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Walking Away

Into the Arms of Our Mother


U.S. Chapter on the 2010 Pilgrimage to Chartres



Michael J. Matt

Editor, The Remnant

An Unlikely Chartres Pilgrim

Charles Péguy:

Revived the Chartres Pilgrimage in 1913

(Posted 06/17/10 For a good part of his life Charles Péguy (1873 – 1914), the great French poet, was an ardent socialist and an on-again, off-again agnostic. Before his death on the battlefield in the early days of World War I, he’d become a believer whose conversion though never exploited for personal gain, had been met with shocked disbelief by France’s literary community.

For Péguy, however, his was not a conversion so much as part of the natural maturation process which for all truly honest men included coming to terms with the only Truth there is—the Truth of Christ. His coming to terms with the Catholic Faith was a lonely and often turbulent flight that manifested itself to the world below through some of the most soul-stirring and provocative French-language poetry of the 20th century. 

Though he’d long since become a believer it wasn’t until Péguy found himself on the battlefield that he resolved to fully return to the Sacraments. Nevertheless, so compelling was his written record of transformation from agnostic to believer that when word of his death reached T. S. Eliot the great English-language poet mourned “one of the most illustrious of the dead who have fallen in this war.”

Péguy is no plaster saint, however, and his journey into the light is not without long and extended dark nights. Throughout his life, in fact, his soul seems to have remained riddled with bullet holes from countless skirmishes with adversaries first to the right and then to the left. Even after his conversion he remained among the walking wounded of post-Revolution “enlightened” France, ever searching for a way back home. As one writer put it, “Péguy seems to have come to an understanding through his experience that pain and even a vulnerability to sinfulness often are the only ways to open up channels by which real grace can reach us, particularly those of us who think our faith and morals are already enough.”

Not surprisingly, the notion of Catholic pilgrimage emerges as integral to the struggle of Charles Péguy, so much so in fact that this passionate and often volatile personality practically single handedly breathed life back into what had come to be regarded as an outmoded “medieval ritual”. Had it not been for Péguy it is highly unlikely that the Chartres Pilgrimage would have survived the attempted purging of all things Catholic which took place in Europe from World War I to the present.

His son Marcel had fallen deathly ill and, rather than giving in to easy despair, Péguy placed his son in the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary before literally “walking away” – vowing to retrace the ancient pilgrim’s path from Paris to Chartres when his son regained his health.

Marcel recovered, of course, and his father was true to his word, walking from Notre-Dame de Paris to Notre-Dame de Chartres not once but several times before his death two years later. Through the process of physical pilgrimage the warrior poet evidently sought to earn the right to lay claim to the Faith he’d once strained against. Pious platitudes and easy creeds were not the stuff of Charles Péguy. He was a soldier and a poet, but not a saint. And, as such, the notion of pilgrimage appealed to his warrior heart.

Inspired by his example if baffled by his conversion, friends tracked Péguy along his newfound pilgrim’s path. And after his death when his popularity began to dramatically increase, admirers from all walks began yearning to retrace the footsteps not only of Joan of Arc and St. Louis IX, but also of Charles Péguy over the plain la Beauce, through the forests near Choisel, and into the mysterious sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Chartres where Péguy had surrendered his cold rationalism at the altar of Faith in the ‘playhouse of Our Lady’. Here the sophisticated man of letters shocked the world by humbly declaring himself “subject to the Virgin of Chartres.” And all Paris gasped!

In the Footsteps of Péguy


American pilgrims assist their 'walking wounded'

In May of 2010, this writer crossed the Atlantic to walk in the footsteps of saints and sinners on that same pilgrimage to Chartres. Between ten and fifteen thousand Catholics from all over Europe devoted three days and two nights to “walking away” from a world well beyond human hope. Following Péguy’s lead, they placed their future not partially but entirely in the hands of the Mother of God, Notre-Dame d’Esperance.  Why? Because like Péguy’s Marcel, our children too are dying at least in the sense that their little souls are under constant assault from those who would sooner see them dead than Catholic. 

Like Péguy’s, our world is also on the brink of total war, perhaps literally, but certainly morally and spiritually and against all things Christian.

Like Péguy, an increasing awareness of our own mortality and sinfulness, coupled with a universal dereliction of duty by the majority of our shepherds who would otherwise lead us into the light, lends urgency to the effort to personally come to terms with God while there is still time. 

Like Péguy, the pilgrims are the furthest thing from perfection which is why on an eve of yet another world war they recognize no better means of saving their souls and serving their homeland than falling to their knees before the Mother of God and begging.

Everything else has been tried and everything else has failed.  Elections, like politicians, come and go but amount to nothing more than a revised cast of characters with essentially the same utopian agenda. An armada of Tea Partiers wrapped in a hundred thousand American flags could take to the high seas tomorrow and their cause would remain lost. It’s too late for that. The enemies of Christ control every aspect of our lives—from education to entertainment and from finance to personal freedom; indeed, even our protests are permitted by leave of our jailers.

Rising taxes and broken borders should be the last concern of a civilization defending itself not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.

One doesn’t vote demons out of office. Ever since the Enlightenment this war has always been fundamentally anti-Christian, against the Word of God, His Scripture, His Tradition, His Church. The way to engage this evil enemy is to take up the pilgrim’s staff and walk away, place trust in God rather than men, learn to home school our children, rediscover how to live off the land while worshipping God as our fathers did, and place our hope entirely in the Queen Mother of Christ the King.  There is no other way.

The Church is Our Mother

The theme of this year’s Pilgrimage to Chartres was L’Eglise Est Notre Mere” (The Church is Our Mother). Over the past nineteen years since first I walked it, I’ve often employed the military metaphor of “going to war” in an effort to describe what it is like to fall in with 15,000 pilgrims and walk for three days across France. But this is not entirely accurate, at least not as I now see it. The pilgrim setting out at sunrise from Notre-Dame in Paris sees his destination – the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres, some 70 miles and 3 days hence – not  as the frontline but rather as the furthest thing from it. He is not advancing toward the enemy at Chartres, but rather like a modern Odysseus he moves through his Catholic odyssey with his eyes constantly scanning the horizon for a first glimpse of home. The spires of Chartres even in faint and distant view become the outstretched arms of his mother, waiting to embrace her returning soldier sons.

For modern men, the frontline is everyday life in the “real world” which is waging total war against Christ. Chartres is the reprieve, a place where soldier becomes pilgrim for a short while in order to heal and restore his soul before returning to the front.

We were praying the Rosary when I saw her for the first time this year. I heard the voice of a young man from the front of our chapter shout out: “There she is! Look there, the spires of Chartres.”

I looked up and was surprised to find the words of the Hail Mary inexplicably caught in my own throat. I couldn’t speak as tears, astonishingly enough, filled my eyes. Why? I’m not sure.  Because l’Eglise est notre mere, I suppose, and the sight of her even far off on the horizon offered welcome promise of home. An aching, longing for the embrace of Mother Church became tangible just then, even despite the sex scandals, the crisis in the liturgy, and that illusive figure of Despair that’s always lurking in the shadows, never sleeping, never resting.

Along the road to Chartres, Despair doesn’t have a chance. A child praying, an old man confessing, a young priest in cassock can, in an instant, transform the doubting pilgrim into a champion of the Catholic order. The vision of a cathedral in the distance after days on the road to Chartres can make even the most jaded pilgrim yearn to lay down his life for Christ’s Bride. On the road to Chartres chivalry is also restored and the faithful soldier of Christ is born again.

A Shepherd in the Camp

Cardinal Vingt-Trois surrounded by 10,000 pilgrims

On the second night of the Pilgrimage this year the pilgrims had a chance to experience this phenomenon for themselves.

There was more excitement than I’d ever seen as the American chapter of some 65 pilgrims made its way down the steep embankment into the camp. Exhausted and parched after two days beneath a merciless sun, all we wanted to do really was find our tent and fall to the ground. But a throng of French pilgrims blocked our way, their jubilant song rising  up before us like the tide at sea.

All at once I heard my own name being shouted by several Frenchmen just ahead. As leader of the U.S. chapter I was being summoned. But why?

I made my way through the bedlam and soon understood. The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris himself was standing at the gate, greeting each chapter as the miles-long column of pilgrims entered the camp. Head to toe in traditional red, His Eminence was being hailed like a victorious general by battle-weary troops.

Ju-bi-late Deo, jubi-la-te Deo, Al-le-lu-ia the scouts shouted in thunderous song as they surrounded their “general”, scrambling to kneel for his blessing as they passed.

A few moments later I found myself kneeling at the feet of André Armand Cardinal Vingt-Trois. As I kissed his ring, I recalled that His Eminence is not known  for being particularly supportive of the Traditionalist cause in France. But out of respect for his office and for the opportunity to show their shepherd the true face of Tradition, the organizers of the pilgrimage, Notre-Dame de Chrétienté, had invited the Cardinal to visit the camp that night and offer Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for the pilgrims.

Graciously, the Cardinal had accepted the invitation, and there he was, not in the sanctuary of some elaborate cathedral, but standing in the tall grass beneath the blazing sun, smiling and blessing his dust-covered children.

As I briefly spoke to him about what the Pilgrimage means to American Catholics and how hundreds of us over the years have crossed the Atlantic to take part in this glorious event, he smiled warmly and gave me his blessing. Was it wishful thinking on my part or did I detect something in his eyes that bespoke a profound impact of what he saw unfolding before him. After all, only a faithless man with a heart of stone could have beheld that youthful army of Catholics, stretching back as far as the eye could see, their flags and banners snapping in the breeze, the heavy statues of Our Lady carried all the way from Paris on the shoulders of scouts—and not been moved by it. Cardinal Vingt-Trois didn’t strike me as either stonehearted or faithless. I believe what he saw that day made an impression that will not soon be forgotten.

Either way, as the sun set and shadows grew long over the Bivouac de Gas, a Prince of the Catholic Church parted a massive sea of pilgrims and made his way to a traditional altar erected beneath the stars. When he raised the monstrance a short while later and the consecration bells sounded across the encampment, ten thousand pilgrims crossed themselves and worshipped God in absolute silence.

For that moment at least Christus vincit and the Cardinal’s politics mattered not one iota. The pilgrim army had become little children again, praying at the feet of their father while swearing allegiance to their Mother and worshipping their God.

It was as if the revolution had never happened and the whole world was Catholic again. The Cardinal was no longer Vingt-Trois but rather he was Andrew, James, John, Thomas, Philip, Simon and Jude. And the Catholic heart leapt with joy.

Little Miracles

A Jewish American journalist walked with the U.S. Chapter of Our Lady of Guadalupe this year. He wanted to see for himself before writing about the phenomenon that is the widespread revival of Catholic pilgrimage in France. Something happened to him along the way, however, that is perhaps difficult to understand for those who’ve never walked to Chartres. Our friend saw the face of Christ, not just at the traditional Latin Masses in the woods or even in the ancient cathedrals on either end of the pilgrim path; but rather in the face of a child.

As he later recounted the story to us, he’d been limping along on failing knees and was really hobbled by blisters that had long since been covered over by still more blisters, when he realized that going on much longer was impossible. Try as he did, nothing could distract him from the thousand needles that were stabbing into his flesh with every step.

“This is it,” he said to himself. “I can go no further,” and that’s when he noticed the little French scout from Riaumont falling back from her chapter but limping manfully along. Her big boots and the hem of her skirt gave muddy evidence of how faithfully this littlest pilgrim had trudged the road to Chartres. And just as our friend was about to surrender to the rigors of pilgrimage and the blazing sun, she turned back to him, smiled bravely and said: “Courage, Monsieur. Courage!”

That was all she said but that was all she needed to say. “Such compassion in the eyes of a child and for a perfect stranger,” our friend recounted. “‘Courage’ she said to me, ‘Courage.’”

Our friend finished the Pilgrimage on blisters I suspect were filled with blood, tears of joy streaming down his face. If he is not a Catholic by now I am confident he will be before the pilgrims assemble at Notre-Dame next year. The scout from Riaumont will surely not be the sole reason for his conversion, but that she will be remembered by him—always—as a prompting special grace, I  have no doubt.

If there is one message the Pilgrimage to Chartres broadcasts to the whole Catholic world today it may indeed be one so simple even a child can understand it: Courage! This dark night can not last forever.  Or, as Charles Péguy himself shouted to his brothers in arms moments before he breathed his last on the battlefield, “For God’s sake, push ahead.” Indeed, for God’s sake, lets all push ahead. Courage!

Thanks and Looking to Next Year


U.S. Chapter of Guadalupe 2010 Pilgrimage to Chartres

The Pilgrimage, like all good things, came to an end in Notre-Dame de Chartres on Pentecost Monday. Eight thousand pilgrims packed the cathedral, and another five or six thousand filled the square outside. In one voice the massive assembly of Catholics brought it to a glorious conclusion with, what else, Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat—the triumphal hymn to Christ the King which, by the way, was being sung that same day in Paris by another 5,000 traditional Catholics who’d just finished walking from Chartres to Paris on the “other pilgrimage”, organized by the Society of St. Pius X. That makes nearly 20,000 Catholics on the road to and from Chartres over Pentecost weekend 2010. The secular newspaper in Chartres reported that representatives of the two pilgrimages had designated a meeting place halfway between Chartres and Paris where they could meet, raise a glass and offer each other bon pelerinage!  All hope is lost?  I think not!

So now it’s back to the front-- the blisters,  rocky ground, damp sleeping bags, meager soup, hard bread and endless walking having again become a happy memory of the grand adventure, the Pilgrimage to Chartres, a sort of porthole to a world where priests still pray their daily Office, children still obey their parents, men are still men, women still women, tattoos and body piercing nonexistent, iPods out of the question, Masses in Latin, Saints revered, Mary is Queen, Christ is King, and Faith, Hope and Charity reign supreme. Fifteen thousand pilgrims experienced this glorious “Catholic thing” and now have become fifteen thousands ambassadors bringing word of it back to their homes and communities all around the world.

The U.S. Chapter of Our Lady of Guadalupe Empress of the Americas was one of the largest ever. Mostly young traditional Catholics from all over the States, they formed a model chapter filled with good spirit, happy singing, prayerful attentiveness, and enough camaraderie to make three long days of pilgrimage pass by all too quickly.

Many thanks to all the American pilgrims, young and old, for making the 2010 Pilgrimage one of the most memorable of the nineteen organized thus far by Remnant Tours. And many thanks to Remnant readers who sponsored 15 young Catholic pilgrims who, as far as this writer is concerned, are the pride of the Catholic Church in America, a credit to their parents, and excellent spokesmen for the home school (and small traditional Catholic school) movement in America.

Special thanks also to Remnant Tour guides and chaperones who gave of themselves so generously not only during the pilgrimage, but also during the tour to Konnersreuth, Regensburg, Salzburg and Munich. John Rao, Jamie Bogle, Christopher Ferrara, Mrs. Joan Mahar, Mrs. Jane Latz—thank you for keeping the pilgrims safe, informed and I hope inspired to take back the world for Christ.

A special word of gratitude also to our indefatigable chaplain, Fr. Jared McCambridge, FSSP. The former Navy helicopter pilot turned traditional Catholic priest was at every stage of the pilgrimage nothing short of a walking inspiration. If Father McCambridge is indicative of the sort of formation and priestly caliber of the men being ordained for the Fraternity of St. Peter, there is every reason for all of us to be supremely confident that the Catholic cause is headed for total victory. We are humbled and honored to have had such a fine priest as our chaplain.

Heartfelt thanks to our French allies at Notre-Dame de Chrétienté for organizing what most now consider the premier annual event taking place in the traditional Catholic world today. My friend, Herve Rolland, the newly-elected president of Notre-Dame de Chrétienté, deserves congratulations for organizing one of the best pilgrimages thus far. God willing, we’ll join our French brothers again next year.

Speaking of next year, the dates of the Remnant Pilgrimage are June 8 thru June 19, 2011.  This will be the 20th Anniversary of The Remnant Chapter of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The itinerary has not yet been established but will include the Notre-Dame de Chrétienté Pilgrimage to Chartres followed by, hopefully, the south of France, a couple of nights in Lourdes and perhaps a day-long European Remnant Forum at the holy shrine of Notre-Dame du Laus situated high in the beautiful French alps.  In any event, please look for our ads here in The Remnant in October. We hope to see you on the road to Chartres in 2011.

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