I was on vacation for two weeks and then just got out of the habit of posting my sermons. Jessica, Silas and I traveled around Belgium and France a bit. This blog is no travelogue, but a few observations and experiences are relevant. First, the remarkable reminder in many historic sites of the mostly disturbing, but occasionally inspiring or just excusable, integration of religion and rule. In Angers we visited the chateau (central castle), noting the impressive chapel. This was already an exclusive enough sacred space–not just anyone could waltz into the castle and go to church. Nonetheless, the Duke enjoyed his private side chamber for undisturbed worship. In Paris we returned to Sainte-Chapelle, the gorgeous royal chapel in the heart of Paris. This time I noticed the way the ceiling downstairs and elsewhere were festooned with the fleur-de-lis, the royal symbol. Jessica and I also discussed the evident fallacy that stained glass windows would have taught the illiterate Scripture. While the windows are fabulous, one could hardly glean a coherent narrative by looking at them alone. One would have to have a literate education in Scripture first, and then be familiar with the common tropes and symbols signaling particular stories, to be able to make the windows legible. We also visited the keep and chapel at Vincennes outside Paris. This 13th-14th century structure was built in imitation of Sainte-Chapelle, apparently to capitalize on its prestige. Here was an even more exclusive, massive chapel for the king and his guests. The keep, now beautifully refinished (it was closed when I lived briefly in Paris), was fascinating, going in the course of a few hundred years to the residence of the king to a prison for the king’s enemies. One could almost call that hospitality!
I attended an impressive service at the Reformed Church of France in Angers. The first hymns strike a somber tone. The pastor was relaxed but gave a thoughtful, well-developed sermon without reading from a text. Communion was in a style I had witnessed in Paris: the congregation gathers in a circle around the choir or sanctuary and passes the elements down the line. The small church was nearly full, a beautiful mix of upper-middle class white Angevins and others of international descent.
Finally, we went with my friend Alexandre to see the Collegial Saint-Martin. This is a medieval church built on the remains of a 4th century church, presumably used to train priests. But the existence of the structure was virtually forgotten for centuries, converted into commercial space and covered over by a facade. It was discovered in the 20th century and restored in the 1990s, beautifully. It was fascinating to follow the reflections on the restoration posted in pithy quotes from the restorers and architects posted on the walls. It was evident that they were not sure to do with this long dead sacred space, replete with layers of history, of death and rebirth. But they all shared a vague sense that something here was special and worth preserving.
Religion has become such a puzzle to us. It’s footprints are still so omnipresent, nowhere less than in France, but we walk so differently now. Are these remains testaments to the footsteps of giants, or the stumblings of a religion drunk on power, wearing shoes too big for its feet?