Augsburg student Patrick Wendel ’08, traveled to France in the summer
of 2006 as part of the History 440: Religious Experience in Medieval
France course. He reflects on the experience:
“It is hard to convey in words my experiences during three weeks in France, walking a medieval pilgrimage, praying in a cathedral, studying as monks did in the twelfth century – especially since I did these things in the twenty-first century.
Upon arrival, I still carried a remnant of the United States in my head. This doesn’t surprise me at all, but what does surprise me is how quickly my modern sense of time and lifestyle left once we started the pilgrimage.”
Pilgrims in the Middle Ages walked the very same trail we did with intentions of making right in God’s eyes their sins and transgressions. As I took the first few steps on the very same trail, with a loaf of bread in hand and the bitter taste of coffee still in the back of my throat, my mind was far from reconciliation in any spiritual sense. I was simply in France to experience the country in a way that few tourists get to. I had no intention of suffering for the sake of my sins, or undertaking a path towards fulfillment. How quickly that changed.
Before the first day was over, I grew resentful of my fellow students on the trip. It’s hard to spend long hours under stressful conditions (hiking!), with the same group of people, no matter how much you like them. I began to understand the chronicles we’d read of pilgrims who wandered solo. The rocky terrain grew troublesome on my feet and gave me blisters. The sun caused me to sweat, which in turn made the clothes I wore stick to me in uncomfortable ways. My pride kept me going the first day without complain, as did the experience of new terrain, queer landscapes, and the strange botanical formations that sprung up at every bend in the trail.
By the end of the first day on our pilgrimage I had found myself a decent walking stick. To the pilgrims in the twelfth century the stick symbolized more than a physical tool necessary to complete a long trek. It became an extension of the Trinity in each pilgrim (two legs of the pilgrim, plus the walking stick equals three “legs” of the Trinity). It was their crutch in times of need, especially when the struggle made them question their choice to undertake the pilgrimage in the first place. I only say this because not having a good walking stick made the trek more burdensome than it needed to be. I mean this in more than a physical manner. Walking the trail was fine enough without a stick, but it left my mind free to wander because I had nothing to do with my hands. Yet every time I’d find a stick, I would soon grow weary of its little defects, and abandon one stick for another one that I thought would suit me better. Somehow, finding the right stick grounded me.
Each day I struggled to hold my anger to a suitable level. I even grew weary of my best friends on the pilgrimage. It was not until I entered a certain mental state, which St. Benedict addresses in the first word of his book, that I was able to experience the pilgrim’s route with a newfound calm. I began to listen. That’s the first word in the Rule: “Listen!” It started with my footsteps and the footsteps of those nearest me. The rustling of my fellow pilgrims, their voices added to the voices of animals we encountered along the way. Listening to the outside world made me more aware of the inside world, and I began to listen to myself. Thoughts gave way to feelings.
Emotionally, I’ve had a lot going on for the past few months. Our third night on the pilgrimage, I discovered a piece of myself that I had thought lost to spiritual stagnation. I discovered, invariably, that by listening I was enlightened to a bit of my own inner stuff. As I dealt with sore blisters, pummeled pride, and temptation, I think I felt what medieval pilgrims must have felt. And I also started to understand the reason St. Benedict (and also my professor in the course) stressed the word ‘Listen’ so heavily. Passing parts of the journey in silence forced me to be open with my experiences, externally and internally. By the time we reached Conques, our final destination, my emotions had leveled. I had listened to myself, until the monotonous walking eroded my inner turmoil.
Of the three weeks I spent in France learning about medieval religious life, I discovered many new ways of thinking and learned of many interesting customs from the Middle Ages, that I never thought could have meaning in my own life. I’m happy I took the trip, and feel as if a piece of history, that I’d previously only read or heard about, had some sort of an impact on my life, much more than any text book ever did.