Last year, I took part in my very first pilgrimage: the LMS pilgrimage to visit the shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham. This year, I decided to make the jump between that and the Chartres pilgrimage. I had heard many things about Chartres: some said it wasn’t so bad, you just had to “keep walking”, others said it was hellish (oh dear…). However, all agreed that it was worth it, that the feeling you got after completing it was like nothing else. Even those who had felt like giving up on the first day were now booking their place once again this year. I decided that I was up for the challenge.
The British contingent was separated into two chapters: Our Lady of Walsingham (for the older pilgrim) and the Juventutem chapter, whose patron saint would be St Alban. Being 24,
I was in the Juventutem chapter. Behind our chapter, we had a group of pilgrims from the Chavagnes school in France, led by a much loved priest who was one of our chaplains at Walsingham last year: Fr Bede Rowe. At one point, when some of us (including myself) were lagging behind, Fr Rowe decided to stage a ‘hostile takeover’ and chased us down the road with his chapter, shouting “Jog on! Jog on!” (yes, this really happened)! This tactic worked and we had caught up with everyone else in a matter of minutes.
Our chapter was also blessed to have two priests. Our priests were Fr Withoos and Fr Gideon, who heard confessions every day. Knowing that Pope Pius XII went to confession every day (and what a holy man he was), I tried to take advantage of having this sacrament on tap while I was there. The priests also read out meditations, sang hymns with us and generally gave us advice; we were so thankful to have them with us. In fact, one of the best things about the pilgrimage was seeing priests walking around in cassocks and nuns in habits (and not a polyester skirt in sight)! Oh, happy day!
Now, for the walking…the first day was, dare I say it, fairly easy. I believe it consisted of about 27 miles, but I didn’t really feel it. I think I was just so delighted to be praying the rosary in Latin, singing hymns and listening to meditations. We were due to get into camp at about 8pm and, as predicted, the heavens opened. Before we’d even got to the campsite, most of us were soaked. We had to collect our bags (which, having been brought by lorry from Paris, were all set out for us according to our country of origin) in the rain and set up the tent in the rain too (there were communal tents already put up, but a very kind pilgrim had offered to share her private tent with me). However, by the time it came to eat our dinner, the rain had stopped and we were all laughing about the day we had just had. There is truly so much happiness to be found when you think things cannot get any worse! I laughed all the way through the pilgrimage, particularly when I was soaked to the skin and up to my knees in mud.
The next day was a very early start. I was awake by 4.30am, but the official wake up call came at 5am over a loudspeaker (in French), accompanied by classical music: “My dear pilgrims, it is 5am. It is time for you to exit your tents” (2 minutes later) “Pilgrims, I see that you are still in your tents. It’s time to wake up, pack things away, come and have your breakfast…move!”. And so this Frenchman continued every morning until every pilgrim had left the campsite. I believe most pilgrims had a sort of love-hate relationship with him, but we would never have left on time without his dulcet tones.
For me, the second day was much harder than the first, though it was slightly shorter in terms of distance. The good thing about this is that I had plenty to offer up! Every time I wanted to sit down or my feet were really hurting, I thought: ‘Lord, I’m offering this up to You for x,y,z’. If I had not suffered, I would not have been able to do that. Suffering is a blessing if we use it wisely, I think.
The third day was D-day. When Chartres cathedral was in sight, I forgot all the pains in my body. I forgot that the rain was lashing down, that I was walking uphill. I was focused on getting to that mass and when I did, it was worth every second of pain. It was a Pontifical high mass with no fewer than three bishops, one of whom gave us a Pontifical blessing. The cathedral was packed and there were more priests (with plenty of lace), friars and nuns there than you could shake a stick at! I very rarely cry, but after receiving Communion that day, I couldn’t help but shed a couple of tears. You have to experience the whole thing to appreciate how superb it was. Of course, Our Lord is present at every mass, but when a mass is done in such a way which tries to acknowledge, as reverently as possible, that He is there, both spiritually and physically, and how glorious He is, there is nothing better.
All in all, I would advise anybody, who is in reasonably good shape, to do the pilgrimage. In Our Lady of Walsingham’s chapter, there were many pilgrims who were over 60 and I am convinced that some of them were nearer to 70. Most of them did the whole pilgrimage and I never heard any of them complain, which put me to shame! For those who are near my age, you do not have to be at Ironman triathlon fitness level. The knowledge that everything you do is for God is all the motivation you need. Trust me, if I can do it, you can do it.