My family and I were recently blessed to spend some time in the French Alps. These massive temples of stone and ice could leave the best poet without words, render the greatest orator speechless, and still the most skilled painter’s brush; for no human expression could possibly ever capture their grandeur. The only sensible thing to do in the shadow of such an awesome display of God’s creative power is to bathe in the reverence that it commands…the only fitting sentiment for such an experience being, “Lord, have mercy!”
We were in Chamonix where our three-day trek across the seemingly impossible alpine terrain that surrounded us was to begin. Chamonix rests in a valley that is towered over by Mont Blanc – a massive peak famous for being the tallest in Western Europe.
We were having serious doubts about whether we and our children – ages 8 and 3 – could make the journey. We decided to pray at the church in the heart of town before beginning our hike. It was Sunday after all, so we knew it would be open. I was not, however, prepared for what we saw as we approached the chapel.
I have heard many things about Western Europeans and their views on religion – all of which were, of course, broad generalizations motivated by some agenda that I am not nearly sophisticated enough to understand. Regardless, I must admit that these generalizations have had their impact on me and I was perfectly comfortable accepting the secular agnostic picture of Western Europeans that had been painted for me. So much so that I was prepared to walk into a quiet, cold, and empty church on that fateful Sunday.
I couldn’t have been greeted by anything more different. The church was not even close to being empty. It was full – spilling out the front doors and onto the street full! So, with our massive backpacks in tow, we rudely nudged our way into the church. Mass was being celebrated in French which was beautiful. We said a quiet prayer amongst ourselves in English (also beautiful), crossed ourselves, and made our way to the trailhead.
A gondola took us right to the trail at the top of the Col Du Brevent which sits at 7,770 feet. I was silent for the duration of the ride having been deeply moved by the site of the full church in Chamonix and how contrary this seemed to my own prejudices. We were going to be hiking a small segment of the GR5 which is a trail that runs from Hoek van Holland in the North to the French Riviera in the south. Little did I know that, even though we would only be hiking for a few days, I would witness even more acts of incredible kindness and piety – acts that would challenge and inspire me to new expressions of my own Orthodox Christian faith.
The greatest challenge of any quest is simply to begin. This was certainly true of our trek. Twenty minutes down the trail we found ourselves forced to scale down ladders bolted into the sides of cliffs and scree slick switchbacks that threatened to send us plummeting into a jagged tangle of rocks hundreds of feet below with one missed step. We did not know how we would overcome this obstacle with our packs and a three-year-old strapped to our bodies. Our eight-year-old daughter, on the other hand, had already shimmied down the ladder carrying her own pack and was waiting patiently for us at the bottom by the time the solution presented itself.
Out of nowhere a French mountain runner came up from behind and, obviously appreciating our predicament, scooped up our three-year-old son, carrying him down the ladder to safety. We didn’t know what to say except “merci” over and over again. He just smiled and disappeared down the trail…or so we thought. Ten minutes later, just when we thought things would get easier, another rickety metal ladder threatened to put an early end to our wanderings. But, there waiting at the top was our runner. Without a word, my son was thrown on to his back and down they went. By this time, my son thought this was great fun and I was beginning to wonder if the kind man might be willing to sherpa me down the mountain as well. My wife was so thankful she began to cry, but again he just smiled, and away he went.
Thankfully the trail became less precarious after that, but my son was quiet for a long time until he looked up at me and asked, “Was that man an angel?”
We covered more than 10 miles and almost 3,500 feet of vertical that first day. Our reward: setting up camp at the top of the world and watching Mont Blanc’s distant snowy summit turn pink with the setting sun.
The next morning we began with a hike to the top of the Col d’Anterne. Cresting the high ridge of the Col, we were greeted by a large wooden cross. What was this doing in the secular Europe that I had come to understand in my mind? We said our morning prayers under the cross.
We discovered later that these crosses had been erected every 10 or 15 miles in remembrance of the people who had lost their lives navigating this beautiful, yet perilous, country. Throughout our journey we witnessed people walking the trail spending a quiet moment under the shady bows of these crosses. Little did I know that I was witnessing a very beautiful aspect of Western European spirituality – the pilgrimage.
It turns out that there are a myriad of trails that crisscross the European continent; each of them lead their travelers on a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a saint or to meditate at one of its countless holy sites. One of the most famous is the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago) through France and Spain. Some pilgrims will travel without any provisions, relying on the kindness of strangers throughout their journey.
In stark contrast to the disbelieving Western European stereotype that I had been expecting to encounter during my time in France, I was presented with a quiet, subtle, and highly personal spirituality that was all at once refreshing, inspiring, and humbling.
The question that I brought back was, is the art of pilgrimage something that is part of our Orthodox Christian life here in America? Is there a pilgrimage here in North America that anyone would recommend? If not, is anyone out there interested in blazing a trail with me?
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