When my wife and I made plans to visit Provence, France along with two dear friends this spring, I anticipated a true vacation of rest and relaxation, good conversation, good food and lots of great wine…away from emails and phone calls. I did not plan to even think about Progressive Christianity or any Christianity for that matter. I should have known that my life does not work that way for three different and conflicting experiences changed my plans. Admittedly, I was a little ignorant of the rich and deep Christian history in the Provence area of France.
The husband of our traveling friends is a history buff and with a little help from the Rick Steves’ travel guide, he was happy to create a new adventure each day and we were happy to follow. It would take years to visit all of the fascinating little villages, often carved into the rock hills that surround the fertile soil that has made Provence famous and wealthy at different times in history. Many of these little villages, many over a thousand years old, have been gentrified by artists, musicians, quaint restaurants, wine bars and interesting shops. I could have happily filled my time visiting a different village each day and testing the wines of the area. But my friend and volunteer guide insisted that we go visit the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Pope) in Avignon, only a forty-five minute drive from our apartment.
It was an amazing site. Unlike the quaint little villages, this was truly a mammoth fortress, surrounded by walls and a small ancient city within a city. I did not remember that the Papacy had been moved to France in the 14th century, and I had no idea that seven Popes had made their residence in Avignon from 1305-1378. Two more Popes stayed in the area because of the continued unrest in Rome and the Palace was eventually abandoned in 1403.
The tour of the palace was both striking and disturbing for me. I had been reading about the history of the area and the tremendous hardships and conditions that the local peasants and laborers lived under. These amazing stone buildings were the result of the labor of the poor and often resulted in broken bodies and early deaths. There was no OSHA or even compassion in most cases. And yet the opulence of these buildings was beyond imagination.
I took the time to listen to the tapes giving the history of each of the Popes. With only a couple of exceptions, I was struck by the ego driven nature of these men. They expected to be treated as royalty and everything about their lives seem to imply that. Most of these popes were involved in territorial disputes and prided themselves on how much influence they had with the kings of Europe. Again with two exceptions, each succeeding Pope wanted a larger Palace befitting their “position.”
For example, Benedict XII (1334-1342), a former Cistercian monk, decided that the original Palace wasn’t up to his standards so he had it torn down and a new one built in its place, designed by the architect, Pierre Poisson. This was a huge, powerful fortress, in the severe style of the Cistercian monks.
Then Clement VI (1342-1352), didn’t think this same palace was up to his standards, so he hired another famous architect to design and build a more ostentatious palace to attach to the old one. This roughly doubled the overall size of the castle. The kitchens were enormous and the demands of the big banquets and the visiting dignitaries required a huge staff and back-breaking work.
I have spent the last forty years trying to figure out what Jesus was really trying to teach us, and it is has become increasingly clear that his primary message was that the “Realm of God” or “Oneness with Divinity,” is available in the here and now. He offered a path so that those who choose to follow it could experience this Realm as he did. It is not magic or a onetime thing but rather a way of living and seeing a different reality, imbued with divinity. The path or practice was and is about learning to break down barriers that separate us from all sentient beings through a process of letting go of our fears, our hatreds and our ego needs. This means, in part, letting go for our need to have social power, influence and status. It is about self emptying, or “kenosis.”
When I thought about those pompous men who were supposed to be representing the highest and best example of the one they claimed to follow, I got angry. That is a rare feeling for me these days. But the more I thought about it, over the next few days, the more my anger dissolved into sadness. I wondered if anything has really changed. No wonder the message has been buried so deep. I also knew then that my playful trip to Provence had changed a little.
Ironically my second jolt came the following day when we traveled to what turned out to be one of our favorite villages. This one was far up on a hill, in three levels, with stone stairs and pathways connecting the village. It was near a rock quarry, which was the source of the large reddish stones that most of the buildings in the village were constructed from. It was a fun place with lots of activity from the local artisans and merchants. We had a wonderful lunch and, naturally, a bottle of wine and we wandered around the village.
When it started to rain I slipped into a simple, little church that was at the center of this three level community. It was still functioning after 900 years. I sat down in an old pew in the back of the church and tried to imagine what had been going on in the hearts and heads of the literally thousands of bodies that must have sat on that same old pew for nine centuries. I wanted to feel their spirits, their needs and maybe their pain as they walked into the church. When my eyes adjusted to the light I realized that there was a trough worn in the stone down the center aisle. This rounded groove went from the back of the church all the way up to the altar. I got down on my knees and felt it with my hand. It was about eight inches wide and at its lowest point in the center, it must have been over an inch deep.
I pondered how it got there and suddenly realized that it had been worn down by people walking up to the altar to receive communion and to receive a blessing over the centuries. I also realized that most of the feet that made this groove in the stone had either been bare or in soft sandals. I was stunned. I could not stop thinking about the number of people who had walked down that narrow aisle after toiling in the fields or breaking rocks in the quarry, or building stone structures with no power equipment. How many sore and tired bodies made the fifty foot journey down that aisle for a ritual? The vast majority of these folks must have labored beyond most of our imaginations. It was a hard life but each week they came for their blessing and an assurance that something better was coming. I sat there and thought about how important that blessing must have been for them. Was it the promise of eternal life in a better place where their lives might not be so difficult or was it just the moment when they might have experienced a sense of God’s love through the touch of the local priest?
I could not shake that out of my mind as we headed back to our apartment that day. How many hard working peasants in the little village over the years placed their hopes in a future life? They wore a groove in the stone floor in order to receive that hope, that blessing.
I realized that I have been working for nearly forty years to deconstruct that Christian myth of ‘substitutionary’ sacrifice but I kept wondering, what blessing do we offer the hopeless, the forlorn, and the lost? Will people wear grooves in future church floors to receive a blessing with a new Christianity?” I wondered, what is that blessing?
As I laid awake that night thinking about these two experiences, it occurred to me that while Progressive Christianity is built on excellent scholarship, it is after all a product of primarily privileged people. Maybe we do not have a message for the struggling underclass, the laborers that toil in the fields all over the world. It is hard to be a mystic when you are working 12 hours a day, bent over in a rice paddy, a tomato field or a diamond mine, seven days a week.
My third jolt came with a visit to the little village of Thor, near our apartment. We went there for their weekly village market (every village has one), but we planned to visit the church Notre Dame du Lac. It had been recommended by Rick Steves in his travel guide. This church was built in the 12thcentury and had been restored in the 18th and is now a historical landmark. Ironically for me, in the 14th century, the entire village became a fief divided between those same Popes of Avignon, already mentioned, and several other families.
Although it is filled with history and fascinating artifacts, it is still a functioning Catholic church. This became obvious to me as I watched with interest as the priest sat in the back of the church talking quietly to a man I would presume was in his late fifties. It appeared that this man was suffering from some kind of deep grief and the priest had his arm around the man’s shoulder as they talked. There must have been some kind of sacrament or confession for the priest had left the man earlier to go back to his office and get his stole that he now had around his neck, as he held the man. They whispered and prayed together.
Later, I watched the man get ready to leave and as he approached the front door he looked up at the painting of Mary and Jesus on the wall, and with tears in his eyes and with a visible shutter as he took a deep breath, he genuflected, quickly stood up and turned to leave the church. I believe that he was feeling a little better.
The same priest had removed his vestments when he encountered a woman who had been praying with her Bible in her hands. They got into some kind of conversation that appeared to be about something that had her upset. The priest slipped in behind her in the next pew and they carried on a quiet conversation, while she occasionally pointed to something in her Bible. At one point the priest laid his hand on her shoulder, said something and for the first time she smiled. As the priest stood up to leave it was clear, even with my language barrier, that he had encouraged her to come back talk some more.
What hit me was that this old, decrepit church was doing real ministry for people in need. It was obvious that this priest cared about and even loved “his” people. These folks were experiencing healing and wholeness and maybe a sense of new life, because of this caring. I would guess many priests had offered this same compassion over the centuries. And these things happened in spite of the ego silliness that had been going on a few dozen kilometers away in Avignon.
Maybe the blessing is not about the story, the theology or even the Christology. Maybe the blessing we can offer is the blessing of compassion. I suspect that a lot of those grooves in the floors were made simply from someone wanting and hoping to experience that same compassion.
It has been nearly two months and I cannot stop thinking about these things. Maybe next time I visit France, I will visit the monks and meditate with them. It is possible if I spent more time with the contemplatives in our tradition, I might have a real break.