Paris offered us one more fierce lashing yesterday, rain gushing through gutters and gargoyles before settling down into something approximating April weather (it is in fact mid-June). Romantic songs notwithstanding, one does not go to Paris for the weather certainly not this summer anyway. Since our last few days were more or less on our own (barring a wonderful morning service at the American Cathedral – a beautiful welcoming place thanks to Dean Laird and her terrific staff and superb choir), I had time to follow my own quirky passions.
This began (the day before) with my usual Paris pilgrimage to the Cluny Museum – the best collection of medieval artifacts in Paris. Among the things I love about the Cluny (so called because it was the Paris home of the Commendatory Abbots of Cluny – who would in my opinion have been better employed tending to matters back at their Abbey in Burgundy) is that it was built to be lived in and so the exhibits seem to belong in a way they often do not in regular museums. Back in the mists of time, before Christ, there were Roman baths in this place, and very impressive ones too which one can still see. Over the centuries the building has undergone many changes. Today, standing close to the Sorbonne, it remains a superb example of blended Gothic and Renaissance domestic architecture.
Most visitors to the Cluny Continue reading Last Days in Paris
Eternally beautiful but ever-changing, when I first saw Chartres Cathedral in the mid 1960s it was almost black. Today one might, with no disrespect intended, call it “shades of gray” with some startlingly white and black patches. The latter according to some being the remaining filth of ages, 800 years of it: others might call it the patina that gave this sacred place deep mystery. Someone once described the interior of the Cathedral as “the womb of God” – the church is after all dedicated to Mary, the Holy Mother. I have always thought of it that way – a safe, dark (though not always warm!) place to hang out and just be. When I offered a mild complaint about the recent clean up, an understanding friend commented “as if your beloved grandmother had just got a face lift!” Yes, that’s it exactly! So let’s get the complaints over with before moving on. Disappointed again to find the sublime labyrinth was covered for the second year in a row and surrounded by scaffolding – which admittedly they are in the process of pulling down with resounding sound effects!
But we are on pilgrimage and our ever-creative leader urged us to enter into the new spirit of the place by asking these questions of ourselves with the invitation to pray about whatever came up for us as we sat and pondered the mystery of it all – the still beautiful, the ugly, the eternal and the impermanent:
What is it in your life that is being renewed?
Is there something that needs to be repaired or restored?
Adding this quote from Isaiah as further encouragement:
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
“Not yet,” I answered!
The nave of Chartres “under restoration”, Continue reading Chartres
Another missing thread of our pilgrimage – in fact several million threads. This woven tapestry, a miracle of survival from the mid-11th century, once girded the magnificent nave of Bayeux Cathedral (consecrated in 1077) and tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 (a date known to every English schoolchild). Since it was commissioned by the half brother of Duke William of Normandy – the Conquerer himself – who was then Bishop of Bayeux, it is hardly surprising that the perspective favors the Normans. Also somewhat galling is the fact that the Cathedral was largely paid for by English money exacted by the said Bishop from his new fiefdom of Kent, and that this 230 ft work of art was sewn by English women (presumably nuns). If you look closely at the tapestry they did manage to get a few digs in at the Normans and the English King Harold himself, although killed in the battle, is shown in a surprisingly favorable light (for example rescuing Norman Knights who were about to drown in the quicksands around Mont Saint Michel). This naturally was before he and Duke William fell out over who should be King of England but says something about Harold’s character.
Duke William lands Continue reading The Bayeux Tapestry
Just picking up a few missing threads from our pilgrimage as we leave the ancient but extremely wet duchy of Normandy. Of the great Benedictine Abbey of Jumièges only ruins remain, but splendid ruins nevertheless. It is hard to imagine what evil spirit caused the vandalism that tore these ancients stones apart less than two and half centuries ago. Something to ponder as we gasp in horror at the destruction visited by Isis today against even more ancient treasures.
Shadows are falling over the mud flats that form a crescent to east of the island. But it will be a long time before the sun sets and the tide rushes in “like galloping horses” as Victor Hugo, with some exaggeration, described these often treacherous waters. Mont Saint Michel for me remains a place of shadows and light.
Nothing of Joan of Arc remains in Rouen today – no tomb, no reliquary, not a scrap of clothing or even a contemporary likeness. Only her shaky signature “Jehanne” on the document this 19 year old illiterate peasant girl was forced to sign under threat of immediate execution denying that she had been sent by God to liberate France – a denial she almost immediately withdrew. “Everything I said” (in that document) “I said for fear of the fire,” she told her judges. They burned her anyway then ordered that her charred body be re-burned and her ashes scattered in the Seine so that no vestige of her remained to inspire contemporary and future generations. In this her enemies failed miserably. Joan’s spirit is everywhere in Rouen today and has become a symbol of courage, integrity and commitment to God and cause in the face of unimaginable odds way beyond the shores of her beloved France.
In the lovely contemporary Church dedicated to Joan stands one of the most moving statues of her at the stake – on one side the flames, on the other what appears to be angel wings carrying her to heaven. Twenty years after her execution Joan was totally exonerated by the Church of the crimes of which she was accused – heresy, witchcraft, idolatry and the list goes on. In 1920, she was declared a saint by the Catholic Church.
Ancient capital of Normandy. I was awoken this morning at 4 am by the sound of screeching seagulls. What are they doing here, nearly 60 miles from the coast, and at this hour? Then I thought of the Vikings stealing up the River Seine in their longships 1200 years ago, raiding, raping and pillaging – and no doubt screeching too. Eventually tiring of this activity, these Norsemen settled down in places like Rouen around the first millennium and became the Normans. After about an hour the seagulls fell silent too and the sounds of dawn were taken up by cooing doves! And then sometime later the seagulls came back and other birds joined in the cacophony. It seemed to me a fitting choral commentary on Rouen’s turbulent history in the midst of what has sometimes been called “the cockpit of Europe.”
More romantically, Rouen has been called “the city of a hundred spires” (Victor Hugo) and indeed there are an impressive number of churches in the ancient heart of the city – 3 within paces of our hotel: the Cathedral, the equally impressive church of Saint Maclou and Monastery of Saint Ouen, all stunning examples of flamboyant Gothic architecture.
Continue reading Rouen. . .
Those of you following the international news will know that this is a rough month to be in France, whether as a pilgrim or a tourist. (What is the difference? According to Phil Cousineau in his terrific book The Art of Pilgrimage, it has something to do with the difference between passing through a place and allowing a place to pass through you).
Not only has the weather been wretched, with the Seine river overflowing its banks from Paris to Rouen and beyond due to the heaviest June rainfall since the 1870s, but also because of the French Unions’ decision to stage one of their (in)famous month-long strikes – so far only go-slows – thus holding the rest of Europe’s transportation systems hostage. It’s tempting to complain! But, as usual, France manages to redeem itself Continue reading Pre-Pilgrimage Prep
Far from the Madding Crowd at 65 Rue D’Orsay inside the American Church are two amazingly beautiful windows designed in the late 1920s by the great Louis Comfort Tiffany. Who knew? Well some folk obviously do but when we visited this afternoon the place was deserted. Actually it was locked but my buddy and I must have looked so woebegone since we had made a “pilgrimage” on foot all the way from the far end of the Latin Quarter to visit these windows that the guardienne took pity on us and let us in. There we spent a few wonderful Continue reading Hidden Treasures in Paris
May 30th. Joan of Arc’s saint’s day – that was yesterday and I’m sorry Joan, I forgot. To be fair it was absolutely lashing with rain in Paris and if it had been this wet in Rouen 585 years ago those bastards who sent you to the stake (unfortunately the English) would never have got that fire going. But here she is, exonerated from the charges of witchcraft (just because she beat the English) and heresy (because she claimed to have heard voices from God – and also beat the English) standing tall holding her banner emblazoned with the Cross of Lorraine in no less a place than Notre Dame de Paris. A woman of true courage and integrity born in a time when women were supposed to have neither. She was only 19.