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Religion on vacation: Rocamadour, Aigues-Morte, and Nîmes

Editor’s note: Yesterday saw the first post in Ephraim Radner’s “travelogue of faith,” or “archaeology of its public burial.” Here is the conclusion.

Beyond Albi one enters the hills and forests of Quercy. Now, we are off to Rocamadour, the medieval village built into a cliff, considered one of the more romantic spots in this part of the world. And the rest of the world has discovered it! Its one tiny street is almost impossible to pass through.

In the Middle Ages, Rocamadour was an important stop on the pilgrimage route to San Tiago de Compostela, but it was a destination in its own right. The uncorrupted body of St. Amadour lies under the church, and a picture of the Black Madonna had a host of miracles associated with it. One climbs steep stairs up the side of the cliff to reach the sanctuary, and then, if one wishes, a much longer 19th-century Stations of the Cross up to the roof. Children run up and down counting the steps. Older people take a modern elevator. Inside the church, facing the Madonna, are engraved expressions of gratitude from sailors, some dating back to the 16th century, including (I think) Jacques Cartier.

Our hotel owner, who has lived in the village since the end of World War II, told us that things were pretty much dead on the pilgrimage front until recently. She credited a revival of pilgrims to a young priest, whose efforts in the past few years (alas, he is leaving) brought new religious energy to the site. He would give nighttime “religious” tours to visitors, set up activities for children during the day — coloring books and so on — and organize young volunteers to work during the summers, engaging visitors, praying together.

I couldn’t find the priest, but ended up talking to one of his associates, a younger cleric from near Paris, helping out for a few weeks. I listened in as he chatted with one of his young volunteers, who was deeply vexed at the notion that Christ might be at work among non-Catholics. I think I heard a version of the Logos theory given in reply, but the young volunteer looked doubtful.

The priest and I then chatted about Christianity. The conflicts of Anglicanism came up, what with sexuality. “We went through that crisis 20 years ago,” he told me. “Thankfully we’re beyond that.”

He believes most of the radicals left, with some priests and bishops continuing to bide their time. “They think they’ll get their chance if they wait long enough.”

But younger people in the church, he said, were pretty conservative. “They bear a good deal of resentment towards their elders, who they think messed their families up.”

There’s a return to “tradition,” he added. I thought he might be talking about the Fathers, but he quickly corrected me: “Not de Lubac,” he said. “Trent.”

Rocamadour pretty much closes after October. A friend came for a Christmas service in the basilica not long ago, and shared it with 20 persons. Pilgrimage, like tourism, is seasonal.

Back south, we took a day on the beach. But that meant going through Aigues-Mortes, the 13th-century city set among coastal marshes with some of the best preserved medieval walls in France. Louis IX — the great St. Louis — founded the town in order to have a port from which to sail to the crusades. He went on two crusades, both of which ended in disaster — the first, in the complete destruction of his army and his capture in Egypt, and the second ending in his death from dysentery in Tunis.

Aigues-Mortes is today another of France’s tourist destinations, with every other storefront selling ice cream, Chinese-made cloth with a Provençal flair, and expensive trinkets. On the bustling Place Saint-Louis is Our Lady of the Sands, the church where King Louis and his knights took their crusading vows. A small bulletin board gives a little of this history, though nothing is said of the crusades.

People shuffle by. I had read earlier that day about the outcry over the “Burkini” ban on beaches a little to the east. Some towns, especially after the slaughter in Nice, outlawed the full-covering bathing gear used by Muslim women on the Riviera. I wondered what St. Louis and his crusaders would have thought of contemporary France, and vice versa. But neither knows the other.

One of Aigues-Morte’s famous monuments is the Tower of Constance, an imposing dungeon at one corner of the ramparts. In the late 17th and 18th centuries it was the place of lifetime imprisonment for dozens of Protestant women whose crime was to remain Protestant after the toleration of the reformed Huguenots was withdrawn in 1685. The tower remained a symbol of faithful suffering for French Protestants well into the 20th century. So, of course, we had to visit the Musée du Désert, a marvelous institution nestled in the woods of the Cevennes mountains that seeks to honor the sufferings of Protestants in the south of France during the 17th- and 18th-century persecution.

It’s a drive into the national park where the museum is located, housed in the rambling stone home of a great Huguenot leader from the era. It is filled with priceless material dealing with French Protestantism, including one of the rare contemporary portraits of Calvin. Most of its collection, though, is used to recount the tale of Protestant persecution. It is a moving and often horrifying tale, with thousands killed, imprisoned, and sent into slave labor in the name of Christian France.

The “Desért” in the museum’s name refers to the physical and spiritual wilderness that Protestants of the region were called to inhabit once their legal rights were taken away: secretive worship gatherings, clandestine catechism, hidden schools. There were portable pulpits, able to be set up in caves and, at a moment’s notice, folded up into wine vats and stepladders; there were small tokens, given by local pastors to their flock to certify their faithfulness when they took Communion in far-flung rural hideouts with otherwise unknown ministers; and there were Bibles: annotated, inscribed, studied. There was also rebellion, as the region gave rise to the famous Camisard wars, driven by prophetic visions of divine judgment. Plus ça change.

By the time the Revolution came, many Protestant leaders were at the forefront of the agitation: a new order meant freedom of religion, they said. Events proved them wrong, at least initially. But many Protestant churches still proudly display banners marked with the principles on which their late 18th-century forbears placed their hopes for survival: liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood).

Most of today’s French Reformed churches are white-haired, and dying. Annette and I were, it seemed, the only visitors in the museum that day. By contrast, 10 miles away a string of bustling camping sites began, filled with bathers and canoers in the rivers that flow through the gorges of this still-wild countryside.

We ended our stay in Nîmes, one of France’s most ancient cities, and home to some of the most impressive Roman monuments in the country. On one hot afternoon, feeling a bit unsteady, I went into the Cathedral of St. Castor, a mishmash of medieval and classical architecture. I sat there for a while, unsuccessfully searching for some peace, but instead watching as troops of visitors stomped by and rolled their eyes at the pastry-like baby-blue Rococo Chapel of the Annunciation, or puzzled at the gigantic but faded 18th-century paintings of windswept saints looking upward into dark skies that seemed to hang above every side altar.

I noticed a hand-written sign on one wall with an arrow pointing to an exhibition, and got up to follow its lead. No one followed.

In a side room I discovered a small exposition about Charles de Foucauld, the recently beatified hermit of the north African desert, whose life inspired many later 20th-century servants of the poor. De Foucauld was ordained deacon in Nîmes, and on this, the centenary of his death — at the hands of a Tuareg neighbor — someone in the cathedral had decided to remember him. It was the kind of display one might see for a high school project: articles and photocopies pasted to a board, a few handouts. It proved the only quiet place in the city.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Cultural travelogues usually try to pick up a whiff of some hidden rustling in the midst of fragments — something in the air that might indicate a brewing truth. Here I see only subdued disjunctions; I smell only the dust from ground trampled by the world, as it barrels along under a sky of forgetfulness.

In the Manent piece I mentioned yesterday, Il Foglio’s interviewer asked:

Has French culture a future? Has Christianity, caught between Islam and a militant secularism, a future in France? Will Western civilization continue to sustain Europe, or are we witnessing a slow abandonment of Western ideals?

Manent replied:

We do not know when the trumpet will sound. I cannot answer you in the name of some “expertise”; I can only answer “by hope.” Christian hope is based on faith. I believe that, amid the crumbling of Western civilization, which has begun, the supernatural character of the Church will become, paradoxically, more and more visible. The hatred of the world will turn against it more and more clearly. More clearly than ever the fate of all will depend on the ‘little flock’ of Christians.

Sitting in the hidden room in the Nîmes Cathedral, I picked up the famous words of de Foucauld, now called the “Prayer of Abandonment.” Someone had provided little bookmarks with the prayer, in several languages — Chinese, Armenian, Russian, Polish. De Foucauld, in the sands of the desert, had written it in the course of a meditation about Jesus on the Cross:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures —
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.


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