I didn’t know what I was looking for when I stumbled across the old, medieval town of Provins tucked into a hillside about 90 minutes outside of Paris. I am not even sure I was looking for anything in particular. I might have just been glad that we made it there in one piece, with my brother driving myself and my family along the two-lane highway that curved through fields practically radiating the bright yellow of rapeseed flowers in full bloom, past idyllic villages huddled around tall, old parish churches, under an overcast and threatening afternoon sky. I’m an American, so I’m pretty sure I’ve been marketed too a bit too much. I assumed I would walk up to this medieval town and see a bunch of French people dressed in gaudy Renaissance attire trying to sell my hot turkey legs. I’m also thoroughly American in that I often lose the sense of mystery that one ought to have when engaging the wider world. I think that is why I get so easily lost in books – because for a few briefs pages and moments I can step into new world, meet new people, and imagine a world past the limitation of my own perspective.
I wanted to get lost in Provins for other reasons too – Baltimore. To be fair, it is not simply the City of Baltimore that makes me want to hide out for a while, it is everything around it. It is the riot, or protest, or uprising depending on who you talk to. It is the conversation (actually shouting match – a conversation would be an upgrade) literally dripping with vitriol and self-righteousness from several sides. It is the depiction of six police officers evenly distributed between white and black that throws in a wrench in the too-often-oversimplified, rather complicated racial narrative. It is my own frustration with the smallness and shakiness of my own voice within a crowded and angry room. It is my own anger with God that we are still having these same conversations year after year – not conversations about Civil Rights or police brutality, but conversations about how to love one’s neighbor and who constitutes neighbor in the first place.
So as I carelessly wound my way though meandering streets in the light afternoon rain, I imagined myself in a different world – sure it was a world that had its own problems like plague and extreme economic exploitation of the poor, but a different world nonetheless (come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t so different after all). I imagined the people that would have built these walls and occupied these homes. I imagined the lives lived and lost. I imagined what knowledge of the world resonate within the stones of this old city.
And then I stumbled into the Collegiate Church of Saint-Quiriace in the middle of Mass. The small congregation was huddled in the choir of this enormous, stone edifice. The muffled voice of the old priest reverberated throughout the cavernous interior so much so that I could not tell what was really going on. All I could see what that he and the entire congregation was kneeling before the altar, which bore a monstrance displaying the Blessed Sacrament. The very protestant among you might think of this as idolatry. The very secular among you might think of this as superstitious. For me, it was the presence of Christ that this small community was gathering around. This Church which had stood in this spot since the 1100’s was built during a time when the future looked bright. In fact that monks who started building Saint-Quiriace set out an ambitious goal. Soaring ceilings. Stained Glass. A long nave. And then fortunes changed, political barriers were altered, and trade routes shifted. What was once a boom town went bust and construction had to stop. In fact the massive pulpit located at the back of the stunted nave bears witness to the fact that they had to stop right when they had only begun. The city and the church fell on hard times. Over time the stone pavers on the floor began to crack. The great rose window was lost to a fire centuries ago and was simply a bricked-in circle. The roof was covered with moss and the large dome was home to more pigeons than there were people gathered in the choir below.
And yet this community continued to gather.
For almost 900 years people have prayed in this one spot – through war and peace, famine and plenty, schism and reformation, good priests and bad ones, huge congregations and small gatherings. They’ve continued to gather around the Risen Christ which has borne witness to God’s constant presence throughout time and space wherever the faithful community has gathered.
I needed to experience that today, even if I couldn’t understand a word that was spoken in that space. I needed to see walls saturated with the prayers of thanksgiving, lamentation, and awe that have surely filled that place. I needed to see centuries old liturgy done in a space almost one thousand years old. I needed to see the presence of the Risen Christ displayed on an old, marble altar in the center of a dilapidated, old church built to the glory of God. I needed to have my heart strangely warmed in the middle of a cold, drafty building. I needed to see the perfect Blessed Sacrament, entrusted to imperfect people gathered in an imperfect space and to behold the beauty of that moment and the sacredness of that holy juxtaposition. I needed to hear God in the muffled voices of this small congregation singing in French, or Latin, or Twi for all I know. I needed to see God in song and broken stone, in immaculate vestments and in humble bread. I needed to experience a faith that is not talking or doing, but simply being, and that being perfectly okay.
I will surely have to come down from the mountain (or out of the French countryside, as it were) and return, for the Master has need of me. I will have to hear the cacophany of “liberal” Christian attempting to wrest Jesus from “conservatives” and vice versa. I will have to engage in difficult conversations about what the Church is called to be and do “in times like these.” I will need to discern what Baltimore, Ferguson, and Tel Aviv mean for the Church and God’s mission that propels us onward. I will need to figure out what “love your neighbor” means in our present discourse. I will need to wrestle with what constitutes neighborliness to everyone.
But for now I will simply take a few moments to breathe and listen.
And I will try to remember a God who laid the foundations of the world, and of old churches, the one who speaks through stones which have rolled away, stones that have been rejected, and stones that have been broken is still speaking if we would but pause long enough to just wander.