the posts are gathered on the page: The Pilgrimage Posts
The experience of the pilgrim in actually walking in the way of others enables them to become a participant in all that has happened. The pilgrim becomes one with all who have gone before. – Phil Cousineau
Based on the weather forecast provided by our fellow hiker and meteorologist friend, we began day two with our rain gear and pack covers tucked near the tops of our day packs. We started our morning with a meditation on The Way of the Pilgrim, standing together in a circle outside the baroque-style Notre-Dame De La Gorge chapel.
Our leader asked us to enter the chapel in silence, and to spend some time thinking about those who have walked with us throughout our journeys of faith. I thought about Mrs. Crouch, the elderly neighbor who held an after-school Bible club; the one who first asked me if I had ever asked Jesus to forgive my sins. I remembered Mrs. Teare, my first Sunday School teacher; the one who taught me in children’s choir to sing the alto line in What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
I pictured my mom; Thompson Chain Reference Bible and Our Daily Bread devotional open before her, sitting at the kitchen table. My cloud of witnesses includes godly aunts, uncles, and grandparents; high school Young Life leaders, college friends, and a pastor whose faithful preaching has fed me throughout my adult life.
I gave thanks for those who have walked with me through years of infertility and the death of my father; seasons of trying to navigate potty training, teenage angst, and attention deficits. Some have walked silently with me; others have offered words of hope along the way. Each has reminded me, when my faith has grown thin, that God is good.
We exited the church in silence, each as we were ready. We fumbled with packs and hiking poles and began our ascent. The path leading from the chapel climbs up and away along a steep Roman-era road which follows a gorge. For centuries, pilgrims have walked this way toward Rome.
I climbed the road in awareness of being in the company, not only of my immediate companions, but also with all who had come before me. And as I walked I found myself singing:
All the way my Savior leads me, cheers each winding path I tread, gives me grace for ev-‘ry trial, feeds me with the living bread.
Though my weary steps may falter, and my soul a-thirst may be, gushing from the rock before me, lo, a spring of joy I see.
Being surrounded by streams of rushing water may have had something to do with my need to sing these words. Drinking more deeply of the reality of being surrounded by God’s presence may also have had something to do with it. My thoughts turned again to the words of the psalmist:
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. Psalm 84:4, 5 NIV
Our group paused at a stone bridge and marveled at the ancient artistry and craftsmanship it represented. We soaked up the sounds of waters rushing beneath the bridge, snapping pictures in efforts to hold on to the beauty below us. Here, those of who had chosen to ride in the vans said farewell to the hale and hearty pilgrims who were ready to embrace the day and all its dangers. As we parted, rain began.
One of the drivers, my companion for the day, shared with me her stories about life and faith, family and work. It didn’t take long for us to realize we’d walked many similar paths, though she’d already traveled farther down the road in her story. Our conversation reminded me that not all the dangers of life occur at high elevations when there is risk of severe weather. My companion offered life-giving words; words which reminded me that God is good.
Toward the end of the day I asked if I could be let out of the van to walk the last couple of miles to the refuge, our destination for the night. I was feeling the need to stretch my legs and, after all, had come all this way to hike. There was only one road leading to the refuge, so chances were slim that even I could get lost.
I passed few other hikers, extending greetings of “Bon jour!” to those I did. One stopped and asked, “Francais?” When I shook my head in response, it occurred to me that walking by myself in a country where I didn’t speak the language, in a remote area where I didn’t have cell reception, may not have been the smartest thing I’d ever done.
I heard the faint call of cuckoo bird crying out from the distance. “Well, maybe I am,” I thought.
But the view ahead of me reminded me of the glorious power of the One who walked with me.
My husband and the rest of the band of brave hikers arrived at the refuge minutes before dinner was to be served. Some appeared a little battered and bruised. Others seemed to be leaking adrenaline, unable to contain their delight in having hiked hard and long, of having stared danger in the face. They shared their stories, relating the rush they’d experienced while descending steep, snowy slopes via the art of the glissade–a technical term which means sliding down on one’s butt.
At first I felt the loss, not being able to join in on their stories. But God has made me no promise that my life will look like that of anyone else. And he seems to know, better than I do, precisely how much danger I can handle. He promises his presence through the danger and strength sufficient for the day.
When I told my husband I was feeling left out, he offered me the five words I most needed to hear:
You would have hated it.
Dinner consisted of thick, chewy bread and hearty beef stew. Around the tables, wine and story and laughter flowed in abundance. And then, the accordion came out.
One of the staff members from the refuge brought out an accordion which she began to play. I assume she was playing traditional folk songs. At one point, a number of the folks seated across the room from our group linked arms and began singing together in French. Or maybe it was Italian. I’m not sure, ugly American that I am.
I thought back to how the day had begun, how I had shared a journey with others whose feet had traveled the same road centuries before mine did. I know nothing about those fellow pilgrims; I have no way of knowing the reasons behind their journeys, nor how many of them may have wandered from the path along the way.
But I do believe that one day I will sit at a table with many who have gone before me. We’ll eat and drink, tell our stories, link arms and sing together in common language. Perhaps I’ll link arms with Mrs. Crouch.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be an accordion.
Source cited: Phil Cousineau. The Art of Pilgrimage: A Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (p. 96). Kindle Edition.
Lyrics to All the Way My Savior Leads Me by Fanny Crosby, 1875.