A group of more than fifty of us set off on this pilgrimage in the Footsteps of St Columban. At the time of setting out I had focused on discovering more of the historical Columban and I had expected to understand more and get more clarity about our Congregational Patron. Pilgrimage is also a ‘stepping out of oneself in order to encounter God’ (Pope Emeritus Benedictc XVI)
While there is a personal journey in pilgrimage there is also a communal one. The pilgrimage journey will have been unique for each pilgrim. These are a few short personal reflections from an abundance of sights, beautiful places, the silence and solitude of mountains and churches and the interaction of the community of pilgrims.
Luxeuil, Annegray and Fontaine
Our first pause on our journey was at Luxeuil an old Roman town situated in the east of France. A famous statue of St Columban stands in the main square outside the beautiful Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Archaeological excavations by archaeologists from France and Ireland are revealing more about the monasteries which grew out of the first Columban foundations in Annegray, Fontaine and Luxeuil Les Bains. We spend time at the site hearing about the various discoveries and the learnings from these. Visiting this site and the one at Annegray makes real the stories we have heard of the lives of the monks who lived and died here.
In the forests of the Voeges Mountains there is a clearing which is a typical place of solitude and isolation where tradition says that Columban came to pray. There is a cave there, a miraculous spring, a little chapel and beautiful scenery. It is a place of stillness, a prayerful place. There are two paths around the hill one smooth and one very rough. These reminded me of our paths through life and of how Columban, a pilgrim for Christ would have walked unfamiliar paths and crossed frontiers where many dangers awaited him everywhere he went.
L’Ermitage de Saint-Valbert.
Following Mass at the Basilica on Sunday morning we set out for the village of Saint Valbert just a few kilometres from Luxeuil where we had lunch with members of the Amis de Saint Columban who take responsibility for the site. This site was cleaned up by students from Dalgan Park and Fr Bill Halliden in the 1960’s.
Bregenz in Austria
The Parish of St Kolumban was just a short walk from our hotel in Bregenz. There we were able to venerate a relic of St Columban, which had been brought from Bobbio. This was a very moving moment for all of us as we expressed our love and devotion. I called to mind all those I had been asked to pray for asking that through the intercession of St Columban that God bless each with healing and peace.
St Gallen in Switzerland
Our visit to the Library, ‘Stiftsbibliotech’ was really special. It is the place where the work prayer and lives of so many monks is very palpable. Many rare and valuable manuscripts are housed here. They had an ancient Irish manuscript on display for us and we could see the old Irish writing, decoration and also the little notes at the side, and at the top and bottom of the pages.
There is also a globe in the library. It is a replica of one which monks constructed in the middle ages according to what they knew about the planet and solar system at that time. The globe was carried off when the monastery was attacked and rather than try to have it returned, a replica was made. An important discovery was made during the construction of the replica; the weight of the globe made it impossible for it to turn on its axis. The monks who constructed the original may not have known why the globe could not move. I was reminded of all the great inventors, many of whom were monks and those who studied the earth and the cosmos for centuries. They learned so much about creation thus enhancing our understanding of the earth and the cosmos and enriching our lives today. When we were in the library the atmosphere was wonderful. It was as if the monks had just left their work for prayer or some other monastic practice. We were required to wear over-shoes which gave a real sense of being in a sacred place as we walked about.
The Influence of Saint Columban and his community and his great monastic movement all died out leaving something new to evolve. Sometimes the dying out was a killing where everything was intentionally destroyed. At other times it was more of an evolution to a different era with a different response to people’s needs. We are obviously in a time of transition today and it was reassuring that although very little of the physical life of Columban remains yet the gift that he and his community were to the people of the time he lived in, is very real, yet everything also changed and evolved into something new. His ongoing influence is what strikes one.
We took turns to lead the Morning Prayer and Liturgies. We had been given a wonderful resource booklet with Prayers, Songs, and Reflections. These times of prayer and reflection helped us remain focused on our pilgrimage as a community of faith and helped us to continue to reflect as the pilgrimage continued.
The Pieta Rondanini by Michelangelo – the unfinished sculpture of Michelangelo which was found many years after his death. The sculpture gives the impression that the dead Jesus is somehow supporting Mary who is also holding and supporting her dead son. The face of Mary seems younger than it ought to be. This sculpture of Michelangelo’s old age can be interpreted as a reference to the Resurrected Christ.
Following our viewing of the sculpture one of our companions shared a very moving story about her mother, in which she linked her mother’s response to the loss of her husband when she was young and her son’s untimely death. In her final years this woman also lost her best friend and her family were worried about how she would cope with another loss. When they expressed their concern her response surprised them she said ‘I can accept it because ‘Mary did it’
On our way from Milan to Bobbio we stopped at St Columbano al Lambro for a brief visit.
Our guide gave us very interesting information regarding the ecology of all the places we visited and the different places we pass through on our journey. This input also enhanced our connection with all the journeys of Saint Columban.
Our anticipation of arriving in Bobbio had been building on the journey through the Alps. The scenery was stunningly beautiful.
We walked into Bobbio from near the statue which stands at the entrance to the town. The walk gave us time to pay attention and become more aware of our surroundings and open to this the high point of our pilgrimage.
Our arrival in the Crypt inside the Basilica of St Columbano was a silent moment except for the sound of steps and our awe struck breathing.
We spent time with our personal response to having ‘arrived’. After booking into to our accommodation, we returned to the Crypt for a very joyful celebration of the Eucharist.
We had three days in Bobbio and it seemed to be a much loved place for many of the pilgrims. Every time one went in for a visit or to pray in the Crypt invariable there were others there before you. Many also liked to pray in the Basilica.
The bridge on the river Trebbia which flows beside the town of Bobbio is an ancient Roman structure. There are some legends about Columban and his monks building it. It joins two opposites of course the centre of the town and the hills. I was reflecting on some of the opposites that a bridge joins. Our earthly life and the life of eternity, war and peace, the concerns of making a living and spending quality time in solitude and many other opposites as well. Tradition says the Saint Columban would leave his monastery and community from time to time in order to have time for more intense prayer and solitude.
While we were in Bobbio there was a very bad storm which left the river in flood so much so that the bridge was out of bounds for a few hours.
Cole and the Grotto San Michele
Because of the floods we were unable to reach the cave above Coli, the place in the mountains where tradition says Saint Columban died, but we did walk up the hills a bit and following the storm it was a beautiful sunny clear day with small clouds and wisps of fog rising all along the beautiful broad leafed forests on the mountains. The sense of quiet and stillness both in Bobbio and in the hills was noticed by many of us.
In Coli some of our group met two Bangladeshi men who had fled Libya as refugees and are in the process of applying for asylum in Italy, a reminder to us of the harrowing journeys being undertaken by so many people fleeing from terror, poverty and oppression these days.
For us Columbans; there are always the questions and wonderings about how Saint Columban would respond to the many difficult questions of our day. We know that he responded with faith and courage and he did find himself on the wrong side of the powerful inside and outside the Church.
We also need to have that faith and love which he had so that God’s reign my come in our world today.
For me I think what happened was not so much clarity about the historical man whose life was so influential down through the ages and still challenges me today. I believe I met the Columban who is alive to today’s world in many people and through his monastic legacy, his life of prayer and contemplation and his search for God. This is our pilgrimage as well. May you find the face of God in creation, in scripture and in your loving response to those who need your respect and care.
‘’Allow Christ paint his image in you’’ (Sermon XI)
By: Sr.Anne Ryan, SSC
Served as a Congregational Leader of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban and was missioned in Hong Kong for many years. Anne is presently missioned in Ireland.