Touring France is a spiritual journey

By  Larry Archer, Catholic Register Special
  • August 29, 2008

{mosimage}Our family spent 25 days in France this summer kayaking down the Rhone, climbing the Eiffel Tower, lying on the beach and feasting on French food and drink.

As fun as all this sounds, some of the most satisfying moments of our trip were watching our two girls (ages 12 and 10) form a deeper appreciation of their Catholic heritage.

Canada has largely excised spiritual art and architecture from the public domain. Yet in France, where fewer than 10 per cent of the population attends weekly church services, the country’s glorious religious past is never far from view. Cathedrals and churches stand at the centre of every town and city. They’re open all day, every day, unlike here in many cases, and with none of the pesky admission charges found in Italy.

Apart from Mass times, visitors are free to roam, whisper and photograph these incredible vessels of art and architecture. The Blessed Sacrament is usually reserved in a side chapel or apse, with a sign denoting the area as one of silence and prayer, a request we found to be universally honoured in the course of our stay.

French hills, roadsides and cliffs are dotted with crucifixes and small shrines, and at the cemeteries and memorials honouring the dead of the Great War, a slumping, bloodied figure of Christ on the cross often keeps a solitary vigil.

In France, size matters, or at least it once did. The smallest towns routinely have churches that are larger than our own beautiful parish church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in midtown Toronto (no slouch in that regard).

After visiting one of these architectural and spiritual marvels our youngest daughter said, “Dad, no offense to OLPH, which is really nice, but when I go back, it’s not going to seem nearly as big.”

No it won’t. A harder point to grasp for a 10-year-old, though, is the bloody history that often accompanied the building of these magnificent churches and abbeys.

Starting with the Albigensian heresy in the 13th century and carrying on into the Protestant Reformation and French Revolution, France endured centuries of religious strife. These citadels of faith were often also places of defence and refuge during periods of intense religious rivalry and warfare.

That’s why in Cathar country we talked about Catholics fighting Catholics (sort of) as we toured the massive red brick fortress cathedral at Albi, perched on the side of the river Tarn like the Queen Mary at dockside. Yet inside, Rome clearly wants the Cathars to understand once again the Christian story. The interior is soft and elegant, with murals and arches floating skyward, courtesy of Italian artists and craftsmen who were in the vanguard of the Renaissance.

In Huguenot country, near Cognac, we talked about Catholics fighting Protestants as we stayed in a 400-year-old Protestant farmhouse whose escape tunnels into the hills to flee religious intolerance were still visible and, thankfully, no longer necessary.

And in a small town near Lyons, as we stayed in a chateau which has been in the same aristocratic family for 375 years, we talked about the French fighting each other. The chateau may have survived the French Revolution, but many family members did not. They went to the guillotine, and a private chapel on the grounds was seized and never returned. It has since been deconsecrated.

I don’t know if my daughters are old enough to reconcile the peace and love of Christianity today with its often bloody past. And I don’t know if the brooding medieval abbeys and soaring Gothic cathedrals will be among the sights and sounds of France they most remember.

But in keeping these symbols of Catholic, Christian and Western civilization open and in good repair, France is doing future generations a favour. For these are no longer churches that divide. Rather, they unite us all in wonder at humanity’s striving for beauty in this life — and meaning in the next.

(Archer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.)

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