Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Last Words from France: a rite of passage

Well, these are possibly not my last words ever from France, a country I have loved since childhood. But for the time being. This summer we went to our beloved hill-top town of Vézelay for one final visit. We have sold the little house I inherited seventeen years ago near the Basilica. Why did we decide to part with it? It seemed like the right time. In retirement it becomes necessary to simplify things.

But there's no denying the sense of loss. Not least the associations it came to acquire of peacefulness, spirituality and retreat, happy memories of family holidays, rites of passage it had been present to in our lives like the marriages of our children, the births of our grandchildren, our retirement, the breaking news of family deaths, the preparation for their funerals. When say farewell to a house you have had a long connection with (in this case, longer than any other I've known), things become charged with symbolism. To take a final cup of coffee in such familiar surrounding, switch off the lights, turn off the boiler, shut the front door, lock it for the last time, get into the car and drive away - what significance those everyday actions suddenly acquire!

I've blogged about Vézelay before. So I won't write about the landscapes of northern Burgundy, its Christian history, the golden limestone churches that adorn the villages, the wines (of course) and our life in the village. But let me say something about the Basilica where we have worshipped so often, and in particular, a carving just outside the north door that seems to me to symbolise life's transitions, not least how we let go, lay aside and travel into a new and unknown future.

The marvellous Basilica of the Madeleine that crowns the hill is one of the treasures of Romanesque architecture in Europe. It is to France what Durham Cathedral is to England, an incomparable masterpiece. In the middle ages pilgrims flocked here both to reverence the relics of Mary Magdalen (long story, that) and to set off on the Camino to Compostela. After the Revolution it been allowed to fall into decay. It was fortunate to find in Viollet le Duc a gifted young architect who set about restoring it - a major commission that brought him fame, fortune and some critical opprobrium too.

The west front was so decayed that much of it had to be completely rebuilt. So only one of the original Romanesque sculptures remains visible on the outside. But that single survivor on the south door jamb of the north portal is highly significant. It depicts Jacob struggling with the angel in the famous story in Genesis.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?”“Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”  Jacob said, “Tell me your name, I pray.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  (Genesis 32.22-30 NRSV). 


It's a mysterious story with many layers of meaning. But the symbolism of placing the sculpted capital right next to the church door helps explain it. It is clearly about travelling across a threshold, facing the risks and uncertainties of transition and liminality. Jacob is facing a journey and an encounter that he knows will be crucial in his life. He needs to be reconciled to his brother Esau from he stole both his birthright and his inheritance. He is all alone, and frightened of this imminent meeting that could prove to bring with it great suffering, even death. The awful journey through water in the dead of night, his struggle with the nameless adversary, his emerging as the sun rose with a new name to mark a new identity, and a limp to remember the ordeal - it all speaks of a rite of passage from one stage of life to the next. Interpret it as you will: Jacob facing his demons and (partially) overcoming them, or encountering God in all his numinous mystery and grace (or both of these) - it is one of the most powerful narratives in the Bible.

The sculpted capital and its story came to mean a lot to me in that final week in our house not many metres down the hill. I kept going back to it to contemplate it and photograph it (difficult to do because it stands, literally and figuratively, at the junction of light and shadow). While not comparing myself to Jacob-Israel, I recognised that even a little rite of passage like saying goodbye to a place and the home you have made there is still an ordeal to be faced up to and travelled across. I guess that it felt significant partly because saying goodbye to my working life as a priest, closing the door of the Deanery at Durham and walking away from the Cathedral and all that it stood for in my life was - still is - all very recent. Just as one bereavement triggers memories of others, so it is with saying farewell to a place and its people and the home you have made there and the friends you have got to know.

And, I have to say, getting on the ferry and leaving France behind did feel like our own personal Brexit. It wasn't of course, and still isn't now that we are back in Britain. But there's no denying that it was often on our minds during our summer on the hill. We frequently discussed it with both French and British friends, the latter mostly expats living in Burgundy, far from certain what the future after Brexit will mean for them. One of them told us about their son's recent visit to the UK in his (French) car. On parking it in a place he knows well in England (I'd better not say where), he realised that his French number plates had drawn attention to the car, and that he was being subjected to a volley of booing and hissing. Is this the generous decent country we were brought up in, the England that has shaped and nurtured us? - that was the unspoken thought. The Referendum was itself a rite of passage for Britain and for Europe, for all of us however we voted, I thought as I gazed on Jacob and the angel. And we have emerged on the other side unhealed, limping badly, more broken than we were before, not with a hope-filled sunrise to walk into but a gloomy sunset to walk away from as it gets dark.

Ah well. We are where we are, in a truly liminal place. But whatever our future in Europe, we are grateful to have glowing memories of our Burgundian adventure to bring with us. On our last day, I wrote to the Mairie and to the Jerusalem brothers and sisters whose spiritual home the Basilica is, to thank them for these wonderful years in Vézelay. It will always have a special place in our hearts. Adieu. And Deo gratias!