Pilgrim Road

PILGRIMAGE: Saint Martin du Canigou, France—The Empty Grave by Albert Holtz

April 1, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The gray peaks of the Pyrenees stretch out in a ragged semicircle in front of me; their lower slopes, carpeted in lush, dark green, plunge out of sight into steep chasms.  A hundred feet below my rocky perch, the tan stone buildings of the Abbey of Saint Martin du Canigou cling precariously to a rocky outcropping.  Beside the small church with its squat, square-topped bell tower and gray slate roof, the main two-story monastery basks in the morning sunshine, looking down onto the enclosed cloister garden, with its open colonnade on one side that follows the edge of a steep cliff.  At the far end of the garden is another simple two-story stone building; like a few of the others it has a red tile roof.  In the wall of [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Padua, Italy—Waiting In Hope by Albert Holtz

March 31, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road According to my guide book, the long rough wall a few yards to my left was built by the Romans.  That makes it sort of recent – Padua, the oldest city in northern Italy, was supposedly founded around 1200 BC by a Trojan prince, and Paduans boast of once having won a battle against the Spartans. My walk through Padua this morning is making for a pleasant if jumbled tour of the halls of history: ancient Roman walls rub elbows with renaissance facades, while modern buildings stand alongside a few that date back to the Middle Ages. With the Roman wall already behind me now, my map shows that I have to stroll several more blocks before I get to my next stop, the basilica built in honor of the city’s most famous citizen, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Fatima Parish, Santa Cruz, Bolivia—Waving Your Palm by Albert Holtz

March 30, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road In the open-air market here in Santa Cruz, in the semi-tropical center of Bolivia, I’ve seen the dried llama fetuses that one buries in the foundation of a new house to ward off evil.  In the center of town, I’ve marveled at the old women who sit on the sidewalk patiently waiting all day for someone to buy one or two of the oranges they’ve put on the blanket in front of them.  On my long walks from the rectory I’ve watched shiny new Porsches dodge around burro-powered carts on the highway.  A few days ago, on Palm Sunday, I saw little children sitting at the gate of the churchyard selling palms before Mass.  Nothing surprises me anymore now that I’ve been here for over a week. So I’m not shocked to see a [...]

PILGRIMAGE: El Bosque, Bolivia—Washing Feet by Albert Holtz

March 29, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Night is falling fast on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.  Our taxi turns off the busy main road and starts to bounce past patches of semitropical woods where cinder block shacks huddle together in groups as if looking for moral support.  In the front seat, next to the driver, sits Gertulio, a Brazilian catechist.  I’m in the back with a seminarian named Carlos who has volunteered to come out here and help me celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass.  I’ve never been the chief celebrant on Holy Thursday – but at least I have said Mass in Spanish three times before. We jolt to a stop at the edge of a wide, dark field.  Mass kit in hand, I climb out of the cab and tramp through the high grass, the taxi’s [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Perpignan, France—Dancing With God by Albert Holtz

March 28, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The evening is perfect for a stroll around the old quarter of Perpignan, the central city of Catalonia in France.  Catalonia, which spans the eastern end of the Pyrenees from Perpignan south to Barcelona in Spain, has a strong ethnic identity based on its rich cultural heritage, proud history, and common language, Catalan. I can see, about a block ahead, café tables crowded together into a semicircle under their bright blue umbrellas.  They form the curved side of a large, open plaza.  Along its straight side runs the high wall of a grumpy old fortress called the Castillet.  Against this ancient stone building, a temporary platform has been set up with two rows of chairs on it. As I arrive in the plaza I pass a [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Santa Cruz, Bolivia—Feeling Christ Suffer by Albert Holtz

March 27, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road She is barefoot, wearing the common dress of Bolivian Indian women, with underskirts that puff out to make her look unnaturally heavy in the hips.  Her jet black braids disappear over her shoulders and down her back.  The young mother is just greeting us when her husband comes trotting up from somewhere across the dusty lot to join the group.  Their house, really just a shed, is one of several strewn about among the low tropical shrubs and scrawny trees.  It’s a slab of concrete with wooden walls and a corrugated metal roof.  The couple lead Father Jim, Sister Ana, and me solemnly into their tiny home. The single room has windows only in the front wall next to the door, so that even on this mild autumn day in May, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Salamanca, Spain—Being Transformed by Albert Holtz

March 26, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Salamanca, in northwest central Spain, has been staring down at the River Tormes since the time of the Caesars.  Walking on the narrow railroad bridge high over the river, I keep glancing across at the two beautiful cathedrals that stand out against the gray February sky.  The winter wind numbs my fingertips as I flip through my stack of homemade vocabulary cards on the way to Spanish class. From here I can also see a couple of majestic convents lower down on the hillside.  Both of these, like all of the towns’ palaces, churches, and university buildings, are made from the same local sandstone; Salamanca looks as if it’s been hewn from a single huge honey-brown block. At the end of the bridge I turn to my left, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Holy Week by Albert Holtz

March 25, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Arriving in Jerusalem The escape through the Red Sea, the covenant at Sinai, and the forty years of desert wandering transformed a ragged band of sheepherders into a holy nation, the People of God.  The experience changed them forever. Our meditations for this final week stress that our Lenten journey is not just a forty-day exercise after which we return to our old ways.  It is meant to change us permanently.  The meditations for Monday and Wednesday, “Salamanca” and “Perpignan” both reflect the theme of transformation in Christ, while “Santa Cruz” shows how certain experiences have the power to change our hearts.  “El Bosque” helps us learn from an eloquent ritual used in the Holy Thursday liturgy, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Saint Gervais, Paris—Expecting Help by Albert Holtz

March 24, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The Church of Saints Gervais et Protais stands in the Marais, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris.  The first church that stood on this spot was a favorite of Saint Germain, Bishop of Paris about the year 550.  King Louis XIII laid the foundation stone for the present building in 1616.  This is the first time I’ve been inside, so, without being too obvious, I steal a peek at the great gothic church while waiting for Midday Prayer to begin.  My eyes trace the lines of the great gray pillars that shoot out of the stone floor and zoom straight skyward into the shadows, where they curve gently until they join one another in a riot of points and arches far overhead. Kneeling on the floor of the large chapel located [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Amsterdam, Holland—Hoping No Matter What by Albert Holtz

March 23, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road A young mother plods across the snow-covered bridge, tugging a tiny sled made entirely of wood.  On it sits a rosy-cheeked child in a blue snowsuit, holding on with both mittens.  I pick my way carefully along the narrow icy sidewalk that runs beside Amsterdam’s Prinsegracht canal.  The white cover of snow glistens in the January sun, a startling contrast to the jet black water. In the seventeenth century, when Holland was one of the great commercial powers of the world, Amsterdam’s merchants built the canals that give the city her unique character.  On the narrow streets alongside each canal they built endless rows of stately brick houses that peer down into the water this afternoon. In this particular [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Chambord, France—Gaining Perspective by Albert Holtz

March 22, 2018

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 [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Ligugé, France—Passing Through Fire by Albert Holtz

March 21, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road I’m speeding across the fertile farmland of France’s Poitou region on the train from Paris to Bordeaux.  We’re about five minutes south of Poitiers when I look out the window to my left.  The narrow, tree-lined canal that lies lazily alongside the tracks was built by the Romans when this was the province of Gallia.  I look out the other side of the train just in time to glimpse a collection of stone buildings huddling around a church tower.  This is the Benedictine Abbey of Ligugé, said to be the oldest monastery in the Western Christian world.  Its story takes me on a trip back in time. About the year AD 361, a strange young man in his late twenties took up residence in the ruins of an ancient Gallo-Roman [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Loch Ness, Scotland—Finding Hope by Albert Holtz

March 20, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road This morning, a cold rain crackled for hours against the dark windowpane of the guest room in the monastery of Fort Augustus.  This afternoon, then, I’m glad for the invitation to climb the stairs of the abbey’s bell tower with a brother who has to change the measurement card in the sunlight recorder.  (The Royal Weather Service once reported that this village has fewer hours of sunshine per year than any town in the United Kingdom.)  We’re on the narrow stone steps that wind steeply upward inside the square tower.  I clutch the hem of my black Benedictine habit in one hand to keep from tripping on it, and I start remembering what I’ve read about the geology of these Scottish Highlands. Between three and four [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Lérins, France—Drinking From The River by Albert Holtz

March 19, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The monks’ white-and-blue boat is a sturdy little converted fishing craft.  Perched on a hard bench inside its bare cabin, I watch through square, spray-spattered windows as the city of Cannes rolls and pitches, fading into the morning mist. The choppy sea tosses our boat in three directions at once.  I quickly learn from my two fellow passengers how to prop my feet and elbows to keep from being suddenly launched through a window and into the whitecaps.  Now that I’m properly braced I can take my mind off of simple survival and think about where I’m heading.  The monastery of Lérins on the island of Saint Honorat is a very special place for me as a monk. Except for a brief period after the French Revolution, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: The Fifth Week of Lent by Albert Holtz

March 18, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Hoping in the Lord In the desert Israel had to depend on God for everything: military protection, food, water, and guidance through the trackless waste.  On our own life’s journey we have to learn to rely on God rather than on substitutes.  Toward the end of Lent, the church’s lectionary readings show us the sinister forces gathering against Jesus, and his growing awareness of his impending death.  At the same time they show him relying more and more on his Father.  In the end, on Calvary, he will let go of everything until he has absolutely nothing left.  Nothing but his trust in God. The chapters for this week, then, dwell on our response to Jesus’s example of confident dependence on God alone.  [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Assisi, Italy—Speaking Of God by Albert Holtz

March 17, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road A mile and a half of wet, black road stretches in front of me like a shiny sword pointing to the medieval hilltop town ahead.  Menacing gray clouds swirl low over the flat farmland beneath Assisi.  The thirty-minute walk takes me alongside furrowed fields that sleep in the chilly drizzle and dream of sunshine and clear summer skies. In 1203 Francesco Ber-nardone, the son of a cloth merchant, known for his high-spirited and worldly ways, suddenly renounced all of his possessions and his former life in order to take the gospel literally.  Although he had no intention at all of founding a religious order, Francis soon attracted like-minded men to his new way of living the gospel.  The rest of his short life (he died at [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Saint Malo, France—Giving Thanks by Albert Holtz

March 16, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Père Michel, the local parish priest, is giving me an evening tour of the narrow streets of his native Saint Malo.  This small port town is a peninsula wrapped in 1,900 meters of stone ramparts and fifteen centuries of sea lore.  Her sturdy houses of tan granite, with their steeply pitched slate roofs and dormer windows, tower above the tops of the battlements as if watching the fishing boats in the bay.  Due west, over the horizon, is Great Britain. Saint Malo is a seafarers’ city whose intrepid explorers and merchants sailed their three-masted Cap-horniers to every part of the globe.  They brought back goods and tall tales from Africa and Antarctica, New Orleans and New Zealand, China, and Argentina.  This is [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Brussels, Belgium—Noticing God by Albert Holtz

March 15, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The Musée d’Art Ancien, the national art museum in Brussels, is filled, as I expected, with a spectacular collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings.  I wander past masterpieces by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck: portraits of well-fed merchants wearing wide lace collars and self-satisfied smiles.  I gape at the weird prophetic fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch, whose strange goblin creatures ride on the backs of pterodactyls and toss bombs onto the bizarre blue landscape far below. I’m here in search of my favorite painting, by Peter Bruegel the Elder.  I come at last into a room full of paintings by the two Bruegels, father and son, and easily recognize the charming rural scenes and the brown, gray, and russet [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Poitiers, France —Encountering The Lord by Albert Holtz

March 14, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road To get to the city of Poitiers from the train station, I climb a long staircase that zigzags up the cliff behind which the town is presumably hiding.  Out of breath at the top of the stairs, I find myself gaping up at the marvelous twelfth-century church of Saint Hilaire le Grand.  It’s named after Saint Hilary, bishop of Poitiers in the mid-300s, who wrote with deep insight about the mystery of the Holy Trinity and who successfully fended off the Arians by showing that Jesus was truly divine as well as truly human. A fifteen-minute walk through some thoroughly nondescript old streets brings me across town to a tiny but very venerable building that lies partially buried in the center of a busy traffic circle.  This [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Gödöllő, Hungary —Welcoming The Guest by Albert Holtz

March 13, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road It’s Christmas Eve, and for the first time in over thirty years, I’m not celebrating it in the monastery.  Instead, I’m holding the hand of Szófi, a bright, blonde five-year-old who is skipping and jumping on her way back from church after the traditional Christmas pageant.  Her aunt, a friend of mine, is holding her other hand as we hurry through the cold Hungarian afternoon in Gödöllő, a small town twenty miles north of Budapest. The parish church is actually the chapel of the famous Grassalkovich chateau, a great mansion that is being slowly restored after many years of abandonment and neglect.  Built in 1744, the mansion was given in 1867 as a coronation present to the Emperor Franz Joseph I, who made it [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Tuscany, Italy—Recognizing Jesus by Albert Holtz

March 12, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road My head is full of images of gondolas and canals, arched bridges and flocks of pigeons.  I’ve spent the last few days living with my brother Benedictines at the island abbey of San Giorgio in the middle of the bay of Venice.  But now I’m on a train heading south to Tuscany.  I changed trains a few minutes ago in Florence and am taking a half-hour ride out to the ancient monastery of Benedictine nuns in Pontassieve, where I’ll be staying for the next four days. I glance out of the window and – wait a minute!  I’ve never been anywhere near this part of Italy before, so why do I have the distinct feeling that I know this place?  Those odd cypresses that look like great green feathers are familiar, for [...]

PILGRIMAGE: The Fourth Week of Lent by Albert Holtz

March 11, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Awareness of God’s Presence We saw in the first week that the wilderness was a place of trial and temptation for Israel.  There was, however, a second and rather different tradition in the Old Testament, which thought of the wilderness experience as a unique time of intimacy with God, when Yahweh and the Chosen People came to know one another; it was a kind of honeymoon.  This week the emphasis shifts to that second tradition, and celebrates the fact that God is always close to us on our journey. The meditations for the Fourth Week, then, help us to be more aware of the varied ways in which our Savior walks with us every day.  “Tuscany” celebrates Christ’s presence in the people around us; “Gödöllő” [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Ciudad del Este, Paraguay—Being Open by Albert Holtz

March 10, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The bus floats noisily on the sluggish stream of traffic and exhaust fumes.  A few minutes after crossing the bridge from Brazil into Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, we come to a stop near the Paraguayan Immigration Office.  My three fellow passengers and I get off the bus and meekly follow our driver into a dingy office where a uniformed man is slumped behind a cluttered desk.  While his thick fingers crinkle the pages of my passport he slurs an incomprehensible question at me in Spanish.  After months of traveling in foreign countries, I’ve found that the best solution to the problem of the incomprehensible question is simply to give an immediate and confident answer of some kind.  So I nod and reply in Spanish that [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Piray River, Bolivia—Forgiving by Albert Holtz

March 9, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road “Are you waiting for a lift across the river?” asks Father Roger in his British-flavored Spanish. “¡Ah, si, Padre!  ¡Gracias!” the young man answers as he steps toward the rear door of our four-wheel-drive.  I suppose that he’s been sitting beside the two-rut track here for a couple of hours. I’m riding in the front seat next to Father Roger, looking ahead through the dusty windshield at the boiling brown froth of the river that lies between us and the low greenery on the other bank.  Several broad sand bars split the Piray into a dozen wide channels of unknown depth.  We’re on our way to a village outside of Santa Cruz in central Bolivia to see the newly reconditioned church that dates back to the [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Padua, Italy—Leading One Life by Albert Holtz

March 8, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road I’m on a walking tour of Padua, following the free map provided by the Tourist Office.  I started at the railroad station (the first stop on the map) and have been following the red line painted on the sidewalk.  It has already led past ancient Roman walls, down busy streets and across wide piazzas, passing the great brown basilica of “If Santo,” Saint Anthony of Padua, wonder-worker and finder of lost articles, and has started to circle back after reaching the Benedictine monastery with its immense church dedicated to Santa Giustina, the patron saint of the city. My own patron saint, Albert the Great, was a Dominican scholar.  His tremendous breadth of knowledge in physical sciences, philosophy, and theology [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Dieppe, France—Balancing by Albert Holtz

March 7, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Sitting as she does at the water’s edge on the rugged Normandy coastline, Dieppe is constantly having her hair blown back by the winds that whip across the English Channel.  From my cliff-top vantage point I can see that her streets are laid out and the gates in her old town walls placed in such a way as to reduce the effect of the constant sea breeze.  At my feet, halfway down the cliff, a charming little castle, perched solidly atop a rocky knob, looks out across the Channel. In the center of the scene a great grassy esplanade runs right along the water’s edge, separating the front row of the town’s buildings on the right from the beach on the left.  Ancient engravings show that this same broad field, several [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Esteville, France—Living Example by Albert Holtz

March 6, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road My friend Bernard and his wife, Colette, and I are heading across the flat green farmland of Normandy toward an obscure village by the name of Esteville.  Little pointed church steeples play hide-and-seek behind the distant rows of trees as we drive. We are about to drop in unannounced on one of the best known and most venerated people in all of France, l’Abbé Pierre.  Although this Roman Catholic priest is famous in France and Europe, he’s practically unknown in America, so Bernard has to spend the time filling me in as he drives. In the early 1950s, Father Pierre Grouès, a young diocesan priest, opened his house to several homeless men.  He called his group the “Emmaüs Community.”  In order to support [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Aubrac, France—Listening by Albert Holtz

March 5, 2018

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, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: The Third Week of Lent by Albert Holtz

March 4, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The Call To Conversion For forty years Yahweh kept calling the Israelites deeper into the wilderness, and leading them farther along the road to conversion by teaching them lessons in trust, faithfulness, and love of God and of one another.  After concentrating during the first two and a half weeks of Lent on our brokenness and our need to battle against temptation, we now turn to a more positive side of the Lenten observance: answering God’s call to conversion by cultivating a life of virtue. The same Lord who called the Hebrews to conversion calls you and me as well, especially during the desert days of Lent.  Each of the six meditations this week deals with a virtue that is part of the conversion experience.  [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris—Persevering by Albert Holtz

March 3, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Glowing high overhead is the gray dome of the Panthéon, that pompous monument to France’s military glory.  My morning walk is taking me through the hilly Parisian neighborhood of le quartier de la montagne de Sainte-Geneviève, “Saint Genevieve’s Mountain.”  It’s named after the city’s patroness, who saved Paris from destruction by the Huns in the fifth century.  The Panthéon is built on the site of a church dedicated to Genevieve, and the plaza behind it still bears her name.  I continue two blocks farther up the hill to visit the church that contains the relics of – who else? – Saint Genevieve. Saint-Étienne-du-Mont was built in 1492 to serve the workers employed by a nearby Benedictine abbey, [...]