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These two young French pilgrims spent a year walking to Jerusalem


Courtesy of Benoit Garnier and Ophélie Dechancé

John Burger - published on 04/04/20

They traveled by foot from their native France to the Holy Land, living on little more than the generosity of strangers.

“We are all a little bit pilgrims, all our lives,” says Benoit Garnier.

Garnier might be speaking metaphorically, but for one very intense year, he and friend Ophélie Dechancé were very much literal pilgrims, on a trek by foot from their native France to the Holy Land.

Ophélie, who is from Paris, and Garnier, from Besancon, left from Eastern France in the summer of 2018. Almost a year later, they passed through the ancient walls of Jerusalem, having lived on little more than the generosity of strangers along the way.

The mendicants, both in their 20s, had met briefly while studying in Strasbourg — he engineering and she speech therapy. But it wasn’t until Ophélie responded to Garnier’s online query about people who might be interested in the pilgrimage that they got reacquainted.

Courtesy of Benoit Garnier and Ophélie Dechancé

Garnier started thinking about Jerusalem while hiking the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain in 2017. Coincidentally, Ophélie had also been thinking of hiking to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage.

“Seven or eight years ago, I was thinking of going backpacking to discover the world, and I wasn’t very comfortable with that idea because I was thinking something like, ‘Okay that’s great to go backpacking, but is it only for yourself? Where is God in that project?’” she explained in an interview. “So I decided to wait, and after one year working I decided to go to Jerusalem.”

A friend of hers asked if there was a dream she wanted to realize. “And as a joke, I said, ‘Yes, I want to walk to Jerusalem.’”

Whether it was a fluke at first, she soon became obsessed with the idea. “So I decided to start informing myself, but I didn’t tell anyone about it, not to my friends, not to my family,” she said. ”I had two jobs. I had a flat. I had a lot of good friends in Strasbourg, and it was difficult for me to say to people ‘Hey, you know what, I might leave everything and go walking to Jerusalem.’

“So I just prayed to meet someone else or maybe two other people to walk with me,” she continued. “I waited two years — maybe one year praying.”

Then Garnier’s Facebook post popped up.

“We met maybe six years ago and maybe spoke together 10 minutes about a dream of hiking, and after that we forgot about it,” Ophélie ecalled.

“I contacted five friends, and among them was Ophélie,” said Garnier. “I thought maybe she would know someone who would like to go with me to Jerusalem.”

After coming to an agreement to do the walk together, they began preparations at the end of January 2018. They left five and a half months later.

Courtesy of Benoit Garnier and Ophélie Dechancé

They discovered that a walking pilgrimage to the city where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead is an ancient tradition. Among the many people who have undertaken it is St. Francis of Assisi. The chapel of the Poor Clares convent near Besancon from which Garnier and Ophélie commenced their walk, coincidentally, had a fresco showing both Besancon and Jerusalem.

As if that weren’t enough, the Gospel reading on the day they departed, July 15, was of Jesus sending his apostles out and saying “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick. … Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave.“

”We had the desire to go without money, to trust in Providence,” Garnier said. “We hesitated a lot.”

They did take a credit card, however. “We were not so comfortable with the idea of going without money, but on the second day, we prayed with the Gospel, and it was part of the pilgrimage: ’Trust me for every day. Do not think of tomorrow,’” Ophélie said.

But a route was part of their planning. “For the countries we would cross, as much as possible we took information about which part we could go and how we would cross the borders and the main cities of our trip. So when we left we knew that we had an itinerary that was okay,” Garnier said.

Their road wended southward through Eastern France, Switzerland, past Turin, toward Rome and eventually to Bari. There, they sailed to Durres, Albania.

They took a tent along with them, with a view of asking people if they could pitch it on their property and whether they might have some leftover food to share. They found that in rural areas, there was a “spirit of giving and even solidarity.” People were friendly and open to their requests.

Courtesy of Benoit Garnier and Ophélie Dechancé

“Most of the time they accepted us, and when they said ‘No,’ they were kind,” Garnier said. “Also, in countries where we didn’t speak the language, people saw us and just didn’t ask questions; they just understood that we needed food, and they gave it and were happy. They wanted to meet us.”

And when the pair told people what they were doing, they encountered surprise.

“By foot?” people would exclaim.

“It was different in different cultures,” Ophélie said. “I think Italians easily understood. But lots of people were very surprised — just to imagine that we walked all that way from our house to their house.”

The overland trek continued eastward through North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. From the south coast of Turkey, they sailed to Cyprus, and from there to Lebanon, thereby avoiding troubled Syria.

The journey was also, in a way, a liturgical pilgrimage. In Western Europe, it was much easier for the two to find Sunday Mass, but as they traveled East, walking up to 30 kilometers a day, that got spotty, although in some places, such as Bulgaria, they were able to attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy.

Courtesy of Benoit Garnier and Ophélie Dechancé

“It was really interesting to discover that kind of liturgy,” said Ophélie.

Their daily trek consisted of both walking together and walking separately, praying the Rosary or meditating in silence, stopping in a church or somewhere convenient (including a mosque on one particularly cold day) to read the Gospel.

Asked about highlights of the pilgrimage, the two said it was more interesting to speak about people they met along the way, such as a young Syriac Christian from Turkey who had been on a pilgrimage of her own to Assisi. “I will wait for you in Istanbul,” she told them.

Close to Christmas, the two were in North Macedonia. The outside temperatures were the worst they had during the trip, and the pilgrims got sick. The local population was mostly Muslim and Orthodox who follow the Julian calendar and would celebrate Christmas on January 6.

“So we were about to not celebrate Christmas,” Ophélie said. “It would be sad. When we were praying, I asked, ‘Oh please God, give us a family for Christmas.’ And it was on Christmas Day that we were advised by people there’s a Croat community there. We knocked on a door and found a family with nine children. It was really God’s answer.”

A week after leaving Plovdiv, Bulgaria, a French priest they had met there emailed them that two young women came through on their own pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

”We didn’t know that they would also cross Turkey, and we met them at a Mass at Mary’s house in Ephesus,” near Selçuk district, İzmir Province, Turkey.

Courtesy of Benoit Garnier and Ophélie Dechancé

The four walked together for three weeks.

“For them also it was difficult, because in Turkey, people didn’t understand why two girls would be walking by themselves,” Garnier observed. “‘Surely they are prostitutes,’ they thought.” People were asking them for sex. Around the cities, they had difficulty, especially İzmir, which is a holiday destination.”

From Lebanon, the pilgrims flew to Jordan, but again hit terra firma so they could climb Mt. Nebo, Like Moses, they could get a view of the “Promised Land” from that summit.

Taking the Jordan River border crossing, they proceeded south to Jerusalem, and descended the Mount of Olives to the Holy City.

“Just a moment before we decided to go down, we met two men who were so excited because one of them just became a father,” said Ophélie. “I really felt at that moment that my joy was real to arrive in Jerusalem, but that there are lots of other kinds of joy.”

The date was June 8, which was not only the end of the Jewish Sabbath, it also happened to be that year the end of Muslim Ramadan — and the Vigil of Pentecost. For Ophélie, the unplanned arrival date “was really a great thank you, like God saying …”

“‘I scheduled it,’” said Garnier, finishing her thought.

“We arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and started to say the names of everyone we met and those who asked for prayers,” Ophélie said. “We maybe spent an hour and a half just doing that, and lighting candles for people who  gave us money for that.”

Now, almost a year later, it might not be the best time to travel, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to sicken and kill people all over the world. Indeed, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and many other objects of pilgrimage are closed indefinitely. But for Ophélie, the undertaking was an exercise in trust.

“For me, the more you trust, the more you receive,” she said. “I trusted just a little bit, but was given so much more for my little bit of trust.”

A lesson, perhaps, for a world suddenly thrust into fear.

As Benoit Garnier says, “We are all pilgrims all our lives.”

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