Easter and the hiking trips of that weekend
All I know of Catholicism is French Catholicism. I was raised Protestant (UCC, for the curious), and I’ve only attended two Catholic masses in the States. But three years ago, when I studied in Paris, I was lucky enough to sing in the mass choir at St-Eustache, the third largest church in Paris. Quite an experience musically, of course, but I had to learn how to fake being Catholic. Since everyone could see you, it was better if you knew how to cross yourself properly (as opposed to with your left hand, which is how I first tried it) and what words to say in response to the priests.
So, three years ago, I had my first glorious experience with Catholic Easter weekend: Vendredi Saint, Samedi Saint, et Pâques (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday). But the services were in such quick succession and there was so much music to learn that I forgot what happened each day. So this year, I decided to go to a Jeudi Saint (yep, Maundy Thursday) service with the German family I know, and then go to the church in town on Sunday morning for Easter. Jeudi Saint was notable because the bishop of the area presided over the service. I was pleasantly surprised with how genuine the bishop was. From my standpoint, there’s a stereotype of the higher authorities in the Catholic church, that they are huffy old men who follow traditions and rules to the letter, for better or for worse. This bishop cared less about traditions, even lightly laughing away the priest’s suggestion that people should kneel before the bishop when he passed to wash their hands. His sermon (homily, right?) ended with a confession that his greatest fear is that Catholics, people who must answer to Jesus and carry on the love he showed, will forget that love and not strive be as good and kind as their example, that they will forget his teachings, that they will forget what communion really means.
Sunday was good, but a bit of a let-down. I realized by the end that the service I had fallen in love with in Paris was Samedi Saint, because Catholics start celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Saturday night. The service was still nice. I figured out that the parish extends over most of the towns in a 15km radius, with the priest, organist, and cantor rotating to all the different churches within a couple weeks. I also had wordless fun with a couple of my kids who I saw there, who were dumbfounded to see me there. “My English teacher’s not supposed to be at church!!” They were happy to see me, though, and pleased as punch when I darted over to where they were sitting to pass the peace. Camille (one of my CM1s) was a bit upset during communion, though: the kids hold candles next to whoever is giving communion, and she was stationed about five feet from where I sat, certain I was going to come through her line. I don’t take communion. Drat.
The best part of the weekend was the hiking trips, one on Sunday, one on Monday (since all the schools were off for Easter Monday…even though our “Easter vacations” run for the next two weeks). The German family I know is quite wonderful. They’ll just randomly invite me to do different things: first a church service, then two days of hiking and picnics, in two very different areas of the countryside. Sunday, after church, we drove into Gard (another department in France, where the famous old Pont du Gard aqueduct is located) to hike, get lost, have a picnic, hike some more, follow roads, find paths that books say don’t exist, find ourselves, run into about 35 2cvs (look it up if you’re interested in cars, it’s a classic Citroën model), hike some more, and finally go explore the caves. Yes, that’s right, explore the caves: three caverns in Orgnac l’Aven that only make up less than one-tenth of the entire underground system they’ve discovered to this point.
1. Descend to 120 metres below the surface.
2. Let your jaw drop. It won’t leave that state until you return to ground level. (Apparently, yes, Michael, we are a codfish.)
3. Look up to the tiny natural entrance (which we did not come through, otherwise we would have fallen to our deaths), and then down to the pile of bones of animals that have, over thousands of years, fallen or been thrown down the hole.
4. Take unfocused pictures of stalactites and stalagmites that look like stacks of pancakes, or heavy curtains, or flower petals and leaves, or organ pipes.
5. Thankfully, take an elevator back up. Not for our health or comfort, but for the protection of the caves. Before the elevators were installed, two-way traffic in the cave meant two bad things: first, lights had to be on all the time, instead of just illuminating whatever part the current group was at, which sped up algae growth; second, all the heavy breathing changed the normally constant humidity of the cave.
Then, Monday meant more hiking, with more rocks, but in a very different area. About twenty minutes from town is an area called les Bois de Païolives, which has a full forest growing within towering rock formations. The kids and I (okay, maybe the three of us kids) spent an hour after a picnic lunch just climbing around on the rocks, exploring, getting 15-20 minutes away and getting lost, trying not to fall into dark and cool crevasses, balancing on wavering rocks, leaning on hollow, molded, breaking trees, crumbling moss in our hands, practically cutting ourselves on rock edges and lichen, finding a random snail shell perfectly framed by leaves…and all the while I’m being tracked by the two kids. Unsuccessfully, of course, as one was wearing a bright, practically neon blue jacket, while the other’s blonde hair stood out among gray rocks. They also weren’t as silent as they thought they were. The actual trails were bizarrely more difficult than the rocks, because of the recent heavy rains. This would be a good time to mention that I don’t currently own hiking boots. Nor any waterproof shoes. The sneakers I wore are still sitting outside to get cleaned.
The nicest part about Monday, though, was the difference from Sunday’s dark enclosed spaces:
That little building up on the rocks is a hermitage, the Ermitage de St-Eugène. There is a monk living there now, for a number of years, restoring it to make it habitable by more than just himself. Apparently, he runs a mass every single day at 11am, open to whoever wants to hike the 2km to the tiny chapel in the Hermitage. Mysteriously intriguing…and not something to be done that day. By the end, I had sun on my face, mud on my shoes, hands, and pants (from an eager puppy), a full tummy, and fully functional logical processes: Linda and I got separated from the others, got lost (again), and ended up beating them back to the car. By half an hour. We win.