Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cloisters and gift shops, and living with ambivalence.

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 presence everywhere of white symbolises the joy of the name ( I was amused and pleased to find white as the colour of joy confirmed by Rabelais!).

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!


Roderick Robinson said...

Atheism is an absence not a presence, not a subject for proselytising and not even worth discussing unless one is under threat from believers. However, it may need announcing. On Thursday Mrs BB and I will be meeting a friend of mine (with his wife) whom I haven't truly seen since I left the north in 1959. The friendship re-opened via the exchange of lengthy, papery letters (predominantly about music) and in one of them he revealed that he and his wife were churchgoers. Since at his request I'd provided him with a link to Works Well where atheism has figured from time to time as source of entertainment, I thought I ought to warn him.

I have no compunction about visiting the interiors of churches or switching on the Mass in B Minor simply because I see both as man-made creations and inspiration has to come from somewhere.

What is far more difficult to handle in blogging is the level of teasing one is permitted, whether in fact one should tease at all. It was my impression, judging from a light tinge of irony in what you said (and which, by Sod's Law, won't be there should I re-check the post - so I won't) that you were teasing. I was going to say that, as a result, apology is unnecessary but alas this isn't true. Teasing taken at face value becomes the thing the writer was trying to escape.

Since I tease in approximately one out of every three posts and then spend much time worrying about whether this time I've gone too far, you may care to engage in a little "over-the-seas-there-are little-brown-children" (You see, I do it all the time) and flirt with this difficult subject.

On the other hand you seem to be making quite a decent fist of writing a blog and may feel that such suggestions - born entirely of laziness - can be ignored.

earlybird said...

Lovely photographs - it does look incredibly peaceful. Even though I lack any belief, I can never resist going through the open door of a church. As you say, so many of them are 'just plain grim', but not always.

My most recent purchase at a monastery was a slim cookery book from a (Russian) Orthodoxe Monastery in the Auvergne. It's called 'Les bonnes recettes (secrètes) du Monastère' and has a strange mixture of recipes - some French, some distinctly Russian. In Andalucia we once bought some delicious little cakes through a hole in a whitewashed wall of a closed order.

Lucy said...

Thanks both.

BB, no offence taken, as I meant to reassure you previously and yes, irony as ever in place. I'd love to respond at greater length but really am pushed for time, but I did enjoy the laugh when I googled the missionary hymn, which I'd not heard before.

EB, I've often seen that book, and wondered whether it might be interesting. It is a peaceful place, but like Timadeuc though not as much so, there's something slightly clinical about it, in places. T made us think a little of a kindly, spiritually inclined mental hospital; I suppose the ideas of silence, prayer, retreat, asylum, etc are consistent. Also in both places the members of the community are tending to be quite old and frail.

Must go!

the polish chick said...

that first photo made my heart skip a beat. there's something about religious architecture that takes one's breath away. i love churches predominantly for their architecture and, in recent years, very little else.

i must admit, though, that i can sometimes be a bit of a big mouth with my atheism, although i am trying to curtail that.

the polish chick said...

(i meant the second photo, or the first in the series).

Catalyst said...

Barret's comment reminded me of something I read in the New York Times Sunday. Christopher Hitchens, well known for his atheism, was given the Freethinker of the Year Award recently by the Atheist Alliance of America. Hitchens said he was flattered but also a little abashed, pointing out that being an atheist is something you are, not something you do.

I enjoy your mental meanderings on subjects such as religion, Lucy. While I consider myself an atheist I enjoyed visiting cathedrals in Europe on my one visit there. And I remember my wife's comment on seeing the inside of a very colorful, much overdecorated church in Morelia, Mexico: "It looks like a whore's dream of heaven!"

Finally, as always, your photography is exquisite.

julia said...

An exquisite post, thank you.

I was also taken-aback by the state of the churches in Brittany. And the lack of flowers. I'm not a congregational person but I do like sitting in empty churches and thinking...

julia said...

ps a sister bearing curtains made ma smile for some reason

zephyr said...

What lovely photographs, Lucy.
i love your English churches
i am also very fond of and moved by
the marvelous, white frame churches of New England, often sent on a knoll, tall spires, and side walls made of tall, tall windows that let in massive portions of trees and sky.
like you, i prefer them empty. Or filled with music. That is one of my favorite ways to "worship"...listening and participating with music.

marly youmans said...

Love the monastery pictures, Lucy, so clean and disciplined and dramatic.

I suppose one day that the vibrant Christians of the Global South or parts of Asia may come as missionaries and re-populate the empty or barren churches of Europe. Or else something entirely different may happen...

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

I love your writing. You could blog your grocery list and it would be beautifully done.

As an atheist who frequently paints subjects that spring from matters of religious belief, I see no chasm between what some call faith and I would call the daily expression of beauty, whether that be in an idea, a building or a well designed tea-spoon. I despise dogma of all varieties, from the lips of the proselytising faithful, the politicians, the art historians and the know-it-alls of all persuasions.

I too love church architecture unadorned with the over-blown. Simplicity makes space for thought. The over-blown just crowds it out.

Anil P said...

Religion has inspired so much in so many ways, and in being a gravitating influence it has fostered bonding, but if only the strife it has engendered over the years were but a bad dream it'd have so much going for it.

Beautiful pictures, can sense the peace and quiet.

HKatz said...

Fascinating post; as always I enjoy reading your reflections. Whenever I visit these places, it's mostly because of the gardens and the general atmosphere (even the derelict churches - crumbling stone, and unkempt grass, I like that).

Beautiful photos too, especially those in black and white.

Sarah said...

Agree with Polish Chick, religious architecture has a spiritual dimension that your balck and white crisp photos capture beautifully.

Dick said...

Everything you write is supremely readable, Lucy, rich in content even when touching lightly on its theme and beautifully phrased always. And there's so much in this piece with which I find myself in accord - English churches when empty; reacting to the aesthetic and the numinous within the Anglican tradition in spite of an 'unchurched' upbringing; loathing the Catholic church and all it stands for! And those wonderful photographs, particularly the first five.