PILGRIMAGE: Aubrac, France—Listening by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Aubrac, France—Listening by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

My feet are sore.  I’ve been following the red-and-white trail markers for several hilly miles.  They have led me along muddy cow paths, beside rough stone walls and barbed-wire fences, through thick woods, and across lush meadows in the rugged uplands of central France.  I’m alone except for an occasional fellow-hiker, and a few friendly cows who ignore me as I tiptoe uneasily in their pasture within a few feet of them.  The hiking trail, officially called “GR-65,” follows a path worn by thousands of medieval pilgrims.  They were walking the 800 miles from Le Puy in France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain to venerate the relics of Saint James the Apostle.  Under a bleak, threatening sky, I’m making my own pilgrim way to the town of Aubrac with my mind on those hearty predecessors who trudged hundreds of dangerous, weary miles to fulfill their pilgrimage vows.

At last, from the top of a grassy hill, I spot a lazy little village loafing in a patch of sunlight a couple of miles ahead.  That must be Aubrac: a cluster of gray granite buildings and a few tall green trees.  It looks out of place, as if some careless giant has dropped it by mistake into the middle of the rolling meadows.

I flop down in the soft, fragrant grass beside the path to rest my feet and to make a quick sketch of the tiny town.  Its monastery and surrounding wall are gone, as are most of the other original buildings.  Only a couple of sturdy, stone, two-story inns, a low Romanesque church, and the Tower of the English remain.

Behind me I can hear the ghostly footfalls of pious phantom travelers on their way to and from Compostela, and I no longer feel alone.

When my sketch is finished, I stand up, dust myself off, shoulder my knapsack, and pick up the trail again as it winds its way down the sloping meadows toward Aubrac.  The church steeple disappears behind a hill and pops up once more a few minutes later.  Then it hides a second time, only to reappear in a couple of moments.  My feet start to ache again.  To take my mind off the soreness, I try to remember what I’ve read about Aubrac.

In the 1200s, a Flemish knight was making the difficult pilgrimage from Le Puy westward toward Compostela.  Early on he had to cross these wild Aubrac highlands.  He was waylaid by robbers on his outward journey across the uninhabited uplands.  Then, on his return trip, he was suddenly engulfed in a freak blizzard near the same place.  The knight made a vow that if he arrived home safely from his perilous trip he would have a way station built halfway across the Aubrac wilderness to help the pilgrims who were to come after him.  The present hamlet of Aubrac proves that he was a man of his word.  The order of Knights Hospitallers founded a priory here that would grow to be a sizable cluster of about a dozen buildings.  While some of these religious men were offering lodging and food to the travelers, others, knights on horseback, would ride through the countryside hunting down robbers.

The squat church steeple pops into view again.  That must be the home of Maria.

Maria, la Cloche des Perdus

Her full name is Maria, la Cloche des Perdus, “Maria, the Lost People’s Bell.”  Every evening around sundown the bell was tolled for two hours to guide any wayfarers who might still be out on the pilgraim trail, caught by the sudden onset of darkness.  Whenever there was a heavy fog or a bad storm that made traveling more dangerous than usual, Maria sang out at regular intervals to act as a sort of homing device for unfortunate travelers wandering out on the uplands.  Anyone lost in the wilderness could just listen for the bell and then follow the sound to the safety of the town.

Most of us have times when we feel bewildered or overwhelmed by relentless demands of family, job, and so on.  The pilgrim travelers crossing the hazardous uplands of Aubrac have a lesson for us at such moments: they realized the value of listening.  They knew that to find their way through the fog or the dark, they needed to listen for that bell.  It was especially hard to hear Maria above the roar of wind and rain, so the trick was to stand still, be quiet, and listen very hard.  After a while, they would begin to catch faint whispers of her voice riding on the wind, and that would be enough to guide them in the right direction through the storm.

If the gospel life is a constant response to Christ’s call, then it makes sense that listening for that call should be an essential part of our life.  The very first word of Benedict’s Rule is “Listen!”  And in that Rule he offers some help for listening that may be of use to any Christian.  First, monastic and indeed all of Christian spiritual tradition teaches the need for frequent quiet prayer, for “resting in God.”  If our life is to have any real meaning, we have to be connected with the world of silence where God dwells, deep down in our innermost selves.  In the expectant quiet of prayer and meditation the voice of the Spirit of truth speaks to us.  Of course, silence can be scary.  It’s even scarier when the voice that speaks out of the quiet tells us something we don’t want to hear, such as a truth about ourselves that we’re unwilling to deal with.  Maybe the bell will tell us we’re heading off in the wrong direction and then we’ll have to stop and change our life’s direction.  No wonder so many people try to fill every moment with noise – they’re afraid that they might hear the sound of the bell calling them to turn around.

A second help for listening is Benedict’s advice that we “listen with the ear of our heart” to what the Spirit has to say.  For most of us, our workday is filled with a loud roar of activity – earning a living, caring for our children, working on our marriage, paying our bills.  We can learn, however, how to listen with the ear of our heart to the events around us, and hear in them the guiding sound of the bell.  A coworker marches toward me with a telltale look in her eye, and I steel myself.  She’s probably going to try to blame me for that fiasco at the meeting this morning.  Well, just let her try.  She’ll get an earful.  Then the woman walks past; she wasn’t coming to see me at all!  But I was ready to be ugly with her.  That’s the sound of the distant bell telling me that I’m getting off the path.

A teenage son comes up to his mother and spontaneously offers, “I’ll be happy to babysit for a while if you need to go grocery shopping.”  Shocked, she begins to pray: “Sometimes, Jesus, just when I think I’ve been a total failure with that kid, he does something like this.  Thank you for the encouragement!  You must have known I needed it.”  The ear of her heart has heard the sound of the bell over the shouts from the playroom and the rock music on the radio upstairs, assuring her that she is on the right path.

The trail has now joined a paved road.  As I approach the village, I can make out the mustard-colored moss on the church wall and a red bicycle leaning against the side of a house.  I can almost feel the presence of the Hospitallers who once made this a welcome haven for weary pilgrims.  Everything is perfectly still; the ear of my heart can hear Maria ringing from her tower.

I walk past the Tower of the English and the little church with its bell tower.  I notice an old stone inn farther down the road on the right.  The friendly smoke curling from its chimney draws me, hungry and thirsty, to its door.   Aubrac at last – and my feet have stopped hurting.


What are God’s favorite ways of speaking to you?  What changes might you make in your life to make it easier for the ear of your heart to hear God speaking?

A worthwhile Lenten exercise is to try to identify some of the emotional and moral “noise” in your life.  Another is to lower the level of physical noise around you by limiting your use of television, radio, and so forth.  These practices are not ends in themselves, but they can help you to hear better what God is telling you during this season.

Sacred Scripture (Jeremiah 7:23)

Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way I command you.


Rule of Benedict (Prologue, vv. 9-10)

Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from Heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.

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