On Fear, Trust & Pilgrimage

Most of my stories take place on a 10-acre homestead in the hills of Vermont. Occasionally, however, I tell a tale of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is an essential discipline in my spiritual life. In the out-of-routine unpredictability and vulnerability of pilgrimage, my eyes become more adept at seeing the infinite riches of each moment and that vision comes back home with me. Without doubt, the familiarity and comfort of home will lull me back into a blurrier vision and so I return to pilgrimage. However, upon each return home my vision stays clearer a little longer. The conviction that I’m as much on pilgrimage at home as I am on the trail is a little stronger. I have come to believe that without this change – if pilgrimage doesn’t impact home – the journey was in vain.

I usually go on pilgrimage close to home – on the Connecticut River or the Appalachian Trail. When I choose to take the train to Pennsylvania (my childhood home) instead of driving, that too becomes a pilgrimage. On rare and special occasions I am called even further outside my comfort zone. In the fall of 2017, I set aside money and carved out time to walk an old pilgrimage way in southeastern France – the Way of St Gilles. Here’s part of that story.

It took me two hours to get out of Le Puy en Velay.  Two hours of wandering around the unfamiliar city on the first day of my two-week walking pilgrimage in France. The morning started out okay. Early rising, an unsatisfying version of a French breakfast – bland white bread, butter, and instant coffee – at the hostel, and a special mass at the basilica to bless and send pilgrims. At the conclusion of mass, the 60-some pilgrims shouldered their packs (you could immediately pick out the veterans and newbies based solely on pack size) and flooded down the huge stone steps leading out from the church. The majority of these walkers stepped right from the church onto El Camino de Santiago – their first step on the French Way of the famous pilgrimage.

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The first steps on pilgrimage

I, the contrarian that I can be when I’m truly listening to the Spirit, had to meander and navigate my way through the curvy, cobblestone, medieval streets to find the first unassuming white and red blaze marking the Way of St Gilles, or the Regordane Way, the much less traveled path I had chosen. However, before finding my pilgrim way, I had a few errands to make while I was still in the “big city.”

First, I needed some real food if I had any hope of walking the 17 miles to the hostel I planned to spend the night. I loaded up on the fattiest and protein-iest foods I could find at the little French market – two avocadoes and a little tub of Greek yogurt. According to my guidebook, there was a town of decent size that had a bakery and market about half-

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Uncertain street meandering

way through my day’s walk. I didn’t want to carry more weight than I needed and this would get me at least that far.

I also needed more cash than the 15 euros I had. I knew next to nothing about the villages I was about to walk through and certainly didn’t want to end up cashless and ATM-less. Quite aware of the ticking clock and the lack of kilometers behind me, I quickly tracked down a bank, muddled my way through the automated screen and eventually saw a friendly “Merci, au revoir!” on the screen. I waited for the cash I requested, but no money came. Oh no! I thought I’m going to need to go inside! I know very little French. I knew even less on my first day of this walk. My plan was to find my way on this adventure with my eyes, ears, smarts, and gut and use my voice as little as possible. But here I was, only a few steps into my journey and already confused.

I sheepishly pulled the heavy glass door, my mind swimming with all the stories I’ve heard about how much the French hate Americans – especially the stupid Americans who travel to France without knowing French. They’re just stories, I try to reassure myself. Don’t live in a perceived reality. Experience actual reality. Well, this time perceived reality and actual reality were quite similar. Sitting at the desk before me was a tall, slender, perfectly manicured Frenchman who already looked annoyed with me. I was suddenly terribly conscious of my stained hiking clothes and unkempt hair.

“Excuse moi? Parlez-vous anglais?” I managed in the worst French accent imaginable, so embarrassed I hadn’t been more faithful with my Duo Lingo exercises.

“A little,” he responded, as it seems all French people do regardless of how much English they actually do speak.

I explained my predicament and he kindly came out to the ATM and tried again for me. After working his way through a couple screens he looked down at me. “Denied,” he said. His tone wasn’t condescending, but it was not apologetic either.

I tried not to let my gut’s clenching reach my face until he disappeared back into the bank. It was 3:30am in the United States – all banks would be closed. There was nothing I could do but walk. And hope the hostel accepted cards.

 I walked out of the center of town, where the Virgin rose into the sky watching over the city, and made my way toward the outskirts, my eyes alert for the first sign of the Way of St Gilles.

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Confident I was on the right street, my eye suddenly caught the red and white marker that would be my guide for the next two weeks. There it was. A 2 inch by 4 inch red and white blaze on a street light, the first indication I was on the Way. No large announcement, not even a small one. As humble as a pilgrim’s first step is the pilgrimage’s first marker.

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With renewed vigor I went forward, my eyes constantly scanned the posts, poles, trees and walls for the blazes that would lead me the 249 km to the old seaport of St. Gilles. I walked with confidence and a sense of bewilderment that I was actually doing this – alone in this strange city on a path I had only learned about a few months prior – walking for no other reason than I felt called to do it.

Then, as quickly as I had found the way’s blazes, I lost them. The blaze had pointed me across the street and then they just disappeared.  I walked up the street and back the other way on both sides – no red or white. Except…there was some red tape hanging from a rope across a driveway. It seemed like my only option, so I interpreted it as a sign. Bad mistake. I few days into my walking adventure, I would know the pilgrim’s markings well enough to know this tape had absolutely nothing to do with the walking route. But today? I was new to this and had some learning to do and I was destined to learn it the hard way.

I followed the path into a lush green park bordered by an urban stream. It seemed like the perfect time to take a moment for some water, a snack, and a good look at my maps. Since I had lost the blazes, my map was now my guide. The map was not as detailed as I would have liked and in retrospective, may have given me just enough information to arm me with unwarranted confidence. Two hours later – which involved a confusing sign-language/French/Spanish/English mashup conversation with a Spanish woman, going to the bathroom in the SKETCHIEST public restroom I have ever seen (think concrete, under a stairway, IRON GATED DOORS), and a desperate duck into a church to gather my senses – I was pointed by a gentleman right back to the very spot where I had lost my way two hours earlier. I traced my steps heading back to the center of town thinking perhaps my two hours of aimless wandering would have given me miraculous intuition to know what to do this time. Turns out, it did! This time I saw what I didn’t before – a small walking path following a stream. It was the same stream that had lured me two hours earlier, just the upstream direction. Twenty paces down the path – a new-to-me red and white blaze. I was back.

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How did I not notice this inviting path?

The sun was now high in the sky and I had literally made no physical progress in two hours, but the joy of knowing where I was and where I was going was enough to keep my spirits buoyed as I climbed the hill leading out of the city. Before I knew it, Le Puy en Velay was nothing more than a view as I looked back over my left shoulder.

The hours flew by quicker than the miles (as they so often do when walking in the afternoon) and I didn’t make it to Costaros – what should have been my lunch spot – until dinnertime. All I had eaten so far was a little bread, yogurt and one avocado. I decided to save my second avocado and ducked into a small bakery. I spent 2 euros on a quiche Lorraine (which I quickly learned is the most protein-dense option at a French bakery) and stashed it in the top of my pack. It’s not that I wasn’t hungry, but I was feeling a bit ashamed at how my first day of pilgrimage was going and I wanted to wait to rest and eat in the countryside without the risk of onlookers. Even in provincial France, I was worried about my image.

I walked up and out of Costaros – tired, despondent, and afraid. I had tried to make a reservation at the hostel in Landos, but I had no way of knowing if they had received it (my phone was useless to me without wifi).

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A familiar sight – elderberries! I also saw puffball mushrooms and wild blackberries on this walk. All are common wild edibles in Vermont. Signs of a small, interconnected, beautiful earth.

If they did receive it, I didn’t know if there was a bed available and if there was a bed, that I’d be able to pay for it without cash. I started eyeing up the landscape around me, wondering if I would need to stealth camp tonight. The idea of wild camping – something commonplace for me to do at home – seemed terrifying here. This place, in its unfamiliarity, felt unpredictable. What if someone approached me? I can’t even speak their language. I couldn’t explain myself. I’d have no one to call. No one to lean on. My heart raced as I thought how narrow my options felt.

As I peaked the top of the hill coming out of Costaros, the image of Christ on the cross loomed in front of me. I wasn’t having a supernatural vision, there in my path was an actual life-sized crucifix.  Do you want to know the really awesome thing about being a Christian pilgrim in France? You literally come face to face with a cross at least three times a day. I dropped my pack at the foot of the cross and slumped my body next to it. I pulled out my cold quiche and gave thanks. I gave thanks for everything I had going for me in that moment, which it turns out, was a lot. I had quiche. And water. Thirteen euros. The blazes showing me the way. A tarp and a sleeping bag. Two more hours of daylight. Fair weather. My healthy, whole body. My mind. I was going to be fine. The next hours may not be easy, but I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t even going to be harmed. There was nothing to fear.

My tiredness did not go away, but my despondency did. With a simple prayer of thanks, I was transported out of a scarcity mindset to a place of enoughness, perhaps even

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View of Costoras 

abundance. I actually had MORE than I needed. I had multiple options. I could choose to camp right there. I could go back down into Costaros or continue on to Landos. I had enough water to get me to morning and I certainly wasn’t going to starve if I missed dinner. There was nothing to fear.

I’ve found myself coming to this place multiple times since returning home. Sometimes the fear creeps in as I review our month’s expenses and realize we spent more than we had intended. The few hundred dollars we were over budget becomes a crisis of mass proportions. My gut clenched, I am sure I will die a sickly, impoverished woman. My fear blinds me to the abundance around me – the land on which I dwell, the neighbors who look out for us, the food always at our finger tips, my loving, creative, and passionate husband, and plenty of money and means of earning more money if necessary.

Or I’ll mull over how unlikely it is that any of our dreams will come to fruition. That we’ll labor away for years without ever creating a productive bakery, a spiritual community, or a beautiful and soul-nourishing place for people to find respite and reconnect with God. I totally ignore the fact that our lives are so

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An early morning of abundance – a late fall paddle with the loons!

joyful already, that gifts beyond our dreams have already materialized and if nothing else happened, what already has happened would be completely and utterly sufficient!

Still other times I worry about the children we don’t have. Will our alternative lives traumatize them for life? Our current set-up is not yet conducive to a large family. Will what we need be available when we need it? When I’m not being controlled by fear, these questions sound ridiculous to me! Our lives are so abundant with love, community, good food, and the felt presence of God, it’s insane – literally in that it’s out of line with my current reality – to be anxious about tomorrow.

I am discovering that my fear is almost always based on a false perception of the world around me, not the actual reality.1 Without fail that perception is a narrowed and constricted view that is blind to the resources, options, and love accessible to me. My inner eye locks in focusing on what I do not have and consequently, I fail to see the abundance in my peripheral vision. Much of my life of prayer and faith is practicing to relax my eyes and see the infinite riches all around me.

What was previously paralyzing me with fear does not disappear, but it is held within a larger picture. In that moment by the foot of a crucifix on a little hill over Costoras, France, I still didn’t have a place to spend the night. I still had to make some decisions and act quickly. But as I took stock of the gifts around me, I was moved from a place of gripping fear to a spirit of open trust. From there, I could think and act clearly and even experience joy.

My journey onward from Costoras ended with a hot meal of shepherd’s pie, conversation over tea with a fellow pilgrim and a warm bed. All were pure gift. Three miles from Landos as the sun was setting, a car slowed to my pace and the gentleman inside asked (first in French, but soon thereafter in broken English) where I was going and if I wanted a lift. I paused, obviously hesitant and wary. I was about to say no when I checked in with my gut. I felt safe. So contrary to my usual habits (I turned down a number

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Home for the night in Landos

of ride offers on this journey alone), I accepted. Accepting this ride was the best decision of my day. This angel drove me right to the hostel, helped me figure out the unnecessarily complex system of checking in, and called the hostel manager who was out (my phone was worthless remember?).

By the time I got settled in (the hostel did accept cards!), any food stores or restaurants in the tiny village were closed. I resigned myself to the fact that my saved avocado would be my dinner that night until I realized it was gone. It must have fallen out of my pack somewhere along the 17 miles. So I resigned myself to the fact that I was fasting that night. I was in the common area of the hostel trying to figure out why my debit card had been denied when the hostel manager asked if I wanted some food. Some guests last night had left a frozen shepherd’s pie.

“It’s probably not very good or healthy,” he warned me. “But you can have it if you like.”

It was the BEST shepherd’s pie I ever ate. As I happily digested my four servings of shepherd’s pie, I sipped tea (another gift) and swapped traveling tales with my roommate for the night. The abundance of resources, generosity and life that surrounded me was even more than I knew on that hill above Costoras. There was nothing to fear.

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1 Clearly, for many people, the actual reality of their life’s situation is a legitimate cause for fear – fleeing a war-torn city, watching your ill child’s body fail, living with an abusive relationship. I feel ill-equipped at best and pretentious at worst to speak about such traumatic events and lives. That said, I am curious about how this dynamic of fear and trust plays out even in such tragic and heart-wrenching events. Not all people respond to all situations the same way – even the most horrific. What’s going on there? What allows the great saints and heroes of human history to stay open, loving, and present while they are being beaten, tortured, and killed?

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