Pilgrim Road

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, [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Fulda, Germany—Being Prepared by Albert Holtz

March 2, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The snow outside is rushing past the train window in those tiny flakes that promise a lot more to come.  Central Germany is covered with a white blanket three inches deep.  The table in front of me is covered with my things: paperback book, breviary, notebook, travel guides, and a small bag of pretzels.  Buried under the debris is a single sheet of paper provided by the German railroad company, listing the time of arrival for each town, as well as the main connecting trains that can be met at each of the stations on our route.  We’ve just pulled in for a three-minute stop at Fulda. I peer out the window into the cottony whiteness and can’t see much of anything.  But my mind’s eye goes to work with no trouble [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Toledo, Spain—Breaking Chains by Albert Holtz

March 1, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road I’m strolling toward the old part of Toledo from the bus terminal well outside the ancient walls.  In AD 123 Titus Livy described Toledo as “a small fortified city.”  Since that time, it has changed hands among Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, and Spanish monarchs, but on this spring morning as I approach the city gate, Toledo still keeps its air of “a small fortified city.” I recognize the skyline from the famous painting, “Storm Over Toledo,” El Greco’s almost mystical vision of the cathedral on the hilltop, its gray tower pointing into the shreds of black and silver cloud as vibrant green fields in the foreground climb upward toward the purplish gray city walls.  Passing through the medieval gate, I [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Arles, France—Letting God Shine Through by Albert Holtz

February 28, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road I park my rented car in a lot near the ancient Roman arena in Arles and set off on foot through the narrow, picturesque streets.  This delightful town of gray stone buildings and orange tile roofs was once the starting point for the southernmost of the four great pilgrimage routes through France to Compostela.  It is best known though, for its well-preserved Roman ruins. Located at the delta where the Rhone empties into the Mediterranean, Arelatae, as the Romans called it, was once the second capital of the Roman world.  The partially restored amphitheater and the coliseum-like arena are both still used for special events today.  Their immense size and sober dignity are a pleasant contrast to the lighthearted spirit [...]

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

February 27, 2018

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 [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Eger, Hungary—Watching For The Enemy Within by Albert Holtz

February 26, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road A blistering August sun makes the climb feel steeper than it really is.  As we trudge up a dusty approach road to the ruins at the top of this hill in northeastern Hungary, one of my three Hungarian hosts, a retired schoolteacher, tells me the story of the heroes of the siege of Eger.  Every Hungarian schoolchild knows it. During the summer of 1552, two Turkish armies had already captured thirty Hungarian strongholds with little trouble, and figured to take the fortress of Eger just as easily.  As we reach the entrance gate at the top, it’s clear why the Turks expected to make short work of it.  Eger is in a poor strategic position: hills rise above its eastern and northern sides, offering attackers perfect [...]

PILGRIMAGE: The Second Week of Lent by Albert Holtz

February 25, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Holy Combat In the wilderness the Israelites were constantly doing battle: against external enemies such as the hostile Amalekites, against internal ones such as discouragement and temptations to idolatry.  In the Middle Ages a pilgrimage was an arduous and dangerous enterprise – sometimes even fata.  Violence was always a possibility, whether from highway robbers, from criminals posing as fellow pilgrims, or from warring armies. In the deserts of northern Egypt the monastic fathers and mothers used to speak of the spiritual life as “sacred warfare,” in which the enemy was the devil and the battleground the human heart.  The meditations this week explore the image of holy combat from various angles. “Eger” [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Saint Julien Le Pauvre, Paris—Letting Go Of Perfection by Albert Holtz

February 24, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road With its rough stone walls and low Romanesque lines, it looks like a village church that has lost its way and wandered, bewildered, into one of the noisiest neighborhoods of Paris.  Just across the river from the great Gothic towers of Notre Dame, I step through a modest doorway into the dimly lit Church of Saint Julien le Pauvre. It still keeps the humble simplicity it had when it served as a shrine for medieval pilgrims on their way to Compostela.  In recent years, its charming intimate interior has made the church a popular spot for chamber music concerts. I find a seat in the second row – my reward for coming early – and glance over the evening’s printed program.  I recognize the titles of several familiar [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Berlin, Germany—Breaking Down Walls by Albert Holtz

February 23, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Berlin’s outdoor Christmas Market is in full swing.  Scores of temporary wooden stalls line the crowded streets in the center of prosperous former West Berlin, and shoppers wander slowly from one to the next looking at the leather goods, sweaters, neckties, wood carvings, handmade jewelry, and plastic toys.  They line up two deep at long outdoor bars that serve bratwurst and beer, or they stand in groups in front of stalls that advertise Heisser Glühwein, talking and drinking hot mulled wine.  The city has a festive pre-Christmas atmosphere about it. Reluctantly I turn from this scene to report for my guided tour of Berlin.  Several other tourists are already on board the comfortable double-decker bus when I [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Alba de Tormes, Spain—Being Humble by Albert Holtz

February 22, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road Old Padre Angel believes that no self-respecting Christian should spend a month studying in Salamanca without at some point traveling to the nearby town of Alba de Tormes to visit the tomb of Saint Teresa of Ávila.  So this afternoon I’m riding in the front seat as he drives me on my mandatory half-hour pilgrimage across the gently rolling farm country of Castilla y León in north-central Spain. Alba lies on a gentle slope above the River Tormes.  A drive up its winding streets reveals hardly a shade tree or a blade of grass along the way.  We park near the single, squat tower that is all that is left of the castle of the once powerful Duke of Alba.  I remember reading somewhere that the present Duchess of Alba [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Fátima, Portugal—Dealing With The Real by Albert Holtz

February 21, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The train south from Coimbra, Portugal, to Fátima is a real “local,” calling at every little village.  We arrive fifty-five minutes late at the station marked “Fátima.”  That’s when I find out that the railroad station is called “Fátima” not because it’s located in or anywhere near the town of that name, but because it’s as close as you can get by train.  I soon learn that I still have another twenty-some miles to go, and that the only practical way is by taxi for the flat rate of $20 one-way. The ride along winding roads through the rugged mountain country of central Portugal finally brings me to the real Fátima; as he drops me off, the friendly taxi driver points me toward a wide sidewalk that [...]

PILGRIMAGE: Dieppe, France—Being Unfinished by Albert Holtz

February 20, 2018

From: Pilgrim Road The sturdy brick houses of this newer section of Dieppe, up in the hills east of the old town, are designed to keep out the damp and chill that are to typical of Normandy.  As we drive to church this Sunday morning I say to my hosts, “Well, maybe there’ll be some sunshine later today.”  I’ve been staying with Bernard and Colette for almost a week, and I still haven’t seen the sun. For me, the name Dieppe conjures up black-and-white images of smoldering ruins and beaches littered with charred invasion vehicles.  In 1942, a Canadian force attempted a beach landing in German-occupied Normandy a couple of miles west of here.  The operation cost a thousand lives, but the Allied commanders got what they’d hoped [...]