Thoughts on Pilgrimage…….
Psalm 84:5 ‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage’
We didn’t know what to expect as we made our way to Les Genets – to the East of the Bay of Mont St Michel – in
time for 8 am. Being France, of course, things didn’t really get under way for another 20 minutes to half an hour later! By that time, a goodly throng had collected in front of the flower-decorated
podium where the Bishop of Avranches, a nun from the Island, and our pilgrim guide introduced us to the pattern for the journey, and shared the opening meditation with us. Then we all started making
our way through the painted archway erected for the occasion, to the sea grass meadow beyond. In all, there were around 1,500 in the crowd, from local churches, other pilgrim groups, and some from as
far away as Africa and Jamaica, with their banners held high to keep their groups together. It soon became necessary to remove our shoes, as the ground became more muddy and treacherous. It was a
strange sensation to feel the plants and mud, with a few shells, squeeze between one’s toes. We encountered deeper mud and tricky slopes, as we entered the bay – always guided by the marshals who
know the area so well. We stopped to pray at intervals, and children explored the now sandier section in their own individual way. There were the sections where we were up to our knees in
water, which we couldn’t see through, and felt living shapes brushing against our legs. (One was grateful that piranhas and alligators are not generally found in this part of the world!)
There were so many different surfaces to encounter – some pleasantly soft and squelchy; others hard-ridged and painful for the feet. Those who deviated from the planned route, found themselves quite literally, in deep water, or sucking mud, and had to return to the better way. Men were fortunate in being able to draw aside and relieve themselves along the route – women less fortunate! And the sun beat down, and our water was essential. So, too, were the meditation stops – time to think, to drink and collect oneself along the way. Our goal – the Mont – that had seemed so small and far away, gradually loomed large and seemed nearer. However, it took 3 hours of twists and turns, and negotiating particularly tricky mud – where pilgrims held out helping hands to one another, before we finally reached our destination. After communal foot-washing under a hose supplied by the local ‘pompier’, the Bishop again called us to prayer and to walk up the tourist way to the Abbey on the summit – singing French hymns from our meditation guide. We celebrated mass in the Abbey, packed in and sitting on the steps, all ages and nationalities, listening to the beautiful unearthly singing of the Monks and Nuns, and joining in the service where possible. The sun streamed in the windows and the whole assembly seemed bathed in the radiance and love of God.
Later in the afternoon, there was a fascinating talk, question and answer session in the public garden below the Abbey, where the Brothers and Sisters of Jerusalem explained their heart for a life of contemplation on the Mont, and the realization that one could have a personal relationship with God – something not widely experienced in the Church in France. All this and some very challenging and in depth questions from the audience, was easily heard by passing lingering tourists. Vespers followed, and I was left feeling that here I had indeed experienced church without walls. The return journey was made on foot by those who had not pre-booked a bus seat. This was a very different experience, as most were reasonably fit, and set a cracking pace. There were no stops for rest and reflection, and I and some others became acutely aware that we would not keep up. So followed the need to accept one’s limitations, and be content to find the fitting place to be. For me, that was with the last 40 people, assured that we would all get there in the end.
It seemed to me that there was much symbolism in the experience of pilgrimage, and that it did not only speak of a journey that day, but of life as a whole. In other ways, I feel it speaks of the Church as a whole on its journey forward, into unknown waters and challenges and changes ahead. I write these words on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, on a stunningly beautiful day, where the clarity of view and the myriad colours engulf the senses with magnificence. I am on a different sort of pilgrimage – a drawing aside for a day, to wander with no particular intent, but to drink in the sights and sounds and spend time alone with God. A sacred space – in order that when I go back into the daily round, ‘Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before!’ (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)
2011 - A year of Bountiful Harvest at L’Abri à Suvigny
2011 has been a year of fruitfulness in every way. Our family circumstances have moved closer to our being able to spend much more time at Suvigny, and there has been a cementing of relationships, both in France with the local community, as well as in with the leadership of the Northumbria Community. The development of the 3 Other Community Houses - ourselves, House of Azar in Gloucestershire, and Bridge House in Oxfordshire, has led to a deepening of relationships between these houses and The Community Overseers. We look forward to continued development in this regard. The wonderful people from different nationalities who have been a part of the life at Suvigny this year, have been tremendously encouraging. Add to this, the increasing relationships and friendship of people in our Commune and local area, and the blessings of spreading God’s Kingdom become abundantly apparent. The harvest of the land has also been a rewarding one, with a bumper crop in the orchard, and the grounds and ambience of l’Abri continue to develop as the outdoor environment grows and matures. The visit by two groups of friends from Holland has not only meant that the barn is now completely renovated exteriorly, but that we can now move into a new era of retreats with Dutch folk which will focus more on a space for spirituality than on the need for renovation. Of course, practical tasks will always be a part of the way of life in this place, as this is part of the balance of a monastic rhythm. So we give glory to God for all that He undertakes on our behalf, and pray He will continue to bless us all.
'Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and my He continue to establish the work of our hands.'
L’Abri à Suvigny in 2012
The first visit to Suvigny in 2012 was in the February Half-term. I went over to open up the house after the winter. The freezing temperatures of the previous week had resulted in burst pipes, which meant calling the plumber, and I welcomed some of the local people to a Covenant Meal and the liturgy from CDP.
We had the usual planned programme for Easter, and a couple from Flers and Mark from the UK stayed for the entire retreat. A family of 4 from the local area came to take part on Good Friday. This all went well and was a time of space, creativity and blessing for all.
Some more work on the house was completed with the help of Ian and Mark.
I retired from teaching at Bishop’s Stortford College in early July and was able to take up the role of retreat leader and site manager for the work and life at Suvigny. Sarah was able to offer her support and help throughout the summer which was much appreciated. There was a steady flow of visitors from July to September – some pre-arranged, some on a phone call or email, and one Dutch couple simply arrived!
Victor brought a group from Holland to share in a retreat based on the book, ‘Life of the Beloved’ by Henri Nouwen. This was a great success and the retreatants had a good mix of serious heart-searching, relaxation and fun. Paul and Jorien Visser took responsibility for co-ordinating the working group from Holland this year.
This was a fantastic time of community spirit and fun as well as hard work. Ian was continuing to build the extension to the house, aided by the Dutch group and French neighbours in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual experience where much gesticulation and good humoured banter ensued while everybody contributed their ideas and skills.
During the summer, two musical evenings were arranged and both enjoyed by those who attended. The first was a Taizé evening and the second a ceilidh of popular light music where people played their own instruments, or manufactured ones for the purpose.
The annual gathering of the Other Houses of the Northumbria Community was held at Suvigny this year, for the double purpose of celebrating a baptism and the Blessing of the House of L’Abri à Suvigny. Pete and Catherine thoroughly enjoyed their time with us, and Phil and Rosie spent a week to have some retreat time of their own. Sadly, Duncan and Lesley were unable to join us as a result of disruption to ferries. The baptism was a very special day of blessing for all – starting with Morning Office at Suvigny, a trip to the beach where St Columbanus is reputed to have landed for the baptism, followed by Holy Communion on the beach led by Pete. Our local Normandie Community group were present, either at the baptism, or at the luncheon and House Blessing celebrated at L’Abri in the afternoon.
We continue to give thanks and glory to God who blesses us and all who come to this place. Our prayer is that this will continue into the future for as long as is in God’s plan.
Update on the year 2013
Early in 2013, Andrew and Jane attended the New Monasticism gathering in Spa, Belgium in February and found it a useful time of collaboration and building of relationships with others across Europe who find the Northumbria Community inspires their spiritual journey. It also became obvious that each expression of Community would need to find its own sources for inspiration that reflected the relevant culture and in the relevant language. It was not expected that all Community material would necessarily need translating into other languages, but that local written and other sources could be used instead.
Easter was celebrated with our usual retreat, and this was well-received and found to be of blessing to those who shared in this time with us.
The friendship and prayer partnership with Frère Sébastien on Mont St Michel has been maintained and continues to develop. Anne-Marie Duclos has also started a similar friendship with Jane and she feels pulled to bring Christ’s message to the French people in particular, but being bilingual, can liaise with the English speaking people in the area as well. Andrew is spending more time in France too now, and it is hoped this will continue to develop.
The summer was a time of steady visits from singles, couples and families on their own retreats/holidays, and some helped with odd jobs around the property as well. There was the annual pilgrimage to Mont St Michel in July, which is always a moving experience.
Roy came to L’Abri to lead a retreat in October based on the stories of the Celtic saints of the area. This was attended by people from the local area and offered a time to meet with Frère Sébastien on Mont St Michel and share in the mass at the abbey.
Jane has continued in her role as spiritual director to those who come for this purpose, and the Normandy Community group has found the material put together by Anita Haigh on the voyages of Brendan most helpful. Jane is increasing her participation in local events and social circles – meeting new people,e and becoming more involved in the local community.
It has been a year of change and transition, but an encouraging time of development and growth – a sense that God is fertilizing the ground for the future. We give Him thanks and praise for this, and pray He will continue to inspire, guide and protect us from harm as we seek to build the Kingdom as He would will it to be.