A spiritual journey in the Massif Central hits home

Jesuit Charles Wright’s beautiful meditation on life and God has become a surprise success in France

Last year, a French friend sent me a copy of Charles Wright’s Le chemin des estives (roughly translated as Walking Through Mountain Pastures), thinking, rightly, that it would appeal to me. Published in 2021 and partly written during the Covid crisis, it is a beautiful meditation on life and God. It recounts Wright’s experience as a Jesuit scholastic of being dropped off with a companion, Benoît Parsac, in a village in the Massif Central with virtually no money, no phone or access to the internet, with the instruction that they must walk 700km through the mountainous terrain while depending on charity and their resourcefulness to survive.

Towards the beginning of their adventure, Charles notes how Catholicism in France no longer speaks to the vast majority of the population, who rarely attend Mass or receive the sacraments – I was struck by the resemblance between this and what is happening in Ireland. When the two scholastics arrive at an ornate church in a small village, it strikes Charles that in the future visitors to these buildings will be like anthropologists marvelling at the practices of a strange tribe. They will scrutinise the iconography on the walls, the pews where people used to kneel before statues of revered figures of the Christian tradition and they will wonder: What sort of cult were these people part of?

I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s poem, Church Going, where he visits a church out of curiosity, not faith, and imagines a time when even faith’s poor relation, superstition, has died out:

“And what remains when disbelief has gone?/ Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,/ A shape less recognizable each week,/ A purpose more obscure.”


In a similar vein, when observing the astounding beauty all around them, Charles asks Parsac if the word God itself is not a desecration? After all, true love involves going beyond language, images, beyond the very idea of the divine. It would appear as though the journey through the mountains and having the time to reflect on existence is pushing Charles to re-evaluate his relationship with God – just as his Jesuit superiors would have wished. He begins to doubt if it is even a good idea to follow blindly the rules of a religious order. The true Christian path, he believes, demands first of all knowing and being true to oneself, which is an essential prelude to discovering God.

The reaction of the people they approach looking for bread and accommodation shows the degree to which one is nearly always judged on appearances. The bearded, dishevelled young men arriving on their doorsteps initially inspire fear. Doors are opened to them only after Wright and his companion begin explaining the purpose of their expedition and the villagers discover that these two men are cultured, intelligent individuals, who are capable of conversing knowledgably about philosophy, politics and literature.

The most likely place to find an unconditional welcome is in the presbyteries attached to churches, where the (mostly elderly) priests are quick to see beyond the shabby appearance of the new arrivals and to suspect that they are embarked on a spiritual quest. Charles is encouraged by the humility that characterises the priests they encounter. Like Jesus, they do not judge and the meals they provide are simple expressions of Christian charity, a type of Eucharist in effect.

The important thing about Le chemin des estives is the manner in which the journey of Charles and Benoît becomes the reader’s own journey. The two men are different personalities and inevitably have some heated exchanges, but equally they depend on one another to keep going, to finish the quest that their superiors have set for them. Charles regularly quotes from Rimbaud and de Foucauld, whose mysticism consisted of forgetting about themselves and being open to the words of others, often making them their own.

At the end of their journey, Charles and Benoît find themselves in a monastery where the chanting of the monks achieves a type of transcendence. The two men have travelled a long distance, but the journey has been as much spiritual as physical. Charles realises that his character is not suited to being part of a religious order. Benoît, on the other hand, decides to stay with the Jesuits.

The huge success in France of Wright’s description of his rediscovery of the joys of nature through disconnecting from the global community and embarking on a spiritual odyssey is not surprising when one considers the growing awareness of the vulnerability of the planet due to the climate crisis and the diminution of traditional religious faith.

Wright notes towards the end of his book that a successful existence is not necessarily a busy one, that true happiness can equally be found in whiling away hours carelessly, truly ‘seeing’ the beauty all around us, listening to the silence. When an English translation of this book comes out (as it inevitably will), it will be widely read and appreciated, as it reflects the obvious need people feel for spiritual sustenance in an increasingly secular world, something which is as evident in contemporary Ireland as it is in France.

Eamon Maher is a lecturer at TU Dublin