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Pilgrimage … privilege - France, 7-15 November



The English Speaking Third Age Course

04/12/2009: General House - Photo gallery

Pilgrimage … privilege. This was a week of blessings – in spite of long days, lots of travel, some very early mornings, and the perils of getting onto a plane in these days of terrorist fears. We were blessed in our sojourn at La Barollière, a hotel some kilometres outside of St Chamond with fabulous views over the city and a hospitality that could not be faulted. And we did eat! Great evening meals and packed lunches with enough left over to fill twelve baskets.

We were blessed to have Brother Neville Solomon from the Hermitage community and Brother Louis Destombes from the La Valla community to accompany us for several days and explain so clearly and with such a breadth of knowledge the places we were to visit, and to put them firmly into historical context.

And so we were well set up for the surprises of each day. Masterminded by Barry and Antoine, each day had something unexpected around each corner; and we still don’t know how they managed to provide the snow during our visit to the Donnet house and the site of the Montagne house. And as if that were not delight enough, the best was kept till last!

Our Sunday visit to Taizé for the Eucharist set the tone of the week: simplicity, silence, interior reflection of who we are and how we are called – reinforced by visiting in the afternoon Ars, where these virtues are embodied in the Curé, erstwhile companion of the early Marists.

Monday was a magic day, made more special by the heavy snow, early for the season and a gift for us. As we climbed out of St Etienne towards St Genest-Malifaux, it was obvious that there was heavy snow higher up. Marlhes and Le Rosey were mist-cloaked, creating a blanket of silence and calm in the Champagnat family house and their place of worship in those fraught times of the early days of the Revolution. Singing Great Man of God at the end of Mass took on very special meaning for some of us.

Our drive through St Saveur-en-Rue and Bourg Argental took us through more snow, and on to the Donnet house where we commemorated Champagnat’s life-saving Memorare. By the time we reached Le Bessat and les Palais, we were well and truly snow-bound: what a magnificent experience.

On Tuesday we visited La Valla and Les Maisonettes. The parish church at La Valla has no direct Champagnat connection, but Notre Dame de Pitié at La Leytra on the edge of the town holds its mystery still. Our walk to La Leytra provided us with another Barry-Antoine spectacle: over towards the horizon was a magically sunlit St Chamond, like a theatrical scene within a proscenium arch; and in the middle distance, our Hermitage. It was easy to be with our Founder in that place.

Mass at his battered table, much beloved of relic seekers, has to be a high point for the pilgrim – and so it was for us. We are well served by our Chaplain Bernard, the Servant of Mary, who is so in touch with our spirit.

On Wednesday we visited Fourvière. The little chapel, whose significance we need not talk of here, provided another special setting for our Eucharist, and we made our own pledge, based on that of the foundational Marists, 23 July 1816. Later we visited St Genis-Laval for lunch.

Our visit to Le Puy on Thursday made for a long but special day. Le Puy is an exciting and remarkable place with strong associations for Christian pilgrims, all Marists, and the Josephite Sisters. The essentially simple Romanesque basilica with its Moorish elements dominates the city. It enshrines a famous Black Madonna much venerated by pilgrims for many centuries. For us she was dressed in white, but she has a rainbow wardrobe to suit every occasion. Our Mass was in a little side chapel and was celebrated by a local priest in French and with much enthusiasm, but our resourceful Bernard was equal to the task and we Marists were well welcomed by the priest and the little congregation.

We visited the statue of Mary constructed from the captured cannon after the Battle of Sebastopol, and Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe (of the Needle), both sited on volcanic needle-like plugs. Saint Michael’s is a miniature cathedral. The façade is totally charming and the interior is covered with frescoes. The chapel itself is small but perfect in its arrangement: narthex, ambulatory, apse, vaulted nave and small sanctuary – it is a gem of architecture dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. And the views of the surrounding countryside are a delight to the eye.

On Friday we travelled to Belley, the foundation house of the Marist Sisters. It has been important for us to connect with the other branches of the Marist Family and the two Marist Sisters, Marie Challacombe and Teri O’Brien, were the soul of hospitality, and as different as chalk and cheese. They vied with each other to tell us the story of their foundation and show us their house and the chapel where Mother St Joseph (Jeanne-Marie Chavoin) is buried and where we celebrated Mass.

After lunch we visited Lamartine College where Father Jean Claude Colin had been a reluctant Principal and which has produced two saints: Peter Chanel and Peter Julian Eymard. Then we went to the Cappucinière with its associations with the early Marists and where they made their vows in 1836.

On our return journey to La Barollière, we had rather an accident which resulted in a smashed side window and a partly shattered windscreen, both on the driver’s side. Driver Claude was a model of propriety and managed the whole affair like a saint and got us home in one piece. A little Memorare miracle for us that day.

There was a visit to the Marist Fathers house at La Neylière on Saturday. We celebrated Eucharist in the chapel where Jean Claude Colin is buried and visited the Oceania Museum.

In the afternoon we visited The Hermitage. We had a moving prayer in the Chapel around the shrine of Champagnat where we renewed our vows. We were all a little disappointed that we would not be able to do justice to The Hermitage – after all, it is our spiritual home. When we left the chapel it was raining, so the visit to the cemetery was off. But there was good news – very good news. We could look through building, as the workmen had gone for the weekend. What a great joy!

We started with the atrium which covers the old courtyard; we were able to see into nooks and crannies we had never seen before; we could glance up into the Fresco Room and we went into the former dining room. We viewed the new building on “the other side” of the Gier – it will be state of the art. We returned to the original building and went into the Founder’s room: one wall has been taken back to the original stonework and one original section of the ceiling is visible – for the moment. We are all pleased that the room will be restored to its original state, as far as that is possible. All this was made possible by Brother George Palandre who is a member, with Brother Neville, of the new Hermitage community which will begin its work in 2010.

Between the unexpected snow on Mount Pilat and the unexpected tour of The Hermitage site, we did very well indeed, thank you!

An early 3 am rising on Sunday got us back to Rome in time for breakfast and one more little bonus: Rome from the air – St Peter’s, the Victor Emanuel monument, the Colosseum, Termini, St Mary Major, St John Lateran, and our house in the distance.

A week of blessings, privileges and pleasures, thanks to so many people: Barry, Antoine, Neville, George and Louis – not forgetting the gentle and witty Bernard and our redoubtable driver Claude!

Brother Anthony Butler

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