Well, I probably shouldn't have thrown in the glib remark about atheists and believers, it's the kind of thing I regret and want to take back immediately I've said it, the kind of thing that that can lead to a widening gyre of pointless qualification and rebuttal which is everything I want nothing to do with, and as if it matters. It compromises the ambivalent tension and wonderment of my agnosticism, long held carefully in healthy and creative balance, as I see it anyway, which probably sounds intolerably pompous.
Can you draw out leviathan with a hook? or his tongue with a cord which you let down?
There are so many I care about and respect of so many persuasions, none of whom I wish to see on any kind of defensive. I have been so blessed and enriched in so many ways, and there are so many ways to be blessed and enriched. Trouble is, so many people are convinced there's only one way: their own.
Howsoever, I do spend quite a bit of our time exploring religious places. Not so many churches, not here anyway. English churches I still miss quite viscerally, but only when they were empty; the Tory party at prayer (still too true, in many areas) and congregations in general, always repelled more than they ever attracted. This is, of course, one of my many major stumbling blocks with exoteric religions that demand commitment to fellowship, community, gregarious people-personship and general galloping-about-doing-good, I'm well aware. Yet, though I was unbaptised in infancy, unchurched for all my upbringing and loudly and intolerantly rejecting of the small-town, socially preoccupied, unsearching Anglicanism of my schooling in adolescence, aesthetically, culturally and psychologically, the English mediaeval, swept out and trimmed, as well as vandalised, by the Reformation, emblazoned and overlaid and generally fannied up by the Victorians, and lovingly turned into heritage in our own time, is still a kind of home to me.
In contrast I find a lot churches here just plain grim, either decaying or overblown or both, their iconography alien and grotesque. I know there are a couple of dozen posts here tagged with the label churches, and going deep into the folk religion hinterland fascinates me, and then there was Chartres:
But one tower was great, was it not? O Angel, it was -
even beside you. Chartres was great
(Rilke, Duino 7)
But the long history of anti-clericism and separation of church and state, which by and large I support wholeheartedly in principle, has led to an uneasy and resentful unwillingness on both sides to cherish ecclesiastical buildings and art as heritage outside of their religious and political role, and also produced a series of grandiose church buildings from various times in history, from the Counter-Reformation to the 19th century and even later, which sought to reassert the church's power and win back the faithful, filled with overwrought and mawkish imagery to try to whip up their emotions, and which overreached themselves in the attempt, becoming under-used, ill-maintained and tawdry.
One such we found was the Abbaye de Paimpont
which is apparently esteemed by some but not by us. Paimpont might claim to be rather Brittany's Glastonbury, with its odd mix of New Age Arthurian and Catholic revivalist pilgrims, but Glastonbury it ain't. We stopped for an ice cream and moved on.
Our main focus on this trip, a Saturday afternoon drive into the interior, all the way over the border into Morbihan, was the Abbaye La Joie Notre Dame, a Cistercian convent where they make good chocolate. Religious communities do interest us, always have. We had our wedding bash at Emmaus House in Bristol, the sisters there were friends of ours at the time, and when we lived in Devon we lived near Buckfast Abbey, I did quite a lot of supply teaching at the Catholic primary school there (no problem for me or the management), and we used to buy honey and other things from the shop, though not the infamous Buckfast Tonic Wine, the bane of the homeless alcoholic community in Glasgow, it seems, which has always puzzled me. In Gloucestershire we enjoyed the bird gardens and hankered for the china they sold at Prinknash, where Tom's much loved friend and counsellor, a C of E ordained priest, lived in an adjacent bungalow.
(Can I just say at this point, that for all this and anything else I've said, I fairly much loathe the Catholic church and everything it stands for. I live, as I say, with ambivalence...)
La Joie was recommended to us by a very sweet lady dressed in a cotton shirt and glass beads of heavenly, belle verriere, blue, who made friends with us outside the Abbey of Timadeuc, some miles to the west, on another such trip. Timadeuc is a Cistercian monastery, architecturally austere, where they make very excellent cheese and fruit jellies, which was recommended by our dear old friend and stonemason Jean-Paul, who on the cusp of retirement has fallen in love with a large lady who has clearly done him a power of good. She is a magnetiseuse and guerisseuse, essentially a faith healer. She has cured him, he said, of all the ills that a life in stonemasonry and self-employment had left him with. When he said this, Tom posited that that may have been love that did that, and JP assented, that too. At weekends they too make jaunts into the interior, and she likes to visit Timadeuc to buy essential oils and cds of spiritual music.
You may see a theme emerging, along with friendship, the happy co-existence of the religious and monastic life with marketing and consumerism. It was ever thus, I think. Tom's son, who was for a while a very enthusiastic RC convert, said that Buckfast abbey in particular was known in those circles as Fast Buck Abbey. There now exists a special, Europe-wide 'Monastic' label for their products, which range from incense and essential oils and toiletries through every kind of comestible, cheese, wine, sweets, grains (hence the muesli), cakes, olive oil. They are of uniformly high quality, a little expensive, but I gain some satisfaction from the feeling, hopefully not entirely romantic and spurious, that I am buying a little outside of the system, and from people whose philosophy is to be, as far as possible connected with every stage of the means of production. Also, less worthily, coming from a culture where part of the point of any day out was to enjoy the gift shop and the tea rooms, I tend to find large tracts of France rather lacking in such facilities. This lack of commercialism is in some ways admirable, but I'm afraid it often leaves me with a sense that something is missing. The monastic gift shops are rather nice places to visit, even if much of their stock is actually olive wood rosaries and books about Catholic luminaries,and other things I don't want. Timadeuc's is especially beautiful, with polished wood rafters and lovely light, and the sisters and brothers who staff them seem to enjoy having the dispensation to chat with the customers. In addition to the muesli and some chocolate and fruit jellies at La Joie, I also found some very pretty hand-knitted items, and bought a Breton-style stripy jumper for our friends' new grandson and a wonderfully soft aubergine-coloured scarf for I know-not-who. I think they were being made and sold in aid of a new sister foundation in Madagascar, so let's hope they won't be displacing too many lemurs.
And by contrast with the decaying Baroque monstrosities of the older churches, there is clean, well-kept simplicity about the place.
The church was built in the 1950s, I think, by the monks of Timadeuc.
The gardens are very peaceful and lovely, with many fine trees, and pools of deep shade and bright light, including a splendid avenue of tall American oaks at the entrance.
You can't actually get to see very much of the overall site, which is extensive and includes a farm and a lake; it is after all a place of silence, work and withdrawal, and their commercialism and open welcome is within bounds. But what you can see is worth seeing.
I'm hurrying to get this done before my sister arrives bearing curtains, and then I go back with her for a few days to the UK, where all sorts of treats are planned, so garden photos from the sunny days will probably have to wait. I'll try to get some links into this for some of the places I've mentioned later, but now I must get on and tidy the house a bit!