HOLY LAND – After their marriage on May 26, 2017, Florence and Gauthier, two French newlyweds, decided to resign their jobs and leave everything behind to walk on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Arriving in December to experience Christmas in Bethlehem, the two pilgrims agreed to answer our questions. Let us go back with them on a journey that lasted six months.
For more than six months, you have crossed Europe, walking through fourteen different countries to reach Jerusalem and the Holy Land. How did you get the idea of such a journey and how did you prepare?
We were married on May 26, 2017. After our wedding, we needed some time away from family and work obligations to build our relationship on solid foundations. We wanted to get away, leave our families to go into the unknown, open up to others, and deepen our faith by discovering the various Christian rites and other religions. The pilgrimage, for us, is the time we take to start our married life, facing on two fronts, understanding the world and drawing closer to the Lord.
This idea of pilgrimage was born while I was on a humanitarian mission in India and Gauthier was in Kenya. He discussed the idea during one of our Skype conversations, after watching a report about a couple who had made the pilgrimage: Edouard and Mathilde Cortes. I read their book A Way of Promise, and since then I knew that one day I would embark on this pilgrimage.
The departure still required some preparation. First, the material needs. This meant choosing only the bare minimum to put in our bags and preferred material items and quality clothing that could withstand 6-7 months on the road. Then, the spiritual. To deepen the spiritual scope of our project, I chose to focus my M.A. degree dissertation in Ethics on the pilgrimage. I discovered many books written by pilgrims of yesteryear who testify to the benefits of such a journey.
We experienced our spiritual preparation as a couple more in the context of marriage preparation. This preparation led to good discussions that gave meaning to our project. We also met a couple who made the pilgrimage from France to Jerusalem in 2012 and reassured us about our ability to embark and succeed. Leaving, after our dinner at home, we were happy, and preparation went very smoothly. We also received many signs of affection before our departure by announcing the news of our departure to our circle of acquaintances, to our admiring colleagues, and they also followed us throughout our journey. Our family members, meanwhile, were either skeptical or in admiration at the announcement. But, seeing our progress, we received from them, expressions of friendship and promise of prayers.
Finally, preparing to walk for more than 4500 km, still required some fitness. We were not starting completely into the unknown as we had already made pilgrimages before. I walked for three weeks on the road to Saint James of Compostela and Gauthier walked from Auxerre to Vézelay.
In hindsight, it is a kind of pilgrimage that is well suited to a young couple. It is clear that for a family or older people, a more substantial preparation is necessary.
So, what about those 4500 kilometers; what was your experience? And what were the most significant events?
At first, I had a lot of back pain. But the hard part was feeling so far from the goal. Arriving in the Aosta Valley, I could not believe it, I thought we should turn back. We were then only in Italy, and we still had to pass through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus before reaching Israel and Palestine. The goal sometimes seems so far away; one must make mental calculations of objectives to divide the goals, adopting shorter-term objectives than the long-term, Jerusalem, to stay motivated.
Physically, one completely adapts to this life of daily walking: after two months, we were well broken-in. Psychologically, it is the intensity of encounters, the discoveries and growing understanding of the world that motivated each day.
One of the most significant events of our journey was one of the nights we spent in a KFOR-protected Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo. The liturgy was so beautiful that we had tears in our eyes. Time seemed to stand still. In this country, we also met with Albanian Catholics who were also happy to share their faith and Serbs who kindly invited us to a festive evening. Arriving in Turkey, we received such a generous welcome and felt deeply respected and understood by the Muslim people. Entering Palestine, we got a simple and spontaneous welcome and had good conversations on the Israeli occupation.
There were also difficult moments to experience. On the eve of our entry into Kosovo, a priest told us that Albanians were monsters and took organs from the bodies of tourists, it was scary … but false! Instead, once past the border, an Albanian invited us to the restaurant. Another difficult moment took place in Turkey. We slept in the home of a young man who, at first, was nice but a bit overeager with me. We were not very reassured. The next day we left quickly, grateful for the night, but happy to move on.
On the practical side, we knew more or less every day when to stop for the night. We calculated that we needed to walk thirty kilometers a day. Once we reached our goal, we inquired of the residents about food and shelter. For lunch, we asked to be fed by the people we meet on the way. We rarely felt hungry.
The richness of the encounters we made, and being able to live by Providence, which is more generous than we may think, made this pilgrimage incredibly invigorating experience for us.
How did you feel about your visit to the Holy Land, and your return to France at the end of this pilgrimage?
About the arrival in the Holy Land, we were disappointed to arrive by plane, not having found a boat from Larnaca to Haifa. However, we were welcomed by the Carmelites of Mount Carmel which soothed us and restored joy. Once in Jerusalem, we were deeply happy. We directly went to the Holy Sepulcher where we spent the night to entrust all the prayer intentions received along the way of our journey. We ended up staying three days in Jerusalem, then spent ten in Taybeh in the retirement home of “Bet Afram” managed by a Brazilian community. My parents then joined us in a more traditional pilgrimage to the Holy Land to celebrate Christmas with us in Bethlehem.
We returned home at the end of the year, happy to see our families again. But we now need time to spend time in the country to see things more clearly. We know that we want to leave Paris, to live in a city on a human scale, to welcome strangers and, why not, organize a pilgrimage itinerary. We seem to have greatly solidified our relationship, to form a real team that includes being ready to engage the world.
We now have a testimony to share. We must testify that man, whatever his religion is profoundly good. We wish to testify that walking in the countries we went through is not dangerous, the pilgrims are fully understood and helped.
We also want to emphasize the extraordinary welcome that Muslims showed us in Kosovo, Turkey, and Palestine.
Is there any last thing you want to share with us?
The pilgrimage that we wanted to experience is simple in its realization; it is the big advantage of walking. Caution, however, walking in Israel and Palestine is not without difficulty. Due to the strong military presence, the separation wall and checkpoints, we struggled to advance on foot in these areas.
Many people ask us how to prepare a great adventure like this: indeed, we must prepare ourselves more than any other thing. The discovery of Providence is what most increased our faith. We realized that the Blessed Virgin would never abandon us, and being certain of this we were able to abandon ourselves more to Providence.
Interview by Vivien Laguette
Pictures by Florence and Gauthier