Oneness with Divinity

A Vacation in Provence, France

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.

Review & Commentary

  • Fred Plumer has provided a great service to us in both pointing out with vivid descriptions and examples the outlandish extravagance of the Avignon Popes and their Palaces and on the other hand, the human compassion, empathy and warmth, which was displayed by the local priest towards the parishioners in the church at the nearby village of Thor. Such articles are truly inspiring.
    John Noack, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 8 June 2012.

  • Paul Kenney (Canada)

    What a wonderful story. Wonderfully written, enabling me to feel as if I was there with you, Fred. Your insights and your thoughtfulness encouraged me to be mindful of Christ’s true message – of hope through compassion, enlightenment through kindness and dignity for others and experiencing “the Infinite Majesty” in the here and now through an open heart. Thanks for such a great article!

  • Mr./Rev. Plumer: I, too, have had these same thoughts. After visiting England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland three different years, for five weeks each time, visiting the cathedrals during each visit, I came back with different thoughts each year. My thoughts are your’s exactly. Plus now it seems the cathedrals are on hard times. They depend on tourism and donations to maintain the structures. The first time I was overwhelmed with beauty of the stone carvings, the wood carvings, the stained glass, etc. Then the second time I was not as mesmerized as the first as I thought of all the manual labor that went into building them and the pittance the workers were paid. The last time, I thought about all the money that is spent on them to maintain them and how much good that money could do to feed and poor. I also like your idea of the “here and now.” Heaven and hell are not even a part of my vocabulary anymore, and I believed for almost 60 years of my life in both of them. As a result, I always felt that I could never be “as good” as God wanted me to be. I still am working on that now that I’ve been around the sun 77 times. Nothing I do in the way of playing the piano, painting and embroidering, seems to be perfection. I’m glad I realize that we can only do our best and I’m hoping that before I die I will come to that 100%. Thank you for your message. JB

  • Thank you for bringing up Christian Mysticism, which I feel expands the small world. It seems in our small world Christ enters and leaves as we try to grasp Our Lord in a tight fist of a hand, but when we open the mind to the vast, deep and limitless Christ mind, then we relax and rest in a state of peace. We let go and “Let Thy Will be Done”. We are no longer tied or grasping a human predicament. We are no longer poking about our interior with a flashlight, but opening the blinds, windows and doors of our Soul to the present moment of God. We no longer seek God because we know he is always present so we seek the barriers that separate us from That Glorious Presence.

  • Hal Moore

    “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.”
    This paragraph asks a question I have wondered about for a long time. As a once upon a time ordained Presbyterian minister who is now part of the church “alumni” association, believe it or not I found I was more able to relate to, share a message with the underclass men I worked with in a federal prison as a literacy instructor. There were many very rich relationships there and I believe I was able to help quite a number of them. Many asked me from time to time why I did this or what I believed, and I would tell them as honestly as I could from my reconstructed Christian understandings gained in part by my participation as an associate of the Westar Institute. After 18 years both the inmates, the assoc. warden and others were asking me to stay, but nearing 72 I decided to leave to to other things. Hal Moore

  • Rob Ferguson

    Thank you Fred for your thoughtful article; you rightly draw attention to the necessity for us to be so sensitive as to what we deconstruct. May I share with you what I wrote on being similarly moved on seeing a little peasant lady in a Greek church struggling to kneel down to plant a kiss on a golden icon:

    Ignorant superstition!
    shrieks the skeptic
    ablaze with irreligious fervour
    hell bent on saving us
    from the mysteries of religion
    but a little wrinkled peasant lady
    bowed bent from years of child bearing, family raising,
    planting, weeding, tending fields, more rock than soil
    knows not one of his self-righteous angry words

    Her furrowed face glows with the gold of the blessed icon
    shadowed now as trembling lips bestow a sacred kiss
    and age worn knees struggle to support her
    lost in the ecstasy of the encounter
    the holy mother and child
    serene in succour of the humble soul
    raise her up and
    for one brief moment she is one with the angels
    as she carries the love away
    to work in her heart.

  • Victor Sealey

    That has been a very interesting article about what happened many years ago and explains what those of us who have experienced the presence of Jesus and seek to be followers of him need to encourage people we have contact with to use every day as an oportunity to accept them as they are and to encourage them and ourselves to grow as people who practice what Jesus demostrated during the short time that he was on earth as a physical person and now is with us as a spritual reality, in other words the nearby encourager.

  • Such a beautiful article and reflection, Fred. It touches on so much of my own journey into, through, and with Christian mysticism (as well as the contemplative practices of our sisters & brothers of other faiths). For me, the “keystone” of the entire piece is your paragraph that begins “I have spent the last forty years trying to figure out . . . ” Yes, yes, & yes! How the message of Jesus got twisted into a prescription for some elusive, glorious “afterlife” is a long and sad story. That realm of God of which Jesus taught is here, now, in this moment and always; it’s the message we have to keep repeating. I’m putting the link pointing to this article in our congregation’s newsletter this week–blessings!

  • Fred, I believe you have demonstrated the great value of learning history — that without knowledge and insight from the actions of our forebears, we fallible humans are likely to repeat their mistakes.

    Furthermore, I think that with this article you have also diagnosed a malaise in Progressive Christianity — that with think too much with our heads, and don’t respond enough with our hearts. Our scholarship is wonderful, and I wouldn’t give up a whit of it. At the same time, we are not only thinking beings, and we keep glimpsing a transcendence, however dimly, that lies beyond our capacity for rational thought.

    You are quite right: Jesus came to teach us that we can live eternally here and now through the same kenosis that he himself must have experienced in order to be the kind of Spirit person he was, to use Marcus Borg’s definition. I think this revelation on your part foreshadows an exciting new path in the Progressive Christianity journey, and I sincerely hope that you, and we, follow it with confidence and joy. Blessings on our travels!

  • Sorry, that should be “that WE think too much …” The ol’ eyes ain’t what they used to be.

  • TheRev. John W. Dean

    I am a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church USA and was so humbled by the article “Oneness with Divinity”. I have spent a great deal of time meditating on the questions raised in that article. I too tried to picture the people coming down the aisle for a blessig and then returned to the present day where Ido not find people seeking such an experience. It could be, I thought, that we Presbyterians have dug into wrds and explanations that the mystic seasrch and mystic qauiet has been put out. I have recently been aware of contemplative prayer and when I do I wonder when God ever gets an opportunity to speak? We are never quiet but talk and talk and talk.
    Keep up the good work.
    John Dean

  • Thanks Fred,

    What a great read. I think what we have to offer is precisely the practice and enactment of our Oneness with All That Is. I’d like to see progressive christianity focus on helping people to experience this state of unitive consciousness, and maybe a little less of rational deconstruction of myth and superstition – as important as this work has been.

    And thanks for bringing to mind my visit to Provence a couple of years ago.


  • Janet Sue Gagliardi

    On the front page of this bulletin with Fred Plumer’s article there is a picture of a church on a hill. Could you tell me the name of that church and where it is located.

    Thank you.