On the morning of Tuesday 11th April 2023, Community of the Passion member Lya Vollering set off from Canterbury to begin walking the 1,800km pilgrimage trail known as the Via Francigena, which has Rome as its destination.
Walking an ancient path to the future, Lya does so as an act of ecological witness in the midst of our climate crisis, to call attention to the urgent need to heal and care for the earth, our common home.
Here we share her fifth week of reflections on the journey.
Tuesday 9th May: Revolution, Laundry and Rain
This morning I woke up in a rundown hotel in Brienne-le-Chateau. We couldn’t access the pilgrim accommodation because everything was closed for a bank holiday on 8th of May. The bed had a very prominent spring mattress but, despite that, I slept well. My dreams were full of images of this endless Roman road. It felt like walking through a desert but a green desert this time with a straight white road, along which the mayor of Corbeil had personally painted and put up the signs.
This is now behind us. Close to this town we have seen lakes. I spied crimson clover and a few poppies. I have seen more swallows and house martins but not an abundant amount. My German friends say that if house martins nest on the walls of your house it is a sign if good luck. I hope more people come to appreciate this. For the first time in more than a week, I heard the cuckoo again. The skylarks have provided background music since I left Canterbury. Lemon coloured butterflies are a regular sight. I noticed one having a dance with a cabbage white. I’ve also seen a peacock butterfly.
Last night, we had hoped to find a cafe where we could get a green salad, but everything was closed, except a bakery. We found a place called ‘Laundry Revolution’ for our dirty washing. While waiting for the washing cycle to complete, we did Qigong in the outside car park.
This morning, we set off to walk to Dolancourt but realised that there was no pilgrim accommodation. Instead, we aimed for Amance where the council provide a gîte for pilgrims. It started to rain, not heavily but constantly. The rain soon penetrated my waterproof jacket and my only jumper. It got into my shoes and socks as well. We found shelter in a restaurant. We had been assured that there was a vegetarian restaurant in Dienville but this was not the case. Instead, we had a menu of fish and meat. We continued in the rain, arriving at a little village called Unienville. Often churches are locked but this one was open. We were keen to shelter from the rain, but then I spotted an information plaque saying: ‘thank you for taking the time to admire me’. The ‘me’ referred to the church building we were in. The plaque outlined the building’s history. So, I took up the invitation to go in and admire her.
For the rest of the journey, it rained, and I was very conscious of my sodden feet. Water trickled through my layers of clothing to reach warm skin. Having to do a wee in the rain is not a very pleasant experience. Eventually, we took a path through woodland which was a welcome change. The path was slippery, and it was a challenge to keep our footing.
From a distance, we saw smoke coming from the village towards which we were heading. Someone had a lit a fire, we thought. When we found the key to the council accommodation for pilgrims and opened the door we discovered that it was there that an open fire was burning. What a welcome sight! Such a joy to enter a warm, dry place. The building can accommodate up to ten people. It was very rustic but provided all that a weary pilgrim might need: cooking facilities, toilet, shower, bunk beds and even a washing machine.
Wednesday 10th May: Sleepless
It is 3 o’clock in the morning — technically, it’s Thursday. For the last couple of nights, I haven’t slept very well. I am aware of a sadness, caused by a combination of things. One was a BBC article posted to me on Whatsapp. Now, I am not following the news a great deal, but the article stated that climate change is vindicating the worst predictions with 44 degrees of heat in Vietnam recently and nearly 4O degrees in Spain. The last couple of years we are getting used to hearing about record-breaking weather. The fact that those who get the worst of it often have contributed the least to Climate Change is such an injustice. The Big One climate event on in London last month was attended by 100,000 people. But why is this number not in the millions when the life the planet is under threat? Why do people in far greater numbers go out on the street for a coronation?
Walking through France has taken me through such vast areas of agriculture. It may sound like a contradiction, but these areas seem so lacking in life. There are so few birds, flowers, and trees. I am becoming increasingly aware of how we need trees and wild places. Thomas Berry talks about that a lot.
I’m also sad that my time with Astrid and Albrecht is coming to an end. They are returning home soon. Next year they will continue the Via Francigena. They have become good friends in these last 10 days. We have shared food, laughter, gîtes, and concerns about our world as well as stories about our lives.
So far, I have walked over 600 kilometres, but Rome seems still very far away, especially when it has been raining so much. My feet were soaked for the whole day of yesterday when the rain came in the form of heavy showers but with dry spells and even sunshine in between. Walking shoes are unable to stay waterproof when taken through long stretches of wet grass in heavy showers.
We did find shelter in the beautiful porch of an old church. The church was closed but Astrid sat down on the steps to arrange our next overnight stay. This is no trouble for her as she is very fluent in French. Albrecht and I did some qigong to warm ourselves up.
The pilgrimage has times of feast and times of fasting. After our lunch yesterday, we had little food until we arrived late in the afternoon in Bar-sur-Aube. The villages we came through didn’t have any shops. In this town too, the council has a gite for pilgrims. Such a great system. The meal we shared on that occasion was a true feast.
A friend sent me this article about the wisdom of weeds. Weeds, wild wonders, or hero plants have been such good companions on my pilgrimage. It is encouraging to read about a gardener who honours them.
Thursday 11th May: Porridge and Peace
This morning, my farewell gift to Astrid and Albrecht was porridge for breakfast. We all had been longing for a change from baguettes!
Afterwards, it was time for me to set off on my own again, enriched by my sharing with these two beautiful people. I chose to travel on the quiet tarmac road instead of a slippery steep hill with its dirt path through the woodland. It was a pleasant and easy road and I was soon into the rhythm of walking on my own again.
I passed through a valley which was named Clairvaux by Bernard of Fontaine-les-Dijon. In 1115, He was invited to establish a Cistercian abbey there. He became the well-known St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In 1780, there were only 36 monks left at the abbey of Clairvaux. They were dispersed during the French revolution and the property was nationalised. In 1804, Napoleon ordered the abbey to be transformed into a penitentiary. During WWII French resistance fighters were imprisoned here and 21 of them executed (says my guidebook).
According to the route description, I had to follow the high wall until I reached the main entrance. I came across a tall iron gate, not in the best of conditions and I presumed it was the main gate. It was open and I entered a bleak space with stark looking buildings that seemed to be empty. It didn’t have good vibes at all. At the end of a lane of gloomy buildings was a nicer looking one with a gift shop and information about the abbey. Maybe there was more to it. I didn’t investigate as I really didn’t want to stay any longer in that place.
There followed a three hour walk through beautiful woodland, part of a national park. The paths were muddy, sometimes full of water, but it was so worthwhile taking the time to find a way through. Although there was bird song, there was deep silence too on another level. I felt a deep peace. It is different from the woodlands where heavy logging takes place. Like the one where I wild camped. That one felt disturbed. This one, however, was so comforting and gentle. A deer leapt out of the bushes just in front of me. Laburnum (We call this tree ‘golden rain’ in Dutch) was flowering in this woodland. I saw lilies of the field and lots of wild honeysuckle. There were little creatures I didn’t recognise: beetles and tiny caterpillars hanging in the air on an invisible thread. Some of the birdsong was unfamiliar to me. To be able to walk in this woodland on my own and with no other person around was a real gift.
Leaving the woodland, I entered a gentle landscape. Crickets were chirping (I hadn’t heard them for a long time). I remember the sound from my childhood on the farm, but I don’t think they are there anymore. A village was tucked away in the valley: Cirfontaines-en-Azos. I only started to realise during the past few days why the villages I now encounter are so different from the ones before. I think it is because I have left the frontline. So many villages in the frontline of WWl and WWII were destroyed completely. The villages I now encounter have beautiful old buildings. I love the old washing places. Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of houses and farms in a state of disrepair. Too expensive to restore, perhaps?
The village I entered had a sense of harmony. I found my host family: Myriam and Alain. They live in a beautiful spacious house. I was shown to a lovely looking room, with the most comfortable bed I have slept in for the last month and a delicious home cooked meal. My French is as limited as their English but with hands, feet and Google translate we managed. A very important possession for a pilgrim is their ‘pilgrim passport’ with its credentials. In each place you stay you get a stamp. My hosts didn’t possess a stamp, but Alain made a lovely drawing of the woodland instead.
Sunday 14th May: All About Love
It is Sunday 14th May and I am staying in the beautiful town of Langres, set on top of a hill. Its defensive walls are still intact and there are beautiful medieval and Renaissance-era buildings. I am having a rest day. The body is tired and hungry but forgetful of the time, I didn’t realise that the shops are closed for the afternoon until four.
Planning the walks is not always easy. On Friday there was a gîte at 13km distance but that was too near, so I decided to go to the host family 35km away. However, that was a bit too far! It meant that I walk much quicker than usual. Though I soon got into a pleasant rhythm, I was less attentive to my surroundings. The next day I had only 20km to cover. I could even shorten it to 15km, but that would involve more road walking. I decided to do the longer route and to savour the walk. Go slowly, stop more, and ‘taste’ the walk. It was precious. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too warm. I chose a lovely spot overlooking a lake for my picnic lunch.
I finished eating my last supplies. Food always tastes better when eaten outside. I like the fact that food is not always available. It means that I feel more grateful when I have it. I am grateful for gratitude! It gives depth to life.
During this mindful walk I was very conscious of the love I feel for my fellow pilgrims, for wild wonders, for trees My, how we need trees!), for the generous hosts, for life, for the passers-by who greet me with: ‘Bonne courage’ or ‘Bonne route’, and for soft ground to walk on.
Do I love the people who hurt me deeply, including the farmers that spray their fields with pesticides? Or the drivers of cars and motorbikes that race past me at breakneck speed? Do I love the ones I have hurt and who seem unable to forgive me? Do I love the dark side of myself? Can I embrace it all, inclusively? I have still a long way to go, but to be in touch with love for life is a great gift.
Monday 15th May: Loved by Earth herself
I certainly wasn’t about to turn back now.
I had chosen to walk a parallel track alongside the tarmac one which provided the official route. It looked much softer for the feet. No more than half a kilometre along this track, my way was suddenly blocked by posts and barbed wire. I hadn’t realised until then that there was a deep ditch between the track and the path.
This morning I had to make a decision: to follow the shorter route on the busy road, or the long winding footpath along Lake Luc. I opted for the latter.
The day before, I had been resting, reading and strolling along the walls of Langres. The local parish has made part of the first floor of the presbytery available for pilgrims. Although a bit rundown, it is a great space. It was such a pleasure to cook my own food again. The building also houses a lovely chapel. When I saw it, I thought I would spend some time there. Although I went inside, the call of the outdoors was persistent.
My evening prayer was said in the company of the swifts. These marvellous flyers are acrobats of the air. I am so pleased they still have a home in this elevated city. Having walked down the hill of Langres and towards the lake, I found myself facing barbed wire. Would I be able to throw my heavy rucksack over the ditch and jump after it? I gave it a go… and succeeded!
The route following the lake was busy at first, with lots of walkers, but soon I was on my own again. The path became smaller and the forest thicker. Walking in this green reflective space, I realised that this journey isn’t only about me becoming aware of the love I feel for creation (and people). It’s as much about becoming aware of how I am loved by people, but also by earth herself. I have a sense that her pain is not only about what we do to her but what we do to ourselves too.
There was so much music today: the symphony of birds in the forest was so loud. There were cows with bells on, one of which made such a beautiful clear sound. The crickets are constant, of course, and then there was a picturesque pond with croaking frogs. If I was a composer I would have recorded it all and made a beautiful arrangement.
Sometimes walking is very easy, but today this hasn’t been the case. I had to stop again shortly after my lunch break to give my feet another rest. Some cows in a nearby field came to have a look. I like their curiosity.I had tried to arrange a place to stay, but it was met with an answer machine. When I arrived, the guy said that there were no vacancies and he directed me up the road to a far more expensive place. I was tired – tired too of having to find another place to sleep each day. I knew this feeling would pass. It disappeared after a phone call with my sister, a pleasant shower and some food. All is well.
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Reflections, music and scripture as well as opportunities for sharing on this World Aids Day online service.
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See the full list of talks at this year's week-long seminar, and tune in on YouTube.
Sep 20 2023
Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
Jul 25 2023