PILGRIMAGE: Chambord, France—Gaining Perspective by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Chambord, France—Gaining Perspective by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

My friend Jean and I are standing on the vast lawn that lies in front of the gigantic chateau of Chambord.  The fertile farmland of the Loire Valley, an hour’s ride south of Paris, was always considered worth fighting over.  During the Middle Ages, fortified castles – châteaux – spring up all along the valley as various nobles tried to defend their domains.  With the coming of gunpowder and cannons and the end of feudal warfare, these forts lost their military value and were converted into fashionable residences.  Elegant windows were cut into their walls and lovely flower gardens laid out in their moats.  The chateaux built later were never fortresses at all, but were designed from the start as splendid country residences.  The most outrageous example of the later kind of chateau is Chambord.

Even at this distance, well back from the building, it’s hard to take in the whole thing in one glance.  Its 365 chimneys and scores of spires and pinnacles float like an aerial village of gray slate above the imposing five-story façade.  On this side alone, there seem to be enough windows for most of the 440 rooms.  Built as a hunting lodge for King Francis the First, this triumph of playfulness and fantasy was the first flowering of the Renaissance in France.

We start to stroll around outside Chambord’s imposing bulk in the afternoon sun, overwhelmed by its size and charmed by the variety of its architectural surprises.  Jean stops in his tracks and breaks into a broad smile.  “Excusez, moi, père, but I see an old friend over there from my army regiment.  It’s been so many years!  Let me go and say hello.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

The two are immediately lost in an animated conversation, and it’s obvious that this will take more than a minute.  I wander a discreet distance away from them to watch the activity on the front lawn.  A large hot-air balloon, glowing white and blue in the sunshine, is just lifting off.  It glides slowly upward like a mysterious vision, a giant soap bubble hovering silently over the spires of Chambord.

Chambord balloonsI think of little Kari, my friend’s six-year-old back home, giving me a long account of her classroom birthday party.  She told me that each child had been given a helium-filled balloon.  I asked her, “What would happen if you let go of the string on your balloon?”  She answered matter-of-factly, “Oh!  It would fall up!”

As a creature held down by the heavy hand of gravity, I was fascinated at the time by the image of a thing dropping not toward the Earth but toward the sky.  There was something delightful about the notion of “falling up.”

All Christians, and especially monks, are supposed to approach life with a certain lightness of spirit, not weighed down by worries or by what Benedict calls “too great concern for the fleeting and temporal things of this world.”  I don’t always manage to live up to the ideal myself, though – my life can grow pretty heavy with worrying about my various jobs, projects, and deadlines.  This afternoon, far away from my office, I find myself asking what would happen if I let go of the weight of all that worrying and lightened up in my approach to life.  Maybe I’d fall up.

The hot-air balloonists rising gently over the fantastic chimneys and towers of Chambord could teach all of us some lessons in Christian spirituality.  First, they have a sense of perspective.  From their vantage point, they can see the whole chateau, its fifty-five-square-kilometer wooded estate and the farmland beyond.  Balloonists have a sense of the real lay of the land.  If I were to lighten up, I’d be able to rise far enough above my tasks and my troubles to see them in their true proportions and not let them become more important than they really are.

Second, balloonists aren’t preoccupied with the future; they don’t know exactly where the wind is going to take them; they just savor the present moment.  If I responded to deadlines and the pressures of planning with the tranquility of the balloonist, I’d probably be easier to live with.  But wouldn’t I also be less effective?  Less efficient?  Somehow, as I watch the calm gracefulness of the blue balloon, the weighty words “effective” and “efficient” seem to lose their hold over me.  I imagine myself up there with the balloonists floating high above the countryside, feeling the gentle breeze on my face, and smiling as I look down at the carefree play of pinnacles and gables on the chateau’s roof below.  I start to take in the view.

Jean has finished his visit and is striding quickly down the path toward me with an apologetic look on his face.  Time to bring myself gently back to Earth.  At least for now.


Lent, like a long pilgrimage, is an opportunity to step back from your daily life and see it from a different perspective, the way a balloonist gains a new perspective from high overhead.  You may begin to see more clearly, for example, how God takes care of you and sustains you, or how precious you are in the Lord’s eyes despite your faults.

Think of a certain problem in your life and ask the Lord to give you a new perspective on it.  Now think of someone or something that you value very much, and ask the Lord to let you see that person or thing in God’s wider view.


Sacred Scripture (Matthew 6:25, 26, 34)

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.


Wisdom of the Desert

Abba Euprepios said, “Knowing that God is faithful and mighty, have faith in him and you will share what is his.  As for your own affairs, believe with faith in him about them, too, for he is able to work miracles in you also.”

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