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 final week of reflections on the journey.
Thursday 13th July: Hazel & Good Wine
Today’s route to Vetralla led through hazel and oak woodland. It was such a blessing to be amongst trees again and to enjoy their generous presence and shade, particularly during this heatwave. I enjoyed seeing the young hazelnuts, holding their beautiful delicate leaves, as though they were precious treasures, which, of course, they are. I love their understated soft green colour and their smooth appearance.
This is a region where a lot of hazel is grown commercially and you can see fields of them planted together. However, seeing them in a more natural environment, amongst the other trees, is much more appealing. I got a fright when a large wild boar suddenly appeared from the bushes. I think he/she got a fright too and quickly disappeared! I loved walking on a dirt track again and my feet enjoyed it too! This softer foundation was a welcome change after the mainly gravel paths of the last few days. There was one section with the old Roman road still intact. I found it quite humbling to think of all the pilgrims who have trod these pathways over the ages.
Yesterday, I decided to walk two shorter routes in one day. I’m unsure of the wisdom of this decision because, although the distance was manageable, the heat was intense and the last stretch was through exposed landscape. The heat felt overwhelming at times. I couldn’t think of anything else than how to find shelter from its mercilessness.
The reason I decided on the longer walk was that I had finished the first route by 9am and felt too restless to stay in Montefiascone for the rest of the day. Over the last couple of weeks I have really longed to be home. Even though I still enjoy a lot of things on this pilgrimage, I am tired too. There is also a feeling that the ‘cup is full’ – so full of experiences and impressions that I desire to have some quiet time to process it all. I still see beautiful old places and sometimes really stunning churches but it seems harder now to take it all in.
In Montefiascone I visited the Saint Flaviano church. There was panel with an interesting story about Defuk, who was a servant of one of the kings (Henry V?). According to my guidebook (and Wikipedia) he was the servant of a bishop. Despite this conflict over whose servant he was, the rest of his story is agreed upon by these two sources. Defuk was sent ahead to test the wine in the local villages. If it was good wine he would write ‘Est’ on the door: ‘There is’. In this way, the bishop/ king would know where to stop in that village. In Montefiascone, he was so impressed with the wine that he wrote: ‘Est! Est! Est!’ on the door. He also decided to stay himself and indulge in this quality vintage! Alas, he had too much of a good thing and died two years later. His tomb is located in the church. The church was very beautiful with frescos and its style was very simple.
I continued on to Viterbo. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised that it was the birthplace of the Passionist, Blessed Dominic Barberi. I arrived late and hadn’t much time to explore the town. The hostel was in the old part of town It felt as if Dominic could have walked these streets, as not much seems to have changed. Did he go to the beautiful church of Santa Maria Nueva, I wondered?
Friday 14th July: We Need Trees
The fan is blowing. I made a cup of tea – it was a very long time ago I did that! I am sharing a small apartment with four other pilgrims. We have arrived in Sutri – another beautiful town with a long history. There are ‘must see’ archaeological sites with a Roman amphitheater just outside town. However, it is too hot to venture out.
In Sutri, there is no pilgrim accommodation – only hotels and B&B’s. Where we are staying is the cheapest we could find. It does come with luxuries: just bedsheets, a towel, and a little kitchen. Lyn, whom I have been sharing accommodation with for most of the last couple of weeks, is celebrating her birthday. Darrel is doing the shopping for dinner. Felipe, from France (whose birthday we celebrated in Vercelli) and Nicolo (an Italian living in Lausanne) are having a rest.
Today, again, the walk was through woodland. The first part was on a very wide path. I felt too far removed from the trees. I felt an observer instead of a participator. I want to be a tree amongst the trees, a wild flower amongst the wildflowers. I want to feel them close. The second part was on a narrow dirt track. The tree canopy closed above my head. I loved it. This loving feeling emerged in the woodland, even though we were alert not to upset wild boars, particularly the ones who have piglets. Woodland is also the best environment to walk in these temperatures. I keep repeating to myself: we need trees.
I left Vetralla this morning. At first glance, it was not a very attractive town. No trees! Later, I discovered the back streets and could see more charm. Today, the five of us all met at the same cafe in the shade in Capranica. It was straight away noticeable how much more friendly this town is than Vetralla. People smiled and greeted us. I think it is because of the trees. Such a green and pleasant town. Shall I say it once more: we need trees!
Saturday 15th July: Heat & Earth
It is getting hotter each day. This morning it was 27 degrees at 7am. They expect 40 degrees in Rome on Tuesday. I am so relieved I will have finished walking by then! The heat is oppressive, energy sapping, demotivating, nearly unbearable, and overwhelming. Sweat drops from my head, my back, my armpits and my legs. It sticks. It stings when it gets in my eyes. It makes me feel dirty and uncomfortable.
I knew I was running the risk to finish this pilgrimage in a heatwave, particularly now that they are more frequent and intensive. It is, however, part of the experience. It is one thing to hear the news about extreme heat in the South of Europe and something else to feel it. To walk in it. Let alone to work in it. There is no escaping for people who don’t have arcon. Even at night, it doesn’t cool down. I was reading in the Guardian how this is heat stress. When it doesn’t cool down at night, the body doesn’t get the chance to recover enough. It can affect your health. I had only once a hostel with badly working) arcon. I have been able to sleep reasonably well despite the conditions. This month, we had the hottest days on earth. I think we are getting used to hearing that records are broken on a very regular basis. What needs to happen for people to take action? We are like frogs in a pan that is slowly brought to boiling. Can we jump, please? Can we turn the heat off? Can we change our ways? Please!
It is not just us suffering from heat stress so is the earth and all here creatures and elements. So many streams and rivers seem to have dried up here. Pauline sent me this photo of a dry riverbed on her way to Radicofani.
The Guardian mentioned not only the carbon emissions as a cause of climate change but also the destruction of nature. Rightly so. We can change on both fronts.
This pilgrimage has made me realise on a deeper level how we need nature. How we are part of it.
Sunday 16th July: Rome
On this Sunday morning, I awoke at 4am and decided to get up and pack my rucksack to begin the last stretch of the journey. It was still dark. I was looking for the moon, but she wasn’t to be seen. The first stage of the journey was along the Via Cassia, the main road. The pavement was often blocked with containers, overflowing with litter. The smell! I thought of Pope Francis’ words, ‘The earth is turning into a pile of filth’. It saddened me. The heat at this early hour didn’t help either. But then the trail led through the Insugherata Nature Reserve. Suddenly, I was amongst my beloved wildflowers again and the shade of the trees. The air was a lot cooler here and fresh. Cobwebs stroked my skin. Bramble was overhanging the path. I gently brushed it away. It felt such an apt last walk. It summed up what I have been experiencing along the way – the ugliness and brokenness of our world, the harm we do alongside the incredible beauty of nature. We can make a choice for one or the other.
For an hour I walked in this reserve. The sun climbed higher. No one else was around – just me and earth’s creatures. I was so grateful that this formed part of the last day.
Afterwards, I came through suburbs and entered Monte Mario Park, high above the city of Rome, from where you can look down on the metropolis below. Walking down the hill was a bit tricky because suddenly the path was completely overgrown. I spotted a very steep narrow path that took me further down. I had to use my stick at this point. I thought it was quite funny to have to find my way through this ‘wilderness’ in the middle of Rome. After that, it was a 2km walk along the Viale Angelico that led straight to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square. I stopped half way for my cafe lungo and corneto con crema. It still hasn’t sunk in that I have arrived in the eternal city. The closer I got to the Vatican the more tourists there were. It all felt very strange.
I went to the Friezenkerk, a small church at the foot of the Vatican, where the Dutch gather for a mass in their own language. I entered in my sweaty clothes and bearing my rucksack. Two men greeted me in Dutch. I changed my top in the bathroom before sitting down in a still and empty church. A man approached to ask if I was a pilgrim. When I told him that I was, he said that, if I wanted, I could get a certificate. Another man had walked to here from his home town of Amsterdam. I had heard about him and had read some of his beautiful reflections. Together we went to meet the priest. He said that we would be asked to come to the front of the church before the end of mass to receive the certificate. I was pleased I was not on my own. Later a young Belgian guy joined us. He had walked from Antwerp. The three of us sat together. There were not many at mass, but it was a beautiful occasion.
When we were asked to come to the front, the priest invited us to say a few words about our experience. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t processed it yet. I had literally just arrived. Rijk from Amsterdam mentioned his sense of gratitude. The young Belgian man mentioned how so many times he had been asked why he was doing the pilgrimage all on his own at so young an age. He said that his experience had been that he wasn’t on his own at all. He became emotional and so did we! The priest asked if I wanted to say more. I talked about my concern for the earth, how whole I feel when surrounded by nature and how the way we treat nature affects me. Rijk talked about how the beautiful church music of a Dutch composer (Huub Oosterhuis), who died at Easter, had stayed with him. That the dead will rise had taken on a deeper meaning during his walk. All our experiences were connected in a way. Afterwards, there was coffee and cold drinks. When we left the church, the pope was speaking from his balcony on the top floor of St Peter’s. We could just see him. He sounded strong. People clapped and I joined in. It was good to hear him.
I made the twenty minute walk to the house of the Christian Brothers. Tony warmly welcomed me into their beautiful air-conditioned space. I will sleep alone in a pleasant bedroom, with freshly laundered sheets and towels. What a luxury! Above all, I appreciate the friendliness and concern of the brothers here. It’s good place to be indeed!
Final thoughts: Lessons Learned
My body seems to know already what my head is finding hard to accept: no more walking. I woke up at 6.10am, which hasn’t happened for months. I have been waking at 4am or 4.30am, but never much later. No more walking. No more need to be out there as early as possible, so as to be finished before the worst of the heat.
The heat has also given me a gift: getting up before sunrise. This has allowed me to watch it rise while walking and while the world is still quiet. It has been one of the treasures of this pilgrimage. I now understand why monks and nuns use the early morning for prayer. It feels like a very ‘thin’ place. It is when I have had my conversations with God. God never said much, but was always there. I think God (I don’t want to say ‘he’ or ‘she’) is everywhere – even in the pile of filth!
Over the last couple of days, I have been thinking about what this pilgrimage has meant to me. The order in which I mention some of the meanings is arbitrary, not hierarchical:
Look (love) beyond dislikes –
Some pilgrims have the need to boast about their achievements, the distance they have walked, the many hikes they have completed, the marvelous encounters they have had. I struggled with that but then, when I spent more time with them, there was always another side too. There was a vulnerable or a very generous dimension to people. Love is not just a feeling it is also a choice.
We are nature –
We talk about visiting nature and loving nature as if it is separate from us. However, we are nature. What we do to her, we do to ourselves.
The choice of living simply is utter richness –
To need so little that I could carry it all on my back has been such a joy. I lost so many things on the way but found that I could do without them. I have been wearing the same T-shirt and shorts for months. Although I find pleasure in wearing something else too. It is the knowledge that I don’t really need it that is liberating.
We need diversity in all aspects of life –
The biodiversity witnessed on this journey has made my heart sing. I was also amazed at the incredible wide ranging creativity of the Italians. I enjoyed the wide diversity of people I met. It concerns me how the food I came across lacked such diversity. Pizza places abounded in France, along with kebab parlours and snack bars. These were often the only cheap places for food.
Hostels were often not open until 3pm or even later. During the last couple of weeks, I would arrive in places between 11am and 1pm, which meant I had to wait for hours before being allowed entry. I tried to wait in the shade, sometimes in a cafe. This was a chance to catch up with my writings and messages. This waiting could be a helpful time for unwinding. When the heat came, there was more waiting and resting. It was too hot for sightseeing. Waiting taught patience and the importance of simply being rather than doing.
Listen to myself and be faithful to my own journey –
There are as many ways of doing a pilgrimage as there are pilgrims. Some walked long distances, some short ones. Some did a lot of sightseeing and others didn’t. Some slept in hammocks, others in hotels. It was important for me to find my own way of doing things. It meant making the choice to walk alone but to meet up with others in hostels. Sometimes, it meant spending time in churches and attending mass. It felt important to be up very early and to greet the day and welcome God.
We are one family –
There is only one earth community that encompasses the whole of creation: brother breeze and sister spider. When we gather from our different walks of life and break the bread, Christ is amongst us. Every division is not from God.
I have learned to love more. I have learned to love myself more and to accept the scars I carry, to leave the hurt behind the ‘mountains’ and not to dwell on it any more. I have felt overwhelmed with love for pilgrim companions, wild flowers, butterflies, trees, beautiful art and churches. I have also learned to choose to love, and to not always rely on a feeling of love.
I wrote in an earlier entry that I am grateful for gratitude. I still am. Gratitude gives depth and joy to life. There is always something to be grateful for. The heat gave me more insight into the burden of global warming and climate change. It also gave me the early morning starts. Gratitude makes my heart expand and enables me to love more.
I would like to finish with expressing my gratitude to all of you who have encouraged me, followed me and prayed for me on the way. I never walked alone: you and the great Creator were with me. I thank all the creators that crossed my path: the butterflies fluttering in front of my feet, the spiders making their delicate lacework, the wild boars with their young ones, the deer, hares, swifts, larks, cuckoos, the ants on a mission, wild flowers, trees, grasses and all the not yet known ones.
Thank you also to the pilgrims that walked with me for longer or shorter distances: Astrid and Albrecht, Pauline, JoopMaris, Lyn, Lars, Dominico, Viviane, Jaco, Hilde, Silas, Maryanne, Jean, Ken, Darryl, Nicolo and Felipe. There is always the danger that I will forget a name. I hope I haven’t! If I have, please forgive me. I am not less grateful. You have all enriched my pilgrimage.
This journey has come to an end, but a new one has started. May I take with me the lessons I have learned.
Once again thank you all for walking with me!
If you missed any of Lya’s weekly updates, you can read them all here.
An exclusive extract from Rev'd Sue Parfitt's new book on Christians, Civil Resistance and the Climate Crisis - out soon via Lab/ora Press.
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Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
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