Friday, September 08, 2017


In my last post, I promised to write more about my recent visit to the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour in southwestern France. Today's Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems an apt occasion for a post on a Marian shrine so ancient that its origins are shrouded in mystery; the founding of Rocamadour is usually attributed to St. Amadour, a figure sometimes identified with the publican Zacchaeus mentioned in Luke’s Gospel but more likely a hermit who lived in the early Middle Ages. Tradition maintains that Roland of Brittany (later celebrated as a model of chivalry and valor in the eleventh-century Chanson de Roland) visited Rocamadour in 778, when it was apparently already a place of pilgrimage. Rocamadour became a major pilgrimage site in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with figures as varied as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, St. Louis of France, and King Henry II of England all coming to pray before the enigmatic figure of the Vierge Noire (a statue that is also the subject of various legends, with varying accounts given of its age and origin). Just as it did centuries ago, this complex of chapels carved into the side of a cliff continues to captivate Christian pilgrims as well as more casual visitors.

The appeal of Rocamadour even to the irreligious is seen in Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, whose protagonist, a jaded atheist academic named François, makes an unlikely pilgrimage to the Black Virgin. Seeking a temporary respite from ennui and personal frustration as well as political turmoil in Paris, François visits the shrine on the advice of a friend who insists that "at Rocamadour you’ll see what a great civilization medieval Christendom really was." Sitting in the small chapel at the heart of the shrine, François muses on the figure of Our Lady of Rocamadour:
Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin – the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus – who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man – sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of intangible energy – were almost terrifying.
As François comments later, the Black Virgin expressed something beyond human efforts to interpret the devotion that inspired countless pilgrims to visit the shrine: "What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier's manly courage; not even a child's desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly, and royal ... The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power..."

Considering the words of Submission's protagonist and reflecting on my own experience at Rocamadour, I found myself thinking of something Martin Mosebach once wrote about how the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila saw Catholicism not merely as "one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion." It's easy to regard Rocamadour as emblematic of the "collecting tank" character of Catholicism: a Christian shrine so ancient that its origins have been lost in the haze of history, a place centered on the veneration of "a strange statue" that "seem[s] extraterrestrial" and emits a mysterious "spiritual power." In contrast with a place like Lourdes, which bears witness to the unexpected manifestation of the divine before unsuspecting and even skeptical moderns, Rocamadour speaks to a natural and primordial faith. And yet, like Lourdes, Rocamadour is also a place touched by miraculous associations: reports of miracles that came about after prayers before the Black Virgin helped account for the shrine's popularity in the Middle Ages, and the many modern ex votos that can be seen at Rocamadour today are a reminder of favors more recently received.

Ancient and mysterious, Rocamadour is also a living place of pilgrimage. In contrast with the millions who visit Lourdes annually, pilgrims to Rocamadour can be counted in the tens of thousands (supplemented, I must note, by many more tourists drawn by the village's history and its medieval architecture). The pilgrims I saw at Rocamadour were mainly French, in contrast with the mix of nationalities one finds at Lourdes; the sense of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour as a national rather than universal figure remains palpable. Though the shrine is very old, it has a young heart: a striking aspect of the place is the presence of the bénévoles, French Catholic volunteers in their teens and twenties who spend the summer at Rocamadour welcoming pilgrims and helping to maintain the site. In this video, you can hear some bénévoles leading the daily rosary in the small chapel at the heart of the sanctuary. For me, it was inspiring to see enthusiastic young Catholics praying and working at one of the oldest shrines of an ostensibly secular and post-Christian nation. The blue polo shirts worn by the bénévoles bear this slogan: L’Espérance ferme comme le roc – "Hope solid as a rock." This is the message I took away from Rocamadour, and I suspect that the same message will lead me to return during my sojourn in France. AMDG.


At 9/10/2017 9:48 PM, Blogger David said...

Joe - Thanks for a wonderfully written and captivating post about a truly holy and miraculous place. Appreciate you sharing Rocamadour with me and perhaps other readers for the first time! - David


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