Sunday, March 31, 2019

On village churches.

Last year I celebrated the Paschal Triduum at the Monastère Saint-Élie, a Carmel of the Byzantine Rite located in a small village in Bourgogne called Saint-Rémy-les-Montbard. The Carmelites arrived in Saint-Rémy in 1974, but the buildings they inhabit date to the eighteenth century (the date '1741' is carved above a doorway in the refectory). The parish church near the monastery is older still, apparently dating to the twelfth century, even if later renovations have eradicated most visible traces of the medieval structure. Saint-Rémy is a tiny place – the most recent French census counted 713 inhabitants in the commune – but the presence of its venerable parish church and its surrounding cemetery offers a reminder of the village's long history.

The parish church of Saint-Rémy enjoys a somewhat paradoxical relationship with the village that shares its name. Located on the crest of a hill in the center of the village, the church enjoys a visual prominence that symbolizes its historically significant role in local life. Although the church bells still sound daily for the angelus, the church is usually empty: Saint-Rémy is clustered with fourteen other communes that share one priest, and Mass is celebrated in the village church only a handful of times each year. The Rémigeois seeking Sunday services could go to the monastery, though in practice they do not; the Carmel attracts some people from the surrounding region, but none from the village itself. Luckily, the parish church in the nearby town of Montbard still offers Mass every Sunday, and residents of Saint-Rémy and other nearby villages who wish to attend Mass presumably go there.

When I think of churches like the one in Saint-Rémy, I also think of Hilaire Belloc's 1902 book The Path to Rome, an account of a walking pilgrimage that Belloc made from Toul, a small city in Lorraine where he had performed his military service in the French Army, to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. As Belloc put it, he had vowed "to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved," setting out a further set of conditions to govern the journey: "I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St Peter's on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul." It is Belloc's emphasis on attending daily Mass that I think of particularly when I pass French village churches. "What is a pilgrimage," Belloc wrote, "in which a man cannot hear Mass every morning? ... Of course there is a grace and influence belonging to such a custom [of attending morning Mass], but it is not of that I am speaking but of the pleasing sensation of order and accomplishment which attaches to a day one has opened by Mass; a purely temporal, and, for all I know, what the monks back at the ironworks would have called a carnal feeling, but a source of continual comfort to me. Let them go their way and let me go mine."

Daily Mass in the church at Saint-Rémy, and many others like it, is now a distant memory. This saddens me as much as it would have irritated Hilaire Belloc, who described himself as "justly annoyed" when he arrived at a particular church too late to attend Mass. The emptying of country churches makes me think of Philip Larkin's 1954 poem "Church Going," in which the poet visits such an empty church and poignantly wonders "who / Will be the last, the very last, to seek / This place for what it was..." Though I have found French Catholicism to be much more vibrant than people in the English-speaking world often take it to be, that sense of vibrancy is generally an urban phenomenon. Visiting places like the Monastère Saint-Élie or the Abbaye Saint-Wandrille, one is much more likely to rub shoulders with pilgrims and retreatants visiting from French cities than locals from the villages closest to the monastery. There is much more that I could say about this, and perhaps someday I will, but for now I record these impressions in an admittedly incomplete form, lest a calendar month go by with no posting on this blog.