Seeking Healing and Being Healed

Yesterday we went to Lourdes.

All the people in blue are waiting to be taken to the spring waters which are said to offer healing

All the people in blue are waiting to be taken to the spring waters which are said to offer healing

Sherry and I had been there once before quite by accident and not having the expertise that Peter Sills brings to this Pilgrimage. He had no intent for us to do anything but simply experience it up close. A photograph won’t/can’t do it justice. There are hundreds of thousands of people here on any given day. One Sunday a few years ago we attended Sunday Morning Mass held outside in Vatican Square in Rome. Someone estimated that crowd at being 60,000. That was small compared with what we saw at Lourdes. Close to half the people we saw were either being pushed or pulled in wheel chairs designed especially for this place. There are people with all sorts of infirmities and physical conditions. Some are matters they have lived with since birth, some the result of accident or illness. I stood on one of the lower balconies of the huge church complex that is built here and took this photograph.

One view of the long plaza that leads to the church

One view of the long plaza that leads to the church

Peter told us as we were driving in that this is the third most highly attended Pilgrimage site for Christians in the world. Over time an airport had to be built to accommodate those who wanted to visit. There is a higher ratio of hotel rooms and stores selling religious memorabilia than even in Rome.

We spent several hours walking from one end of the huge plaza that extends from the church toward to town. As we walked and looked and noticed and tried to see, I was filled with a combination of cynicism and awe. Clearly there are people profiting on the misery of others - or their loved ones. You can buy a candle to burn in the grotto for anywhere from $2 to $150. Also, it is clear that people, some in obvious despair and pain, have come here or been brought here hoping for a healing of some sort. In conversation with another person on this journey I heard the comment, “Well, there is spiritual healing in addition to physical healing.” I know that. I also know that many of the people I saw here came not for spiritual healing but for a true miracle of being restored to full physical health.

I compared my experience at Lourdes with the experience we had just the night before. We had gone to another Benedictine monastery. The monk in charge of receiving us was so warmly welcoming. He saw to it that we were served refreshments including samples of the chocolate made by the monks here. It is one of the ways they support their order. The “chocolate factory” is quite large - we saw it on our drive out.

Cloisters at L’Abbaye Norte-Dame-de-Tourney

Cloisters at L’Abbaye Norte-Dame-de-Tourney

After this welcome, we had time to walk the grounds of the Abbey, including the small but wonderful cloisters. There has been a church at Tournay from the earliest of times. Suppressed during the Revolution, the monastery was re-founded in the 1950s by Benedictine monks. So, the Abbey Church is not old at all. But, it was built to acoustical perfection.

The monks invited us to join them for Vespers. We entered the church. We had not been told that it was their custom to begin each vesper service with a silent sitting meditation of thirty minutes. I knew something was up when I saw one of the monks pull out a meditation bench like the one I use at the beginning of the service. We were in for something different.

After the thirty minutes of silence, they began to chant the service. Though there were fewer than forty monks it sounded like there were many more. Deep, rich male voices doing what they feel is their calling to do. For healing and wholeness, I will take this kind of experience over the religious commercialization of Lourdes any day.

What heals you? What brings you wholeness? How do you seek it out and affirm it?

Being in the sacred spaces we are getting exposed to on this Pilgrimage is one door for me. The other, of course, is joy and humor. So, I will add this one other personal note. (I am not clear, given the schedule that is before us for the next few days, when I would be able to post another blog.)

One view from the choir toward the massive organ.

One view from the choir toward the massive organ.

On Tuesday we visited the Cathedral Saint-Bertrand. It is located in a hilltop village. It is a massive Romano-Gothic cathedral and is noted for its beautiful enclosed paneled choir and cloister. This choir will easily hold sixty or more monks chanting and singing services.

Saint “Steve Jobs”

Saint “Steve Jobs”

Each choir stall is hand carved in the most intricate and distinctive detail. The care and craftsmanship that went into creating this massive wooden structure is amazing. I took numerous photographs all around the choir. There are hand carved depictions of Jesus being tempted by Satan, of Adam and Eve leaving the garden and many, many more. These are three dimensional carvings perhaps a foot in height. They are all around the choir. Each choir seat is hand carved and each is different from the other. On the panel that would be behind each monk some saint or biblical scene would be carved. I just had to take a picture of this one. I’m calling it St. Steve Jobs because, whoever this saint is, he is clearly caring an iPhone. Not bad for something dating from he 12th century.

Why Make a Pilgrimage?

There has been a church here from likely the first century.

There has been a church here from likely the first century.

For some the word “pilgrimage” might imply that one is searching for something that has not yet been found. That both is and is not true in the case of a “spiritual seeker.” The Pilgrim knows where one is going on a geographical pilgrimage. In this case to Santiago. The Pilgrim has found enough of what she or he has been looking for to want more. More, the Pilgrim has heard testimony from those who have made the trip before. And, even more, the Pilgrim seeks to see and experience the sites and rituals that bound the Pilgrims together, that gave them strength and courage for their journey. I am sure there are even more reasons than these.

Those of you who read Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations know that lately he has been writing about two themes. That of the prophetic element in a religion and the role of mysticism. I have thought a lot about both of these things as we make our journey.

Lynn Boughton Pointing out Symbols in the Church

Lynn Boughton Pointing out Symbols in the Church

We stoped for a visit, and morning prayers, at this church. Though only foundation lines are able to be seen now, excavation is being done as we are here, a huge Roman city once occupied the grounds where this current church stands. The person who is accompaning us on this Pilgrimage, Lynn Boughton, a lecturer at Cambridge, has a vast knowledge of the meaning of carvings on the doors and in the buildings we are seeing. I won’t mention her by name each time but be aware that most of the information I am sharing is coming from her expertise. Like, for example, this is the area to which Herod and his wife were exiled not long after he had ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. Again, though this is not the actual building, she pointed out stones and signs in the construction, that reflected that a church has been on this spot since, likely, late in the first century. I don’t know about you but it affects me to be in the presence of something this old in our religious tradition.

Also, Lynn is a good metaphor for the value of a “spiritual teacher.” I would never have noticed some of the intricate things she is pointing out to us. The people who conceived of and created the statues and carvings may not have had the information and knowledge that people of our time think make us so special. But they had a depth of wisdom and understanding and a way of communicating their understanding of their world view, especially their religious and spiritual world view that gave meaning to their life. Perhaps the “new physics” may give us a deeper, or newer, appreciation about what it means to be surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” In these places it doesn’t take much creative imagination to feel their presence.

My understanding is the the first Pilgrimage to Santiago began in Le Puy, France. Some people chose to make the Pilgrimage. Others were chosen to make it - they provided comfort and support along the way. Over time each person was invited to decide what he or she hoped to gain from the pilgrimage.

One of my reasons for being on this Pilgrimage is to experience Peter Sills’ expert liturgical leadership. He is providing us with opportunities that are so rich. For example, last evening we went to Vespers in another Benedictine Abbey. We sat with the monks in silent meditation for half an hour before listening to them chant the service. It was, for me, a mystical experience.

I personally do not believe that it is possible to be involved in a liturgical experience like this and remained unaffected by how we relate to events that happen in the world. Radical hospitality, compassion and justice and required for the living of our lives. I believe one makes a Pilgrimage like this to stay reminded of this and to be strengthened for living life in a world like ours.

A Liminal Liturgical Experience

On past pilgrimages where I have posted blogs about our experience, it is been a complicated experience. I would write something and e-mail it to Wayne Herbert. Then I would e-mail pictures taken with my iPad or iPhone and e-mail them separately. Now, because of advances in technology, and thanks to Richard Wingfield and Holly Hudley for suggesting and coaching me, I can do this more easily - as long as I have a wi-fi connection. Consequently I am able to post more frequently. This is, of course, affected by what “free time” we have along the way. So far, not much. At least not much where writing and connectivity were possibilities.

This post will be brief. I’m writing it because I mainly wanted to share with you what has been one of the finest liturgical experiences I’ve ever had. Of course, traveling with Peter Sills insures that there will be several opportunities every day for some sort of communal worship experience - morning prayer, Eucharist, Compline, etc.

After we left Arles we departed for Castres. Castres grew up around the Benedictine Abbey founded in 647. On our first morning here, a Sunday and Bastille Day, we went to the Cathedral Saint-Benoit where we attended mass. As we gathered the organist was rehearsing and it was magnificent. A huge organ in a huge space that is centuries old. Amidst the wonderful organ pieces we heard the tune “Happy Birthday.” Only after mass did we learn that the priest who celebrated the mass and who gave the sermon was 82 years old this very day. For me, encouraging.

The attendance at mass was good and I was impressed by the number of families and young people in attendance. The priest’s sermon, I found out later, was based on the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” I don’t speak or understand French but was told by those who do that, in essence, the priest said, “Don’t even try to be a ‘Good Samaritan.’ By very definition you can’t. The minute you try, you step out of the story. Best, to let the Good Samaritan ‘love you’ by teaching you what you can learn from this parable about allowing everyone to be neighbor to you.” I had a professor in seminary who taught that there were three types of sermons: a sermon, a good sermon and a damn good sermon. This one was in the category of being “a damn good sermon.”


After mass we explored the city, even taking a boat ride in this place that is known as “the Venice of France.”

After enjoying the various “pilgrim sites” here we went to Dourgne. This is a stop, an ancient one also, on the Via Tolosana. We went to the monastery of Saint-Benoit d’En-Calcat. On the grounds there is an Abbey and we were to join the monks for Vespers.

Again my memories from previous trips did not prepare me for what we were about to experience.

After arriving we went into a room under the Library where we were shown a documentary about this place and the monks who live here. Peter told us that there is an active and working community of around fifty monks. The video showed us who they were and that they did.

A monastery is a community of people who have taken vows to live in community together. In this case these Benedictine monks support themselves and their community in a variety of ways. An Abbey is the place of worship, usually a church, where these religious people, as well as people from the surrounding community, gather for worship.

After exploring the Library and what of the grounds we were permitted to enter, we went into the Abbey for Vespers.

The Abbey where the monks sang vespers

The Abbey where the monks sang vespers

We sat in silence and watched as, one by one, the robed monks entered the choir stalls on either side of the chancel. Again, from prior experience, I expected a half dozen and for these to be older men. Eventually, forty of them entered, mostly men under fifty and younger.

I could not take a photograph while the service was in progress. Doesn’t matter. No photo could have done it justice. It is like trying to take a picture of the Grand Canyon.

The choir was virtually filled with monks. There was an organ in the choir just for this purpose. The Abbey was fairly filled with worshippers from, I assume, the surrounding area. Again, I didn’t understand a word of what was sung - virtually nothing was spoken. But the sound was exquisite. The respectful movements of standing, giving reverence, silence for the sake of silence, the felt meaning and more moved me as much as any liturgical experience I have had in ages. My fellow pilgrims agreed. We moved out of the Abbey in silence and many said what I felt and experienced, “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.” Indeed.

So far this has been the single most powerful moment on the Pilgrimage. No words can convey it. I hope I’ve given you a hint of it. This Abbey and a community of religious have been here to pray for a support those making the Pilgrimage to Santiago. That history was palpable here. I am glad for it, to know about it, to be a part of it in some small way and to convey it to you.

Pilgrimages Aren’t Easy

The Sunset in Arles on our last day there.

The Sunset in Arles on our last day there.

At the end of our last day in Arles, we had a Compline Service on the river bank. Though France is further North than Houston, the sun seems to set later. We were gifted with some spectacular views.

The next day we were off for our next destinations. Though we would end the day in Castres, one of the stops early Pilgrims used, we would stop at two rather incredible places along the way.

The first was an Abbey built in the 11th century. It is located in St-Guilhem-le-Desert. Again, a place I had never heard of yet it is regarded as one of the grand sites of France and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated in the narrow valley of the Gellone river from which the Abbey takes its name.

Getting to this place is difficult. It was a long coach ride. The road ways are not our freeways but narrow, twisting roads up a mountain range. The Abbey was originally placed where it is because they wanted it to be difficult to reach. Until until the late 1900’s there was no road to this place. As an original stopping place for Pilgrims and as a place to provide hospitality for those who traveled to Santiago by foot or on pack horses, those who built this place wanted it to be reachable only by those who truly wanted to make the journey. As difficult as it was for us, for the last half a mile or so were walking up a steep narrow ancient village street, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those who made the journey when this Abbey was finished in the 12th century.

Cloisters at the Abbaye-de-Guillone

Cloisters at the Abbaye-de-Guillone

After a time of rest after making the journey up, we joined the nuns of this Abbey for Mid-day Prayers. I’ve been to services like this on prior Pilgrimages - both with monks and nuns. Previously, they have been “ancient” for it seems no young people are joining these orders. Not so here. The nuns who sang the service were young, vibrant and happy. Extremely courteous in inviting us to participate with them in their worship. My guess is that these young women were originally from some French-speaking African country. We were not able to find out. The two head nuns were obviously of French nationality and fell into the “stereotype” of what I would have expected.

Afterwards, we walked the Cloisters of this Abbey. Originally, it had been a Benedictine Monastery. Higher up on the mountain one can see the remains of what I took to be an ancient heritage that would have been attached to the church and monastery.

After enjoying a meal with one of our fellow Pilgrims who used to spend the summer in this very village for the past twenty-five years, we got back on the coach to head for our final destination of the day, Castres.

The Devil’s Bridge

The Devil’s Bridge

Along the way we drove past an ancient bridge called Le Pont du Diable (the Devil’s Bridge.)

Legend has it that as the monks were building their monastery, they needed a bridge to cross the gorge created by the river between them and their destination. They would work and work on their bridge and the next day all their work would have been destroyed. One night Saint Guillhem hid out to see what was going on and found that the Devil was destroying the monks’ work.

The Saint scolded the Devil for doing this and the Devil said, “I care nothing for the mongrels who are trying to do God’s work here. The Saint said, “I’ll make a deal with you, let my monks do their work undisturbed and I’ll grant you anything you ask.” The Devil responded, “Will you? If so, I’ll build a bridge that no one can destroy. You, in return, must grant me the soul of the first of these mongrels who cross the bridge.” The Saint agreed.

Three days later the Devil’s Bridge was complete. He call the Saint to see it and said, “Nothing and no one can destroy this bridge. Now, you keep your part of the bargain.” With that the Saint took a bone out of his robe and called his dog to his side. He threw the bone across the bridge and the dog happily went after it, crossing to the other side. The Devil saw this and was furious. “You tricked me.” Then he himself tried with all his might to destroy the bridge that he himself made. The dog, of course, was safe. The Devil was defeated. The bridge still stands.

At least that’s the story.

In fact is the experts say is that this bridge was build around 1020. I have, however, seen another, and much smaller bridge, buil1 in the first century by the Romans. This story was, however, created by the early Pilgrims to give them courage and hope for this difficult journey. They had minds and a culture that participated easily in mysticism.

Saints and Sacred Spaces

In the very beginning of what became The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela those making the pilgrimage would begin, in the case of the route we will be taking, by attending a Eucharist Service in the Cathedral of Saint Trophime in Arles. That is what we did on Friday morning. This was the “official” beginning of our Pilgrimage. Peter Sills led the service assisted by the Rev. Lynne Boughton. Lynne teaches at Cambridge and is an authority in interpreting the iconography of medieval churches. We have travelled with her before and she is exceptionally knowledgeable. After the liturgy this morning we are stood in front of the Cathedral while Lynne explained the complex and detailed iconography we were looking at. Think about it! This was art work in stone done almost eight hundred and fifty years ago.

Cathedral Completed in 1178

Cathedral Completed in 1178

The construction of this cathedral was completed is 1178 and it took nearly a hundred years to build. I never enter one of these structures without a sense of awe. “Where did this come from? Whose creation is this?” Is is not just the massive architectural and building undertaking something like this is but also the art and knowledge of the subject matter that is involved. The entire biblical story, at least as it was understood then, is contained in the intricate carvings made into the stones used to construct the edifice of this building. Workman devoted their life energies to a buildings like this knowing, many of them, that they would not live to see the work completed. Lynne said that the people who saw the finished product, though most of them could not read, readily understood what they were looking at. I’m confident that most of the highly educated people who look at the front of these cathedrals now could tell you very little about what they are actually seeing.

We all actually gathered for a welcome reception and dinner at a restaurant nearby to the hotel where we are staying in Arles. There are twenty-nine people on this Pilgrimage. Many of them we have travelled with before.

After spending most of the day exploring Arles, we drove a short distance to St. Giles-du-Gard to see the burial site of St. Giles. He was a most beloved church leader much like St. Nicholas. He lived in the 8th century and this place is the fourth most highly visited Pilgrimage destinations during Mideval times.

Pilgrim Statue in Church of St. Giles

Pilgrim Statue in Church of St. Giles

I confess that I knew and know little of St. Giles. I did not grow up in a religious tradition that spoke about, much less honored, the Saints. On adventures like this and hearing Peter speak of St. Giles I see that I have missed something important.

We had evening prayer in the crypt of this church. the crypt is huge and Peter said that over the centuries it has accommodated hundreds of thousands of Pilgrims.

After this we returned to Arles for dinner and to prepare to depart Arles in the morning for another segment of this Pilgrimage.

A personal note: It is hot here. Very hot. I know Houston is also hot but Houston is also air conditioned. That is not true for this part of the world. They are not prepared for consistently high temperatures.

The Route We Will Be Traveling

The route we are taking is Via Tolosana

The route we are taking is Via Tolosana

A number of years ago we found ourselves in Arles, France quite by accident. We were on a driving trip from Lisbon, Portugal to Nice, France with no real plans of where we might stop and visit in between. When we couldn’t find accommodations in one place where we wanted to go, the friend we were going to visit in Nice recommended Arles. What a delightful discovery. This is the ancient Roman city where Van Gogh lived and painted. We also stopped at Lourdes, the place made famous by a Bernadette Soubrious and now a much visited site by people seeking miraculous cures by bathing in the spring waters here.

Both Arles and Lourdes are places we will be visiting on this pilgrimage but not as tourists.

Peter Sills, the leader of this pilgrimage says, “There is a difference in the way that pilgrims and tourist travel. Tourism tends to put the desires and needs of the tourist first; the traveler is the subject of the journey, the places and people on the way the object. The pilgrim seeks to reverse this, allowing the places and people that are encountered to be the subject, and he or she comes to learn from them. A pilgrimage also differs from tourism in the way the journey is made. Pilgrims are companions on the way; that is, they share bread together.” The word “companion” is from the Latin words “com” and “panis” meaning “with bread.”

In the ninth century a burial ground was discovered in a field in Spain and it came to be believed that this was where the bones of St. James were buried. (More about him in a later blog.) Soon kings and bishops recognized the importance of having the shrine of St. James visited and in modern times “walking the Camiño” has become so popular that Santiago de Compostela has become the third most popular Christian pilgrimage destination. Rome and Jerusalem are the top two. Though there are several established routes for this pilgrimage, the one we are following has Arles as a starting point. One could travel this route either to Rome or to Santiago. The route we will be traveling is called the Via Tolosana. The name comes from one of the cities to which we will be traveling, Toulouse, Fance’s fourth largest city.

The Pilgrimage Begins


People have likely made pilgrimages as part of their religious seeking or devotion since the beginning of homo sapiens. Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an important part of Jewish life, especially on Passover - as well as other High Holy days. Some have speculated that the early Christian movement appropriated the use of the labyrinth as a substitute for those who were unable to travel or in times when travel was unsafe.

The Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James, was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the late Middle Ages.

We, Sherry and I, have travelled parts of two of the Camino routes - from Le Mont-Saint-Michel to Bordeaux and from Lyon, France (from which the first Pilgrimage was made) all the way to Santiago, Spain.

This time we will travel, with Peter Sills - someone well known to most St. Paul’s folks - from Arles, France all the way to Santiago, Spain and then on to what is called “the end of the world.” I will post an image of the map our route will follow this time in my next blog - which I will write on the long plane ride from Houston to Arles - with multiple stops.

Some of you may remember that a couple of years ago, we took a pilgrimage trip with Peter, the St. Nicholas Pilgrimage. That was in Italy. The trip we are taking this year will be Peter’s 25th pilgrimage to lead and his last one.

What I am most looking forward to experiencing and sharing with you are the sacred spaces we will be visiting. We will have opportunities to celebrate some sort of liturgy up to three times a day. We will be in Santiago for Pilgrim Sunday at the end of July.

I will miss being at St. Paul’s at the beginning of Dr. Jeff McDonald’s ministry.

I hope you will join us on this pilgrimage.

Much love,

Bill Kerley