“Come with me to Chartres, Mom!” my daughter Crystal begged. She wanted me to accompany her on this historically Catholic 72-mile pilgrimage from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to Chartres.
It was a sunny spring morning in 2004 when Donna Sue Berry stepped out of the safety of Notre Dame Cathedral. She joined 10,000 hardy Catholics to walk many miles up and down roads, across ravines, and through forests to pray where Saints had prayed. Little did she know that before the day was through she would run screaming through a French forest wondering just what in the hell she was doing there.
This incredible 12th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral in Chartres had seen many saints, kings, queens and such over the centuries. It had been built and completed by 1220 — and I figured I had about a 1220-to-1 chance of not being able to go.
I was an Oklahoma girl, after all, age 49, who had never crossed an ocean and had barely been out of state. I was suffering from all the baggage that comes along with being divorced less than a year after 28 years of marriage to my high school boyfriend. I was extremely hurt, lonely, angry, and tired of things going wrong. I was also a regular non-parishioner at about five different Catholic churches in the area. I was not allowing myself to get too close to any one person or place.
Breakfast in Paris
But the promise of time with my daughter and first grandson was too enticing, so I agreed to go. And in the hours we spent walking around Paris, I began my own private journey.
At the Convent of the Sisters of Charity I prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament, next to the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Laboure. I asked her help in moving forward from my painful past. I wanted to live in the fullness of Christ’s mercy. I couldn’t believe I was in the very spot where that saintly nun had placed her hands upon the lap of the Blessed Mother and received from her the Miraculous Medal.
Relics of St. Therese
The next day we wandered through Lisieux and knelt in awe at the the reliquary of the saint of my childhood, Saint Therese. I asked her for prayers and intercession. All through France, I was living in a dream filled with many graces from God. What consolation and joy!
Day One Begins
The next day we mingled with the pilgrimage crowds filing into Notre Dame Paris. The excitement and warmth washed over us as we knelt in that awesome Cathedral. I was overwhelmed, full of glorious expectations and riding on a high of enthusiastic prayer and love for our Lord.
Everywhere I saw the smiling faces of men and women, ready to set out. We were with Americans, behind a huge banner of our Lady of Guadalupe. Someone started to lead the first of many, many rosaries as we walked up streets and down Parisian lanes, praying and talking. The pilgrims looked right out of a picture book, in hiking clothes with rosaries dangling from their hands.
Pilgrimage to Chartres
It wasn’t long however before I had fallen back a little, engrossed in a fascinating conversation with two ladies in their early 70’s from Washington State. With their skirts, hiking boots and walking sticks, they weren’t the least bit out of breath, yet I was starting to tire.
How could that even be? I was so much younger, but I was breathing heavily. The beautiful, sunny day was making me hot and sweaty. Had we even made it ten miles yet? Eventually the ladies were slowing their pace so as not to leave me behind. I waved them ahead, and kept falling back even further.
There were hundreds of people from around the world — so many nationalities and languages, and before long I was surrounded by non-English speakers. As I dropped back even more I began to panic, but just then we were led into a huge park. There were water bottles everywhere and I slumped down onto the grass in relief.
When the Trouble Started
As I began to push myself to stand up, I realized that I couldn’t; defeated, I fell back onto the ground. Clearly, I was in trouble. All the sight-seeing, walking up and down cathedral stairs and in and out of tourist sites had already stretched me physically. But the first fifteen miles of the Pilgrimage had done me in.
I began to panic. A few people looked more wrecked than I did. I noticed blood on one pilgrim’s ankle, and not a few bandages, too. Some looked absolutely worn out and just sat or lay back on the ground. The walking wounded were silently praying. We were alone in the park and could no longer hear the singing or the prayers.
We didn’t have long to wait, however, before someone looking very much in charge — with excellent French and broken English — showed up. We were told we would be picked up by cars and taken to the Mass. As we all began to limp, I came to a clear conclusion. I scoured the sidewalks for a phone booth. I had a credit card. Had there been a taxi, I would have driven to Chartres. I needed a hotel. I needed a bath. I needed out of this pilgrimage.
Mass in a French Forest
But what I really needed was to continue the pilgrimage. So I obediently climbed into a car and moments later, we were delivered to a beautiful wooded clearing where the pilgrimage came to a halt. Preparations were being made for an outdoor Mass. I found a rock to sit down on and realized that the quiet ride had helped to relieve my sore muscles some, and I began to look around for my daughter. It wasn’t long before we actually caught sight of one another across the sea of pilgrims and I waved an “ok” that I was fine.
But I wasn’t fine. It was getting hotter; I was stifling in that airless green forest. The body heat from all of us pilgrims could have heated an arena in mid-winter.
What was wrong with me? I was not normally such a wimp or a complainer. I had been so excited about this trip and had felt physically up to the challenge. But as I sat there in my tee shirt, jeans and white Reeboks, looking totally American and out of place, I felt completely and utterly lost.
Mass in the forest
I thought I had picked up the pieces of my life. I believed I had put myself back together after the divorce the summer before. But gazing down at the ground in front of me and feeling the crowd press in as the Mass was about to begin, I was still buried in so much pain.
I fought back the tears that had been threatening to fall the last few miles by looking around for the Americans. Then, I suddenly realized: I was doing what I normally did when pain or problems arose — I started looking for something to do or to fill my thoughts with.
I glanced over at my daughter, who looked ever so cool, calm and relaxed as she smiled and joked with the pilgrims. I loved that girl. But why in the world did I ever say I’d go on this pilgrimage?
Suddenly, the pilgrims quieted, and the chanting started. The Mass began and we hit our knees — some of us more slowly than others.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spriritus Sancti.”
Dear God, I prayed fervently. Get me out of here!!
The Mass in the forest was incredible. Afterwards, despairing of the miracle I had prayed for but which didn’t happen, I slowly and painfully headed into the woods in search of the medical bus.
Then my daughter appeared, merrily skipping along with the rest of our fellow pilgrims. And it wasn’t just her. All of these crazy-with-sweat, aching backs and legs pilgrims with their rosaries flying through their fingers seemed to be the most amazingly joyful people I had seen in years. They just kept praying and singing while they walked.
Why couldn’t I find that kind of joy? I had been to Confession and Mass, too.
Alone in an Airless Place
But there I was, hurting and panting as I trudged alone into the hot, steamy, airless forest. I just knew I was going to die from the heat, exhaustion, and emotions welling up inside. The bag over my shoulder felt heavier and heavier. Perspiration trickled down my back. My clothes were sticking to me.
“What am I doing here?” With each step the words screamed in my head, louder than they had all day. I was going to explode! This was insane. This was supposed to have been the trip of a lifetime, a chance to see France and the places where my favorite Catholic Saints had lived.
“And died,” I scoffed, and tripped over a fallen tree limb.
Mascara ran down my cheeks as I began to cry. I was a mess, inside and out. I could barely catch my breath and I began to splutter, “Why, God? Why am I here?! This was supposed to be a fun, educational, illuminating trip!”
But this wasn’t fun. I needed comforting. I needed love and I needed to quit hurting. With each step the tears poured out more. I brushed the sticky hair away from my face.
Finally I stopped. Alone in that forest, I screamed aloud.
“God, why? I didn’t ask for this! What in the hell am I doing here?”
I slid down onto my knees as the dam broke. I had never cried like that in my entire life. It seemed to come from deep down in my gut, but I’m not sure, even to this day, that any sound was coming out of my mouth.
I don’t really know how long I was like that, but as I started to calm down I seemed to hear an inaudible voice say, “Because I love you.”
I looked down at the rosary that I had been crushing into my palm.
Gazing at the crucifix, I spoke the words out loud, “Because You love me.”
At that moment, I realized how quiet and peaceful my surroundings were. I knelt, feeling the cool, light breeze caressing my face. All the fight went out of me — all the anger, pain, and humiliation of the last few years – simply disappeared.
God had used the Pilgrimage to Chartres to grind the bitterness out of me, to free me from what was holding me back from moving forward in grace. Hadn’t that been my prayer at the altar of St Catherine Laboure` and to St. Therese just the day before?
For a few moments I knelt in that peaceful quiet, when suddenly I heard a horn. The medical bus was just through the trees!
Back on the Medical Bus
To board the bus, drink clear water and lean my weary head against the window was another gift from God. As the bus filled with pilgrims, I saw that only a couple were not bleeding from the journey. One person was pretty sure her ankle was more broken than sprained. It wasn’t long before there were three buses full of the walking wounded.
A woman with a bull horn appeared and began to tell us to remember that we were here for a reason. That this was the same pilgrimage that saints had walked. We were to offer our aches, pains and prayers up for the conversion of sinners and our own souls. She began the rosary and we prayed the rest of the afternoon as we journeyed on toward the spot where we would sleep for the night. I was still hurting, and felt like I’d never be able to walk again, but my soul was singing. I believe that was one of the most devout rosaries I have ever said.
Sleeping in the Field
Evening brought us to a huge field where we would unpack our luggage and eat our evening meal. There was broth and bread. Later, in our sleeping bags, we could pop a couple of Tylenol PM to help us get through the night with our aches and blistered feet.
Morning came and Crystal and I could both hardly move. Tents had to be repacked and Mass said before we headed out again. Again Crys and I said goodbye. I joined the walking wounded again; our group had grown and there were now many of us limping and dragging ourselves down the dirt lane. Then, it began to rain.
We were a thoroughly bedraggled group of pilgrims who climbed wearily aboard the medical bus when it finally arrived. I took the seat in the back of the bus next to a young woman who looked like she had been through a war.
She was overweight, dressed in punk regalia, with a massive head of wild black hair. She had a gash over one eyebrow, covered by a bloody bandage, and her ankle was wrapped. She looked up at me, smiled cautiously and in a very French accent said, “Hullo.”
I asked if she would like one of my bottles of water. Was she okay?
She shook her head and began to cry.
She’d sprained her ankle and fell, gashing her forehead the day before, she said. The medics had bandaged her up and sent her to the bus for the rest of the trip.
With French courtesy, nonetheless, she inquired after me. Why was I on the pilgrimage? Why was I was on the bus?
Satisfied with a short version of why I had come, she finally opened up. She said her name was Marie. She’d made a promise to come on this particular pilgrimage, she said. This was not her choice. But her sister had been fatally ill the year before, and she had had to promise her that she would make the Chartres pilgrimage.
She was a radio DJ , alienated from the Faith for years. And at the moment, injured and suffering from the heat, pain, and inconveniences, she confessed that she would gladly go home — if she could. However, with tears in her eyes, she maintained that she had resolved to stick it out. There had been the promise to her sister after all.
We rode in silence until the lady with the bull horn told us to grab our rosaries, and so we began to pray. Or rather, I did. Marie sat in gloomy silence, broken by an occasional muffled sob. I watched the French countryside slide by, drenched in falling rain.
The Hail Mary was intoned in soft rhythm all around us. I prayed for Marie hunched next to me. I prayed for everyone I could think of. I offered up the miserable day and all my aches and pains for Marie’s conversion. I asked the Blessed Mother to wrap her up in her protective mantle and give her peace.
At the Ancient Church
Soon the rain slowed to a trickle, and the buses slowed as well. We turned onto a small lane that led to an ancient church with a graveyard. The stone markers were so old that most had toppled onto their sides.
Everyone began milling around through the graveyard. A few found various jackets or rain gear to spread out onto the ground so they could sit without getting wet. Marie found a big piece of plastic and claimed a spot herself, but I wandered into the church.
It was fabulous. The altar, the statues, and the stations of the cross were so old and beautifully made. The church pews had small swinging doors on them, and the names of parishioners dead these many years. I pulled one open and stepped into the pew. I knelt there, feeling completely overcome with the holiness of the place. I must have prayed for half an hour, immersed in the peace of my surroundings before another pilgrim made his way into the church.
Back out to the open field, I saw pilgrims scattered on the ground, and a priest with a bullhorn, leading the rosary. Then I noticed several priests on chairs, with a pilgrim kneeling beside each one. They were hearing confessions! As one pilgrim would receive absolution and leave a priest, another pilgrim would take their place.
I was moved to see the emotion on pilgrim faces as they confessed and then rose, absolved from their sins. Next to me, I was astonished to see Marie actually praying her rosary aloud in French. It was beautiful to see.
I began to move my fingers over my beads. She grinned at me shyly and held her rosary up as if to say “I thought I’d try it.”
Just as we finished the rosary, a priest touched my shoulder and asked if I was ‘the American.’ (Was I that noticeable?) Would I lead the next rosary in English? He handed me the bull horn with a smile.
So, I began the rosary and Marie said it along with me. It was quite a beautiful experience to hear the pilgrims as they followed in their various accents. At the last decade of the rosary the sun came out from behind the clouds. It would be a beautiful afternoon.
I told Marie that I’d be right back and wandered over to a priest hearing confessions. My conscience had been bothering me since I ‘blew up’ in the wood the day before. It was time to confess the things that had been weighing heavy on my heart.
Afterwards, my soul seemed to sing and I felt intensely happy. I knelt and said my penance and then looked at Marie.
“Why?!” she asked, flabbergasted.
“Why what?” I responded, confused.
“But you are so holy! Why do you go to confession again!?”
“Oh Marie, I’m not holy. I’m just a sinner and I had to!” I explained a little about the Sacrament.
Marie was very quiet when the next rosary began. And a few moments later, she touched my shoulder and said she would be right back. I watched in surprise and thanksgiving as she knelt beside a priest and bowed her head. She had not been to confession in many years.
What a grace. What incredible graces I had received and witnessed on this pilgrimage to Chartres. I bowed my own head and thanked God.
That chilly night passed, but I could hardly contain my joy. The day had been filled with so many blessings.
The next morning I walked the last few miles into Chartres. I will never forget the first sight of the spires of the cathedral rising just above the trees, nor the walk through the city as thousands of pilgrims converged through the open doors with their banners and rosaries.
We were there. We were inside the huge cathedral I had learned about at university. This is where saints and sinners had traveled for centuries and knelt to receive their King in Holy Communion.
We pilgrims knelt — wet, hungry, and sore — but there was only one thing that mattered as we bowed our heads at the Consecration of the Body and Blood of Jesus. We were about to receive Christ in Holy Communion.
All else just faded away after I received the Host. But as I looked up at that north rose window of the Chartres Cathedral in all its grandeur I realized that I was now a part of it. I had knelt where saints and sinner had knelt. My hands had touched its cool stones and my voice rang out in song just like theirs had done. I had been given the grace to finish the pilgrimage and I would leave that cathedral changed.
As we said goodbye to old and new friends, I overheard a man shout to a fellow pilgrim, “See you here next year!”
Next year? Would I ever walk this Pilgrimage again?
No, probably not. But I would never have traded this for anything! I will always be grateful to God that my daughter helped me take those first few steps on making the Pilgrimage which helped me reclaim my life at Chartres.
Back home with Mr. Katt