Travel has always held spiritual qualities. The ritual act of leaving the familiarity of home tends to naturally open up our human spirit to experience the wonderment, awe, and the mystery of God as it is revealed through the people, places, and things of new and exciting destinations.
“On Holiday with God” is a unique and innovative travel ministry, created by Mayslake Ministries, which invites you on the journey of a lifetime as you come to know God in new and exciting ways! As the executive director of this non-profit Catholic/Christian organization located in Chicago’s western subject of Downer’s Grove, I know firsthand the power of finding God through the spiritual journey of travel.
Working with Suzette Horyza, professional tour guide for American Tours in Grayslake, Illinois, the travel ministry takes tourists to beautiful and exotic places of interest, while inviting participants to set aside time in their daily agenda’s for personal prayer and spiritual reflection.
“On Holiday with God” employs a variety of creative ways for people to pray including scripture passages, music, and journaling, walking, sightseeing and quiet time. All of the tours offered by Mayslake Ministries are aimed at integrating one’s love of travel with one’s love of God. These are not pilgrimages, but rather secular trips that invite the seeker in all of us to rediscover God in the world around us.
Last summer I had the blessed opportunity to accompany nineteen travelers as we went “On Holiday with God” to Paris, Normandy, and the Loire Valley. The day before our long-awaited departure from O’Hare Airport, the entire Chicago area suffered a biblical rain which flooded out a majority of the neighborhoods and suburbs of our would-be travelers. Despite our Noah’s Ark adventure, all of us miraculously made it to the plane on time the next day!
Landing in Paris on a sun soaked morning, a sense of excitement rose within each of us as we journeyed in a motor coach from the airport to the hotel, where after dropping off our luggage, we rocketed our way into the streets of Paris with hearts open for adventure, excitement, and transformation, and we were not disappointed.
Over the course of the next eight days, I witnessed a wonderful transformation as these nineteen strangers gradually become friends. As with any friendship, some relationships were closer than others, but we all became friends nonetheless.
Day after day we broke bread together, sharing stories of our common adventures while sipping wonderful local vintages. We explored breathtaking destinations, and marveled at magnificent landscapes, all of us savoring these memories for a lifetime. Some took part in the on-going ritual of shopping for the perfect souvenir in an effort to bring these wonderful experiences home to family and friends.
Whether we were cruising down the Seine River by moonlight, ascending the majestic Eiffel Tower for a breathtaking glimpse of Paris, attending mass at the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame, or enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee at an outdoor café, the city of Paris embraced us with its history, its beauty, and its charm. As we left Paris and journeyed north through the beautiful countryside of France, the springtime fields were bursting forth with meadows of yellow, purples and greens, as if God was painting a masterpiece just for our eyes.
On the third day we journeyed to the sacred site of the beaches of Normandy. The sunshine that had accompanied us for many days suddenly retreated behind ominous grey clouds which cast an aura of appropriate sadness over our excursion. As we walked the hallowed fields of the American cemetery at Omaha Beach, visiting grave after grave, we each in our own way prayed silently for those brave soldiers who gave their life that we might live in freedom. The pathway of the American cemetery took us down to the beach where we stood in silence, reflecting back on a day where the blood of the martyrs was shed for the many. From the youngest to the oldest, we stood in silence, we remembered, and we prayed.
After Omaha Beach, we journeyed to the quaint little French town of Ste. Mere de Eglise, where American paratroopers rained down from the sky on that fateful August 6th night in 1944. As the story goes, one paratrooper by the name of John Steele, caught his parachute on the steeple of the town church, and there he hung for three hours as the enemy fought below him. Twelve men of F-Company were killed, captured, or wounded that night, while John Steele watched in horror from the church steeple, pretending to be dead so as not to be shot. It reminded me of Jesus hanging on the cross for three hours while Satan had his finest hour. Surely the price of our freedom has been truly won by innocent blood.
After a morning of somber remembrance, we were thrilled to have free time for lunch in this charming little town of Ste. Mere de Eglise. Like kids in a candy shop, we delighted in the local bakery showcasing ham and cheese baguettes, pastries, and bottles of local wine. Counting our euros accordingly, we purchased lunch and proceeded to sit outside on nearby park benches. Together, we broke bread and shared wine, symbols of our common faith, yet now the staple of our lunchtime meal! Afterwards we boarded our bus and travelled to Mulberry Harbor, where the seaside landscape of northern France still carries the wounds of D day. Bomb after bomb exploded in these fields, carving out enormous holes in the sacred soil of God’s handiwork of creation. Decades later we now walked as peaceful souls among the crucified craters of the earth.
Leaving behind the backdrop of World War II, we journeyed on to the magnificent Mont St. Michele which towers over the marshes that surround this grand medieval abbey. Tradition holds that this wonder of the western world was created at the request of St. Michael the Archangel in the early Middle Ages. Built over the span of several centuries, this towering Benedictine abbey, complete with a medieval village at its base can been seen from miles away. To reach the abbey, one must climb 300 uneven stone stairs. Of course, we all jumped at this challenge, each one of us secretly wondering if we would be the one who would have to stop because we were too tired to complete this daunting task. Step by step we climbed high into the heavens, stopping along the way to catch our breath, and to photograph the magnificent landscape. At long last, we reached our goal: the top of Mont St. Michele. There before us stood a vista as far as the eye could see of marshland and water. This was truly built to be a protected fortress. We felt blessed to see what so many before us must have found absolutely spectacular. Our tour of the abbey church gave us a wonderful glimpse of life in a medieval monastery. Room after room echoed the muffled voices of those who lived in solitude and prayer so long ago. As we left Mont St. Michele we were honored to have paid our respects to this amazing structure, truly the work of human hands, built to give glory and praise to God.
Moving into the Loire Valley of France, our senses were delighted by the enchanting fairytale castles that dot the countryside. Chateau after chateau stands as a testimony to a lifestyle that would rival the rich and famous of today. Our tour first took us to the final home of Leonardo da Vinci, Clos Luce in Amboise. The student in all of us was awed by the collection of DaVinci’s models of invention which had been painstakingly recreated from his drawings, including the design of an airplane. What God given talents this genius of the Renaissance must have had to envision such wonders in his time.
Travelling through the country sides of the Loire Valley, we stopped to see the Chateau of Catherine deMedici, the stunningly beautiful Chenonceau. This castle is every little girl’s dream complete with a moat, drawbridge and towers. Walking through this architectural masterpiece, I noticed that every room in the castle was arrayed with fresh floral arrangements, a surprisingly beautiful adornment of God’s creation in this centuries old chateau.
Our final destination in the Loire Valley was the royal Chateau de Chambord, the jewel of the French Renaissance. By far it is the most recognizable of all the chateux because of its distinctive architecture. Built as a hunting lodge for King Francois I, some suggest that Leonardo Da Vinci may have had a hand in designing this massive regal structure. One can only imagine the blood, sweat, and tears it took to create this impressive architectural jewel, built over the span of 28 years. What I found delightful is that in each one of these massive and overwhelmingly beautiful chateaux, there was a chapel dedicated to Jesus and his mother, Mary.
After touring three lovely castles, we were treated to a two night stay in our own castle. Living like royals can spoil even the heartiest of travelers. Amidst the remote wooded setting we found a brief respite from the hectic pace of our tour. In some ways our time at this chateau was like a retreat for we were blessed with the tranquility of God’s abundant beauty all around us. As we enjoyed moments of royal recreation, we each experienced a re-creation of our tired selves, for the lovely accommodations beckoned us to rest and relaxation. Each guest room had enormous windows that opened onto the wooded grounds and gardens, where every morning a symphony of singing birds would call us to a new day, a new beginning. At the end of the day, after dining like kings and queens in our chateau, we enjoyed each other’s company while sitting outside in the moonlight of a springtime evening in France. This was one of those moments I knew I would cherish forever.
As we headed back to Paris for the final leg of our holiday, we paid tribute to the pilgrims of yesteryear as we visited the Cathedral of Chartres, a 13th century gothic masterpiece. According to a legend which has been handed down since the middle ages, the cathedral has been the home of a relic of a veil worn by the Blessed Mother as she was about to give birth to Jesus. This holy relic, known as the “Virgin Mary’s Veil” is a magnificent piece of cloth, approximately 17 feet by 18 inches. The Cathedral of Chartres is also home to the Labyrinth, which also dates back to the 13th century. Consisting of enormous concentric circles situated on the main nave of the church, the Labyrinth is a symbolic spiritual road that pilgrims walk to encounter God, who is at the center of the Labyrinth circle. For a brief moment, I felt as one with the thousands of souls who had walked this journey to God over the centuries.
After Chartres, our holiday tour brought us back to Paris. As we boarded our flight home, I had time to reflect on our eight-day sojourn. Touring the countryside by bus gives you a wonderful opportunity to relax and soak in the scenery and the stories. Town after town, village after village, the trees, the houses, the chateaus, steeped in centuries of history and culture, all stand as silent witnesses to the people who lived before us. In some strange way, I feel connected to those whose lands we had visited: the kings, the queens, the dukes and duchesses, the farmers, the laborers, the soldiers, the martyrs, the lovers of life, the lineage of untold humanity tugged at my heartstrings and I was moved by their human struggles and majestic accomplishments.
As my plane landed in Chicago, an overwhelming sense of gratitude came over me for I knew in the depths of my heart that my life was truly enriched and transformed because I had gone “On Holiday with God.”
Copyright 2014 Dr. Mary Amore