Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 22, 2008
Pilgrims trek in search of a life path
Legal's Martin Blanchet and daughter Sarah trekked the 1,521 km Santiago pilgrimage
- PHOTO SUPPLIED
Martin and Sarah Blanchet wrapped in ponchos to ward off the dreary weather, pause at the 100 km marker to Santiago.
BY LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
A pilgrimage is a call from God. Not everyone realizes this. Many make the trek thinking they want to enjoy the scenery and challenge themselves physically.
But for Martin Blanchet, the seed was planted by a neighbour “who did one of the four ways to Santiago (de Compostela in Spain) pilgrimage, and that got me thinking to do this.”
A retired math school teacher, 65-year-old Blanchet sits on the school board in Legal, belongs to the Knights of Columbus, works in some small business ventures and volunteers.
But the nudge to make the trek would not leave him and “the dream (of going on a pilgrimage) became a little bit more real when I started planning it three years ago.”
Since the Middle Ages
Why go on such an arduous trek? Indeed thousands from around the globe take the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, a route from France that people began using in the Middle Ages.
Martin pauses, looks away and his reply comes measured and sure.
“I needed to take time to evaluate what I was doing and to empty my mind of all the superfluities stuff. When I am busy working there is no time to really think.”
Daughter Sarah joined her father on the journey.
“I just said ‘yes’ on the spur of the moment when he asked me. It was automatic. I didn’t really think about it.”
It came at the right time too. Sarah, 18, had finished high school so she just delayed university, “which is not a big deal.”
The two began their sacred walk Aug. 17 and finished Nov. 3.
Some journey on horseback, straddling a donkey’s back or peddling a bike.
“We met them all,” says Martin with a droll smile.
Martin and Sarah walked the whole time.
The physical exertion took its toll.
Martin had a few twinges in his left hip and knee in his life in Legal. But hiking the Pyrenees Mountains and just putting in the 20 kms or more a day caused both joints to become inflamed.
Despite the pain, Martin viewed it through a spiritual lens.
“I think it was a revelation. For the first time in my life, I suffered physically. I did not realize it was going to be as hard as it was.”
He was forced to seek medical attention in Spain and had a dickens of a time making himself understood by the clerk in the physician’s office.
But when he finally met the physician, she asked him, “Do you wish to speak Francaise or English?” — “the two languages I know,” says Martin.
These little bits of synchronicity – Martin calls them miracles — sprinkled themselves throughout their trek.
“My friend says coincidences like these were God’s way of staying anonymous,” says Martin with a gentle smile.
As they adapted to the pace, Martin found “it became easier to climb as I went along. My heart was not racing as much. In the beginning, I’d go up a hundred steps and I would start puffing.
“At the end, I was going 200 or more. That felt good.”
The Way to Santiago is a traditional pilgrimage of pardon.
Martin satisfied this mission during the first two or three weeks.
A time of pardon
“I would ask Sarah to walk on by herself. And then I would pray and ask pardon from those that I had offended.”
This spiritual exercise ended at the 1,500-metre Cruz de Ferro — the iron cross where Martin tossed three rocks from home — one each for himself, his wife Karen and their other daughter Anna — at the base of the cross.
“The rocks can represent sin, failure, burdens,” explains Martin.
The fellow pilgrims they met along the way came from “Spain, France as expected, Germany, Australia, Korea, Japan, United States — all over the place really,” says Sarah.
While she enjoyed her fellow companions, “Most of the people on that trip seemed lost,” says Sarah. “They didn’t know what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.”
Sarah agreed with their using the pilgrimage to try to find a solution to their life problems.
“It’s a good way to relax and mellow down.”
Martin’s belief in miracles became more concrete during this trip. “I discovered something I suspected for a long time. Miracles still happen.”
He gave a prime example.
As they were leaving France, they stopped at a bakery and got a loaf of bread. Three doors down sitting in the window of a little shop was a shot glass, something Sarah wanted to buy in France.
“That was the first one we had seen so we walked in and the shot glass was 75 cents,” says her father.
Martin dug in his pockets and came up with 72 cents. So he stuck his hand in the other pocket and found nothing. His wallet was gone.
They dashed back to the bakery and sure enough, it was there.
“But if the shot glass had not been there, I would have gone to Spain leaving the wallet behind – the cards, the money, identification, everything.”
It’s a miracle
Someone told him he was lucky. Martin countered, “I call it a miracle. If I had the right change, I would never have looked into the other pocket for the wallet.”
The father and daughter are telling their stories just a month after returning from their pilgrimage.
Sarah is asked what the trip gave to her.
A long pause as memories of the endurance flooded her face.
“My legs got stronger.” And she laughs. “I think I probably matured. But spiritually? Nothing mind-boggling. Just little steps.”
For Martin, the day-to-day routine “set me back very strongly. But within two to three years I will have gotten rid of all things I identified as being superfluous.”
Sarah will begin her studies for a bachelor of education majoring in math and theatre at Faculté Saint-Jean in January.
But both are united in a mission.
What they want to do is develop a series of presentations about their pilgrimage to encourage people to make their own pilgrimage and take their experiences to audiences and classes throughout the archdiocese.
Martin explains why.
“Most people get into a car and it is at 100 miles an hour that nature will come at them. They concentrate on driving. There (on the walk), we are going at three to four kilometres an hour. Nature is coming at you and you have time to absorb.
“That tree that takes 10 seconds of a time when you are driving, it gets closer and closer to you. And then you can even look at it from the other side if you want to.”
“You are walking in the morning, the moon just doesn’t go away that quickly.”
But the pilgrimage is, of course, more than that.
“You can have all kinds of reasons to do the walk and all kinds of reasons to start, but I think at the end, you end up with a different reason for being there,” states Martin.
His journal showed that.
“At the beginning it was very practical,” describes Martin.
“But towards the end, I couldn’t even write.
“I was just immersed.”