The Spirit shows us reality in ways we never dreamed

  • July 26, 2007
On a trip to France I had a weekend in Paris, which meant serious decisions about what to visit and what to leave out. After Notre Dame, I went to nearby Sainte Chapelle, advertised as having the best stained glass in the country. Stained glass was not a particular interest of mine, but the day was sunny and the destination close.
It’s difficult to convey the glory of that chapel. A Gothic stone structure of the 13th century, it was like walking inside a living jewel. Visitors were still on earth, but earth transformed, lit up and glowing, so that we too felt lit up and transcendent. The whole place seemed made of glorious stained glass windows, and each of those windows told a radiant story, or rather many stories, of the ways the divine has been present on earth and earthly beings present to the divine.

The place was built by Louis IX as a reliquary, to house bits of Christ’s cross and crown of thorns. During the Revolution, it suffered considerably; at one point the stained glass was removed to storage and the chapel used to store state archives.  As so often happens, the love of God, and the intimacy between God and humans, were submerged by politics and by the human desire to be in control. I imagined those windows, and the stories they told, shut up in a dark space, silenced, for it was the touch of sunlight that brought them to life. 

What an appropriate symbol for the revolutionaries to replace the revered things of the Christian faith with the records of the state, in keeping with their reverence for reason. Taking over the home of the symbols of Christ’s suffering for humanity, they made it a home for the symbols of human order. Beauty was destroyed so that reason might be worshipped.

The image of that glorious lighted place deliberately rendered dark and plain, and the crown of thorns replaced by state archives, has stayed with me. Need the light of reason, of human endeavour and achievement, knowledge and discovery, be at odds with the light of faith? 

Where does faith fit into the workings of human life? How does the unprovable, the spiritual, stand up against the measurable, the knowable — things which our own age so reveres? 

 I remember a teacher’s dry remark while planning a school retreat. It was being debated how much time ought to be allowed for prayer and reflection, and how much left for meals, recreation and socializing. This teacher thought the students should have very little prayer and spiritual time “inflicted” on them. Someone responded there needed to be time for the Holy Spirit, to which the teacher replied:  “there’s the Holy Spirit, and then there’s reality.”

It may seem that things of the faith, finding meaning in suffering, life beyond death, our own inner life, the world of the Spirit, are somehow outside reality. Paying the mortgage, overcoming physical sickness, maintaining our systems — these are at times overwhelmingly real and leave little space for anything else. The glorious, the transcendent, gets shut into dark corners of our lives, like the stained glass of Sainte Chapelle in its two-metre storage space. 

In a more obscure part of 19th-century France, while those windows were locked away from the light, a peasant boy was trying to study hard enough to achieve his dream of becoming a priest. Success was doubtful, because he had great difficulties with academic studies, especially Latin. He was of “average intellect” in an era that deified reason. Only a few recognized that his understanding, wisdom and insight were extraordinary. By sheer hard work, and the help of mentors who didn’t give up on him, he was able to reach ordination. 

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was sent to Ars, a tiny nowhere village, because he was a tiny nowhere priest. This academically challenged boy, poor in worldly things, unimportant and uninvolved in “real” things like economics or politics, soon became one of the most sought-after people in France. He became known as a brilliant confessor, to whom anyone could take their troubles however big or small, and they would be held and transformed. He drew people to prayer; he was a presence of compassion and insight; he brought the touch of the Spirit, healing both bodies and hearts. It’s said he spent 16 hours daily in the confessional, as people came to him from all over France and, eventually, from other countries.

He’s known for having remained simple, childlike and transparent to God — not the qualities we associate with success, but the qualities that made people seek him out. God’s own work of art, he did not allow himself to be hidden away in the dark, but received the light and gave it away, transforming the ordinary into the splendid. John Vianney let his faith light up the world in which he lived. There’s the Holy Spirit, showing us reality in ways we never dreamed possible.

Aug. 4, feast of John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars.