PILGRIMAGE: Waterloo, Belgium—Checking The Visitors by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Waterloo, Belgium—Checking The Visitors by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The night is as black as licorice.  Sitting alone in a compartment of the Amsterdam-to-Paris train, I click off the overhead lamp and start watching mysterious pinpoints of light slide past outside.  We rumble through little stations whose darkened windows stare blankly, like great blind eyes.  We’re crossing Belgium, that favorite corridor for armies charging back and forth between France and Germany.  The constant clacking rhythm of the wheels on the rails lulls me to sleep in my seat.

I hear distant cannon fire and the whinnying of terrified horses, echoes of the desperate battles of 1914 in the Ardennes forest way off to the east.  The sharp smell of gunpowder wafts across the hills.

The rhythm of the wheels slows, and I wake up as a weird glare comes pouring through the window and floods my compartment with an unnatural glow.  I hold my hands in front of me; they’re pale blue.  We’ve pulled into the station of some large city.  Let’s see…we’ve already passed Antwerp, so this is probably Brussels.  Several quiet figures stand on the concrete platform under the fluorescent lights watching the train come to a stop.  There’s always something sad about travelers waiting in a station in the middle of the night.  The muffled sound of their voices comes through the window.  There are a couple of anonymous thumps out in the corridor as suitcases bump against the walls.  A shrill whistle from the conductor, and a moment later we glide out of the station.  The wheels set up their monotonous clacking again; in a few minutes they’ll take us past the town of Waterloo.  I doze off.

Napoleon’s troops are already scurrying about, preparing for a charge across a flat plain at first light.  Drums roll, calling the soldiers to form ranks behind their banners.  In the morning mist the Duke of Wellington’s English are already awaiting the fateful attack.

I sense a human presence in the compartment with me.  I half open my eyes to see a man in a suit and tie sitting in the shadows on the opposite side of the dark compartment, just inside the sliding door.  Funny, he came in without making a sound.  My senses are dull with sleep, and my head is heavy on my shoulders.  Soon my cheek rests once again against the rough cloth of the window curtain and my eyelids droop closed.

The battle trumpet sounds, the drums pound, and the attack begins.  The French troops charge across the wide field.  Horses snort and neigh in the heat of battle.  The cannons belch death and mutilation; Napoleon’s charge starts to falter.

I sense that presence again, but nearer this time.  I open my eyes a little and am startled to see that the man in the suit is now standing just a few inches away from me, to my right, his arms stretching up over my head.  His hands are busy on the luggage shelf above me.

The little part of my brain that doesn’t go to sleep on trains gives the rest of me a poke and asks, “Why is this man standing here reaching up to the overhead rack where your blazer is?”  In an instant my eyes are wide open.  I tilt my head up toward the dark form hovering above me and ask in polite, sleepy French, “M’sieur?  Je peux vous aider?  Can I help you, sir?”  He doesn’t answer, but instead just calmly turns to his left, takes two or three steps back to his corner seat by the door and sits down.  My eyelids close once more.

I hear a familiar sound: the door to the corridor is slowly sliding shut.  The corner seat is empty, and I’m alone in the compartment again.  As the clouds clear from my brain, I start to realize that my visitor had been going through my coat pockets looking for my wallet!

I’m not awake enough to be angry at him, but I have to admire his nerve.  Then I start to scold myself for not being more aware that something unusual was afoot.  This stranger shows up in my compartment looking for a seat at 2:00 a.m., a full half-hour after we had left the last station.  How could I have been so slow to pick up on that?

Finally I end up feeling insulted.  Did that guy really think that I would be dumb enough to leave anything of value lying around where some sleazy stranger could just sneak in and snatch it?  In fact, when I’m on a night train, I always put my passport, wallet, and tickets in my back pocket and sit on them.  (This is not very comfortable, but it’s highly effective.)  The thief, then, never had the slightest chance of stealing anything of value from me.  Now wide awake, I start thinking – you need to be conscious of who’s in the compartment with you.

We don’t need to be paranoid, of course; but we do need to be watchful.  Benedictines, for example, have a well-deserved reputation for hospitality, but the Rule actually shows a marked distrust of guests.  As soon as one shows up at the door, the superior and the brothers must always pray with the guest before exchanging the kiss of peace, “because of the delusions of the devil.”  Brothers are not to speak with a guest without the abbot’s permission.  Experience had shown Benedict that, like my night visitor, evil influences can sometimes slip into the monastery unnoticed – forces that can slowly erode our commitment to living the gospel.

This is true for any Christian trying to follow Christ.  Take, for instance, the influence of mass media.  TV sitcoms, internet sites, and junk magazines slip into our homes in the guise of innocent relaxation, and soon become familiar friends.  It’s curious how we protect ourselves from harmful intruders by putting double locks on our doors and burglar alarms on our windows, but then we allow into our homes a parade of seedy strangers in rented movies and television programs – strangers who pose a real threat to our deepest beliefs and convictions.  Constant and indiscriminate exposure to programs that glorify materialism, deceit, selfishness, and promiscuity will inevitably change our attitudes, confuse our sense of right and wrong, and weaken our determination to follow Christ.  To think otherwise is simply naïve.

No, I’m far from alone in my train compartment.  Lots of characters are passing in and out all the time – and some of them bear careful watching.  On the long night’s journey to the Kingdom there has to be a part of me that doesn’t go to sleep, that keeps asking questions: “Why am I watching this program that glorifies adultery?”  “Do I really need this item I’m about to buy, or have I been talked into it by advertisers?”  I have to keep shooing off the well-dressed night visitors: “Pardon.  Je peux vous aider?  Excuse me, can I help you?”

Lines of German Panzer tanks are rolling past my window to join the furious fighting far off to the east.  It’s 1944, and General Dwight Eisenhower’s troops are digging in for a fight to the death.  History will call it, “The Battle of the Bulge.”  Clouds of oily black smoke billow from burning towns on the horizon.  It’s as if the eastern sky itself were on fire.

Then I realize that the red in the sky is the sunrise; the smoke is the city smog hanging over the outskirts of Paris.  I stand up and stretch my arms over my head with a short grunt, swaying as the train clatters and lurches on its final few miles.  I notice, just above eye-level, my navy blue blazer laying in its place on the rack.  My right hand reaches back instinctively to tap my pants pocket.  I smile smugly as I feel my passport and wallet still safe where they belong.

Outside the window the distant white domes of Sacré Coeur Basilica glow pink in the dawn over Paris.


Lent is a good time to scrutinize the “strangers” you may have invited to walk with you on your life’s pilgrimage through television programs, reading material, and internet sites.  Look carefully at a few of these, one at a time, and ask them some questions: “Did I consciously invite you along, or did you just sneak in?”  “Are you heading toward the same goal as I am?”  “Just how are you helping me on my journey to the Kingdom?”  You might try “fasting” from certain television programs or other forms of entertainment during Lent.


Sacred Scripture (1 Peter 5:8-9)

Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” vv. 3-5)

Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love.  First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, but prayer must always precede the kiss of peace because of the delusions of the devil.

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