I’m sitting in an armchair.
Last night I slept in a bed. My own bed.
Lisieux was a wonderful little place to visit. I prayed my way through the town, and of course, sampled pastries from all of the little boulangeries and patiserries. (Brioche Feuilletée from Maison Berthelot was the creme de la creme for me)
My last day there, I checked out of the place I was staying, put on my pack, and headed off.
Except, something inside me was different.
All this time, I’ve had a goal to my walking and wandering. At first, it was to recreate Saint Kevin’s original walk from Ireland to Rome. Back in August, when I realized I’d need another three to four months to complete that, I had calculated things out and figured I could make it to Paris by my mid-October return flight date.
But Paris wasn’t a goal in any way for me.
Lisieux was. As I walked, when people asked me what my route would be through France, I told them all I knew: I would land at Cherbourg in Normandy, walk the coast along the D-Day beaches, and make my way to Lisieux.
Now, walking down the cobblestone streets of Lisieux, something in me wavered. Even more than not having a goal in sight, for a long time I had been feeling like I had learned what I needed to learn and seen what I had needed to see. I was ready to come home.
So instead of hitting the trail again, I went to one of my favorite places in Lisieux, the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Therese. One of my friends told me that this is where the whole town, including the Carmelite Sisters and Saint Therese’s own sister, sheltered during World War II. I didn’t know that at the time, but I did love one little corner of the crypt—where Saint Therese’s parents are buried.
Their names are Louis and Zelie.
I had loved all the places where Therese had lived and walked, but kneeling there by the tomb of her parents, I wondered if in many ways, they are the greater saints. To create such a family that a Saint Therese is one of your daughters, you must have something very very right. You must be an extraordinary couple.
And so I prayed there for a while. When I finally stood up to leave, I didn’t pull out my trail map. I looked at the train schedule.
Within twenty minutes I was on a fast train to Paris, slicing through what would have taken me three weeks of walking in about two hours.
I had decided to change my flight, and come home.
Paris is Paris, and I had never been, so I spent two nights there. It was charming. I really loved the Chapel of Saint Chapelle, with all its riot of stained glass. I’ve spent many days in the Sistine Chapel, and I felt like I had now found its sister chapel and couldn’t seem to pull myself away.
About an hour into the flight back, I looked down, and we were passing over Dublin. It had taken us sixty minutes to cover what had taken me over nine weeks to walk. But I was glad I had walked it—and wouldn’t have it any other way.
I had told my mom of my change of plans, but not my dad. My brother Brian picked me up and everything worked perfectly so that we completely surprised dad. It was great.
The next day, I did the same thing to my nieces and nephews. I love a good surprise.
These days I’m helping my dad do a renovation of the back of our house, where a tree fell and did some damage last year.
Phew! I’m finished! I can’t believe it!
My pilgrimage did not turn out to be what I had expected.
First of all, I didn’t make it even half the distance I had hoped. Along the way, I saw others who were regularly walking 20-30 miles a day. But they were also suffering from blisters and ailments of all kinds.
I was doing 10-20 miles a day, and some days less. My method was to stop whenever my body needed a break, or whenever there was something to see or someone to talk with. I took many detours. I usually spent about an hour each day in prayer in some chapel or another.
But more than that, the distance and completing the pilgrimage weren’t why I had started walking in the first place. I had set out to yes, finish writing my book, but also to work on the book of my life. Perhaps what was the one thread running through the whole eight-hundred-plus miles I walked: the time I spent reflecting on life. Just as my walking was the perfect inspiration for me to finish my book on Saint Kevin, so too it was just what I needed to get a little clarity and understand myself a little better.
I didn’t have any earth-shattering realizations, or decide on any big changes of direction for my life. But some things inside me were allowed to settle. Other things I was finally able to let go of. And I am certain—completely certain—that I am a better person for having gone on this walk.
Perhaps, after having seen my little stretch of Ireland, Wales, England and France, what I’m most glad of is a renewed love for my family and friends, and gratitude for them.
I’m also grateful that this body of mine stuck with it and held together. My knees still work, as do the ankles.
I weighed myself and was surprised to see that I’m eleven pounds heavier than when I started. It’s muscle, of course ;)
What have I learned from my time as a pilgrim?
- Carry only as much as you need, no more, or you’ll be running yourself into the ground.
- Never be afraid to ask for help; most everyone will give you water, or directions, and probably even feed you and put you up for a night.
- There is no such thing as hurry, only missing out on everything you can only see and experience when taking life at a gentle, walking speed.
- There is always enough for your needs out there; and maybe even enough for your wants; but your wants might just be fear trying to incarnate itself in your life. Working to fulfill your needs, and trusting that everything else will be ok is the better way.
- Wild boars can be chased away by screaming (oh yeah, I didn’t mention that two of the nights in France, I must have set my hammock up right in the path of some wild boars. They came at odd hours of the night, and my shouting and screaming got them to stay away)
- The earth is abundant and generous: I think there was something for me to forage for and eat every single day of my journey.
- The world needs more benches, and we need to use them more often. Great things happen in the calm and quiet of sitting on a good bench. (heck, I even sat on some pretty crummy benches, and still enjoyed it.)
- Traveling isn’t good as a way of life, but it is good for the soul. For one, it opens your mind to new ways of seeing life and all sorts of different things. It can knock you out of your complacency in ways you’d never have thought.
- Travel doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. I ended up spending about $10 a day in Ireland, Wales, and England, and then about $15 a day once I was in France, the land of many bakeries.
I am grateful to all the people who made my journey possible and enjoyable, especially those who watched my little golden retriever, Felicity. Thank you Madeline and Mom and Dad!
Thanks too to all those who took me in along the way: Father Robert in Northern Ireland, Sammy Horner at Kevin’s Cell, Lisa and Stefan in Bangor, Elyssa and Tom in Pen-Y-Cae, The Bloor Family in Llanthony, Patricia and Pete in Monmouth, June and Richard in the Blackmore Vale, Greg and family in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Hye and Phil in Cruchy, and Christine and Marion in Luc-Sur-Mer.
I am grateful to all the other good souls I talked with, or shared a meal with, or who helped me along the way.
So that’s it for now. I thought the cobblestones (my blog is “a view from the cobblestones”) I’d be ending at would be the ones on the road leading up to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but they were actually the ones outside the little apartment in Lisieux.
I thought I’d be able to say, “I accomplished what I set out to do,” but actually I can say now that “I accomplished what my soul needed me to.”
And that’s so much better.