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 eighth week of reflections on the journey.
‘Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given; gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us’~ David Whyte
Tuesday 30th May: Bye bye, beautiful Lake of Geneve!
The moon and the street lantern shone on my tent in the garden of my Swiss hosts. Trains and cars passed close by but I slept like a baby. It must have been the swim in the lake that made me so tired.
Today ( Tuesday 30th May), I had to say goodbye to the lake but not before admiring it for another couple of hours. The beauty of water. The immensity of the lake. I wondered about the effect of climate change on this beautiful body of water.
I continue to be grateful for trees. During these warm days, they offer a much appreciated shade. Not only that, it is their positive presence. Trees change the atmosphere of a street or a walk way. We need trees not just to absorb carbon but as our companions in life.
Pauline and I had lunch at a swimming pool beside the lake. It always surprises me that people would like to swim in a swimming pool when there is a beautiful lake next to it. There was a notice saying that the temperature of the lake was 16 degrees and the water of the swimming pool 22 degrees. What I do enjoy about swimming in the lake is the energy of the water, which feels so strong and so out of our control.
The lake shore is urbanised and very tourist-centred. We left the lake and started to walk towards the Alps. On our way, we passed industrialised areas. That is what the tourists don’t see. It is ugly to behold.
Wednesday 31st May: Breakfast Lecture
Over the last couple of days I have been walking in between the mountains following the Rhone Valley. For the next three days I will be climbing them in the hope that I can reach Italy by Monday. It feels a daunting target but, like everything else in life, it means one step at a time.
On Tuesday night I found a wonderful campsite in this valley. I love sleeping so close to the earth and the elements. On Wednesday, however, I was presented with a choice. Pauline and I had reached St. Maurice, arriving early as we had followed a shorter route. Despite this, we both felt very tired. Pauline had booked a room in the Abbey of St. Maurice, a beautiful old building. Its corridors were wide and cool and it looked a very attractive space.
As the campsite was another hours walk away, I decided to book what I expected to be a lovely room in the abbey. I should have known better. Just as I had discovered the rooms to be at the abbey of Notre Dame in Wisques, so it was here. Pilgrims actually stay in a separate rundown house. Having said that, the bed was comfortable with sheets and a duvet and with a big towel thrown in. What a luxury! In most places, I have had to bed down in my sleeping bag and make do with the tiny quick-drying towel I am carrying with me.
According to a local priest, St. Maurice is symbolically half way between Canterbury and Rome. Pauline invited me out for a celebratory meal. We tried the Swiss wine, which was very good indeed. The Swiss like their wine so much that all that is produced here is used here and hardly any left for export.
The monk who had welcomed us, showed us to our rooms. He said that he would wait outside at 7.20 in the morning to take us to the abbey for breakfast. At 7.15am, Pauline was outside sitting on a bench when we heard a human voice calling ‘cuckoo’ cuckoo’. It was the monk with sparkling eyes. We were taken through the wide corridors to a beautiful room with a table set for three. The monk joined us for breakfast. He said a prayer and cut the bread. Then began a forty minute lecture in German about the history of the place. Although he had buttered his bread, he didn’t eat it. He talked and talked.
At the end, he asked us if we had any questions. We didn’t. He walked us back through the corridors and opened the locked doors. When we reached the hall he made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with his thumb as an act of blessing.
Thursday 1st June: Labyrinth
She had a very friendly smile as she kept glancing at us apologetically. She was busy with other clients but had already noticed us. Pauline and I had stopped for a coffee after our first climb of the day. The lady came over and took our two ´café allonge’ order and asked if we were doing the Via Francigena. Pauline informed her that I had started in Canterbury. When I wanted to pay the lady said, ‘No, this is on me’. She gave us chocolate too: ‘to keep us going’. Such kindness (not to mention the coffee and chocolate) helped us enormously to face the high mountains.
At times it was really scary: the paths were very narrow and the cliffs deep. Pauline had lent me one of her Nordic walking sticks. That was a great help too. We had decided to climb together and after that to decide if we would continue in one another’s company or go our own way. For now, that feels good. It feels safe.
Although I like walking on my own, it is good to share what I experience with someone else. How do I explain the beauty of the mountains? Particularly now that I am getting closer and closer to them. I have talked about the presence of trees and of the lake but mountains have a presence too. Sometimes its quite overwhelming. Maybe this is because I grew up in a flat country and I am not used to such heights. A Swiss host told us how, when she was studying in England, she missed the mountains. I can understand that now.
The image of the labyrinth came to mind when I was reflecting on my journey through what is also called ‘the gate of The Alps’ . Many times I have explained the labyrinth that used to be at Minsteracres – to walk the pathway inwards with the palms of one’s hands facing downwards, letting go of all that is disturbing you, of all that that threatens to take life away. The centre of the labyrinth is the turning point, where you take time to have a quiet moment and then turn the palms upwards, open to receiving what the Universe, creation, God has in store for you.
The long walk that has taken me to the Alps has been about letting go of the past twenty years. I hope to close this phase symbolically when I have reached the top on Sunday. I hope I can then symbolically turn my palms upwards and be open and attentive for what Life, God, The Universe has in store for me. Where is God calling me?
This journey has given me a deep sense of joy and gratitude. It has been a simple life of walking, eating, sleeping with all I need being carried in a bag on my back and wearing the same clothes everyday. I’ve been met with gifts of food and friendship. It is a joy to be out all day in the beauty of nature without closing my eyes to the harm that is done to her. Our capitalist society gives the opposite message: the more you have the happier you will be. It is not true. Poverty is horrible but a chosen simple life brings joy. It is a joy in itself but also involves the joy of sharing what we have. I think that the cafe owner got as much joy as we did when she gave us a free coffee and chocolate.
Saturday 3rd June: The Real Life
On Sunday afternoons, people leaving Minsteracres after a weekend retreat would often say: ‘back to the real life’. I often responded: ‘what is real life?’ That question came to me today when I was climbing the Alps. Martin Newell was on my mind. He and 8 others have been found guilty of public nuisance for stopping traffic at the port of Dover in September 2021. This was part of the nonviolent ‘Insulate Britain’ campaign which involved a demand to the UK government to insulate houses in an attempt to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel poverty.
To me, it feels as if our society is becoming more unreal. People campaigning for the common good, who have the courage to take action and demand that the government takes responsibility for the climate and for the social crisis we are in, are found guilty and can face a prison sentence. Politicians who lie and have put lives in danger, who treat other human beings inhumanely continue as leaders. Companies that have deliberately misinformed people about climate change are making massive profits whereas the poor struggle to pay their heating bills. Services are privatised to focus on making more profit. How real is that? Prisons, hospitals, care homes, water companies become about making profits. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Meanwhile, I walk through this beautiful landscape. Whereas in France a meadow with wild flowers was an exception, here all the meadows have wild flowers. Every day I discover flowers that are new to me. I greet them and delight in them. I also noticed that by climbing higher I go ‘backwards’ as far as the seasons are concerned. In the valley, flowers were fading but up here they are in bloom : lilac, cows parsley and chickweed. It is a double enjoyment.
Is this life real or do I need to return to real life when I have finished my pilgrimage? I wonder…
This simple life, submerged in nature, feels so real and I wish I could hold on to that. I wish I could invite others to do the same. I wish I could take the Brighton jury who have found the nine guilty on a pilgrimage and talk to them about real life!
Monday 5th June: Walking with fear
I imagined the famous hospice of the Grand St. Bernard Pass to be situated on a plateau in the Alps, only reachable by foot. Instead it is on quite a narrow top of the mountain with a tarmac road right next to it. When we finally reached the top, we met two German couples with sport cars. They were taking photos of themselves and their vehicles with the mountains as a backdrop. They asked if we could take a photo of them. Being a professional photographer, Pauline obliged. Then they offered to take one of us.
It was while I was forwarding the pictures to my family that I felt emotional. It had been a difficult walk over the past two days, involving a lot of climbing. Today was beautiful even with the drizzle. The clouds surrounding the mountain tops gave them an extra presence.
The flowers were different and unfamiliar. We saw two bergmarmotten (mountain marmots). These beautiful creatures are known to be shy but this pair were sticking their heads out to see what was happening. There were also ugly bits to the landscape: the tunnel we walked close to and the high grey concrete wall of the reservoir. They are unwelcome scars on this beautiful scenery. A very energetic lady in her seventies crossed our path. She had walked from Rome and her destination was Lausanne. She beamed with joy!
After nearly four hours walking an ascending and descending path, we reached the tarmac road leading up the mountain. There was too much snow to climb the footpath so we followed the tarmac road with its hairpin curves climbing higher and higher. I am scared of heights. It feels as if the deep pulls me towards it. I walked along the mountainside holding on to the rock wall. I didn’t feeI that I was facing my fear with much courage. I was walking with my fear and trying to control it. I felt sick and had to concentrate on my feet and not look up or around too much. It felt such a long road. We had a little break before continuing. Then I realised we had forgotten our walking sticks, so I went to retrieve them. Finally, we saw a cafe and, behind it, the large hospice. We had reached the highest point of this pilgrimage: 2473 metres.
It also felt like a turning point. Though I’m too tired to write anymore, I’m also thankful that I have been able to get so far. I’m grateful to Pauline too who has been such a good companion on this steep climb.
You can follow Lya’s weekly updates here.
Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
Jul 25 2023
Thanks for following Lya on her journey along the Via Francigena to Rome. Here she shares her reflections on the final week of her eco-pilgrimage.
Jul 18 2023
Lya Vollering details her thirteenth week walking along the Via Francigena, through Italian towns full of history.
Jul 11 2023