Henry Field
From the Lakes of Killarney to the Golden Horn


GOING ON A PILGRIMAGE

    Geneva, July 12th.

We have been on a pilgrimage. In coming to France, I had a great desire to visit one of those shrines which have become of late objects of such enthusiastic devotion, and attracted pilgrims from all parts of Europe, and even from America. In a former chapter I spoke of the Resurrection of France, referring to its material prosperity as restored since the war. There has been also a revival of religious fervor – call it superstition or fanaticism – which is quite remarkable. Those who have kept watch of events in the religious as well as in the political world, have observed a sudden access of zeal throughout Catholic Christendom. Whatever the cause, whether the "persecution," real or imaginary, of the Holy Father, or the heavy blows which the Church has received from the iron hand of Germany in its wars with Austria and France – the fact is evident that there has been a great increase of activity among the more devout Catholics – which shows itself in a spirit of propagandism, in "missions," which are a kind of revivals, and in pilgrimages to places which are regarded as having a peculiar sanctity.

These pilgrimages are so utterly foreign to our American ideas, they appear so childish and ridiculous, that it seems impossible to speak of them with gravity. And yet there has been at least one of these pious expeditions from the United States (of which there was a long account in the New York papers), in which the pilgrims walked in procession down Broadway, and embarked with the blessing of our new American Cardinal. From England they have been quite frequent. Large numbers, among whom we recognize the names of several well known Catholic noblemen, assemble in London, and receive the blessing of Cardinal Manning, and then leave to make devout pilgrimages to the "holy places" (which are no longer only in Palestine, but for greater convenience have been brought nearer, and are now to be found in France), generally ending with a pilgrimage to Rome, to cast themselves at the feet of the Holy Father, who gives them his blessing, while he bewails the condition of Europe, and anathematizes those who "oppress" the Church – thus blessing and cursing at the same time.

If my object in writing were to cast ridicule on the whole affair, there is something very tempting in the easy and luxurious way in which these modern pilgrimages are performed. Of old, when a pilgrim set out for the Holy Land, it was with nothing but a staff in his hand, and sandals on his feet, and thus he travelled hundreds of leagues, over mountain and moor, through strange countries, begging his way from door to door, reaching his object at last perhaps only to die. Even the pilgrimage to Mecca has something imposing to the imagination, as a long procession of camels files out of the streets of Cairo, and takes the way of the desert. But these more fashionable pilgrims travel by steam, in first-class railway carriages, with Cook's excursion tickets, and are duly lodged and cared for, from the moment they set out till they are safely returned to England. One of Cook's agents in Paris told me he had thus conveyed a party of two thousand. It must be confessed, this is devotion made easy, in accordance with the spirit of the modern time, which is not exactly a spirit of self-sacrifice, but "likes all things comfortable" – even religion.

But my object was not to ridicule, but to observe. If I did not go as a pilgrim, on the one hand, neither was it merely as a travelling correspondent, aiming only at a sensational description. If I did not go in a spirit of faith, it was at least in a spirit of candor, to observe and report things exactly as I saw them.

But how was I to reach one of these holy shrines? They are a long way off. The grotto of Lourdes, where the Holy Virgin is said to have appeared to a girl of the country, is in the Pyrenees; while Paray-le-Monial is nearly three hundred miles southeast from Paris. However, it is not very far aside from the route to Switzerland, and so we took it on our way to Geneva, resting over a day at Macon for the purpose.

It was a bright summer morning when we started from Macon, and wound our way among the vine-clad hills of the ancient province of Burgundy. It is a picturesque country. Old chateaux hang upon the sides, or crown the summits of the hills, while quaint little villages nestle at their foot. In yonder village was born the poet and statesman, Lamartine. We can see in passing the chateau where he lived, and here, "after life's fitful fever, he sleeps well." All these sunny slopes are covered with vineyards, which are now smiling in their summer dress. I do not wonder that pilgrims, as they enter this "hill-country," are often reminded of Palestine. Three hours brought us to Paray-le-Monial, a little town of three or four thousand inhabitants – just like hundreds of others in France, with nothing to attract attention, except the marvellous tradition which has given it a sudden and universal celebrity, and which causes devout Catholics to approach it with a feeling of reverence.

The story of the place is this: In the little town is a convent, which has been standing for generations. Here, two hundred years ago, lived a nun, whose name was Marguerite Marie Alacoque, who was eminent for her piety, who spent a great part of her life in prayer, and whose devotion was at length rewarded by the personal appearance of our Lord, who opened to her his bosom, and showed her his heart burning with love for men, and bade her devote herself to the worship of that "sacred heart"! These visitations were very frequent. Some of them were in the chapel, and some in the garden attached to the convent. The latter is not open to visitors, the Pope having issued an order that the privacy of the religieuses should be respected. But a church near by overlooks it, and whoever will take the fatigue to climb to the top, may look down into the forbidden place. As we were determined to see everything, we mounted all the winding stone steps in the tower, from which the keeper pointed out to us the very spot where our Saviour appeared to the Bienheureuse, as he called her. In a clump of small trees are two statues, one of the Lord himself, and the other of the nun on her knees, as she instantly sank to the ground when she recognized before her the Majesty of her blessed Lord. There is another place in the garden where also she beheld the same heavenly vision. Sometimes the "Seigneur" appeared to her unattended; at others he was accompanied by angels and seraphim.

It is a little remarkable that this wonderful fact of the personal appearance of Christ, though it occurred, according to the tradition, two hundred years ago, did not attract more attention; that it was neglected even by Catholic historians, until twelve years since – in 1863 – when (as a part of a general movement "all along the line" to revive the decaying faith of France) the marvellous story of this long neglected saint was revived, and brought to the notice and adoration of the religious world.

But let not cold criticism come in to mar the full enjoyment of what we have come so far to see. The principal visitations were not in the garden but in the chapel of the convent, which on that account bears the name of the Chapel of the Visitation. Here is the tomb which contains the body of the sainted nun, an image of whom in wax lies above it under a glass case, dressed in the robe of her order, with a crown on her head, to bring before the imagination of the faithful the presence of her at whose shrine they worship. The chapel is separated from the convent by a large grating, behind which the nuns can be hidden and yet hear the service, and chant their offices. There it was, so it is said, behind that grate, while in an ecstasy of prayer, that our Saviour first appeared to the gaze of the enraptured nun. The grate is now literally covered with golden hearts, the offerings of the faithful. Similar gifts hang over the altar, while gilded banners and other votive offerings cover the walls.

As we entered the chapel, it was evident that we were in what was to many a holy place. At the moment there was no service going on, but some were engaged in silent meditation and prayer. We seemed to be the only persons present from curiosity. All around us were absorbed in devotion. We sat a long time in silence, musing on the strange scene, unwilling to disturb even by a whisper the stillness of the place, or the thoughts of those who had come to worship. At three o'clock the nuns began to sing their offices. But they did not show themselves. There are other Sisters, who have the care of the chapel, and who come in to trim the candles before the shrine, but the nuns proper live a life of entire seclusion, never being seen by any one. Only their voices are heard. Nothing could be more plaintive than their low chanting, as it issued from behind the bars of their prison house, and seemed to come from a distance. There, hidden from the eyes of all, sat that invisible choir, and sang strains as soft as those which floated over the shepherds of Bethlehem. As an accompaniment to the scene in the chapel, nothing could be more effective; it was well fitted to touch the imagination, as also when the priest intoned the service in the dim light of this little church, with its censers swinging with incense, and its ever-burning lamps.

The walls of the chapel are covered with banners, some from other countries, but most from France, and here it is easy to see how the patriotic feeling mingles with the religious. Here and there may be seen the image of the sacred heart with a purely religious inscription, such as Voici le cœur qui a tant aimé les hommes (here is the heart which has so loved men); but much more often it is, Cœur de Jesus, Sauvez la France! This idea in some form constantly reappears, and one cannot help thinking that this sudden outburst of religious zeal has been greatly intensified by the disasters of the German war; that for the first time French armies beaten in the field, have resorted to prayer; that they fly to the Holy Virgin, and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to implore the protection which their own arms could not give. Hung in conspicuous places on columns beside the chancel are banners of Alsace and Lorraine, covered with crape, the former with a cross in the centre, encircled with the words first written in the sky before the adoring eyes of Constantine: In hoc signo vinces; while for Lorraine stands only the single name of Metz, invested with such sad associations, with the inscription, Sacré cœur de Jesus, Sauvez la France!

There is no doubt that these pilgrimages have been encouraged by French politicians, as a means of reviving and inflaming the enthusiasm of the people, not only for the old Catholic faith, but for the old Catholic monarchy. Of the tens of thousands who flock to these shrines, there are few who are not strong Legitimists. On the walls of the chapel the most glittering banner is that of Henri de Bourbon, which is the name by which the Comte de Chambord chooses to be known as the representative of the old royal race. Not to be outdone in pious zeal, Marshal MacMahon, who is a devout Catholic – and his wife still more so – has also sent a banner to Paray-le-Monial, but it is not displayed with the same ostentation. The Legitimists have no wish to keep his name too much before the French people. He is well enough as a temporary head of the State till the rightful sovereign comes, but when Henri de Bourbon appears, they want no "Marshal-President" to stand in his way as he ascends the throne of his ancestors.

Thus excited by a strange mixture of religious zeal and political enthusiasm, France pours its multitudes annually to these shrines of Lourdes and Paray-le-Monial. We were too late for the rush this year – the season was just over; for there is a season for going on pilgrimages as for going to watering-places, and June is the month in which they come in the greatest numbers. There have been as many as twenty thousand in one day. On the 16th of June – which was a special occasion – the crowd was so great that Mass was begun at two o'clock in the morning, and repeated without ceasing till noon, the worshippers retiring at the end of every half hour, that a new throng might take their places. Thus successive pilgrims press forward to the holy shrine, and go away with an elated, almost ecstatic feeling, that they have left their sins and their sorrows at the tomb of the now sainted and glorified nun.


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