We are sending this lengthy text to a small number of relatives and friends who might be willing to make the effort to read it. Regrettably, we have been out of touch with some of you for years. This piece will give you some idea of how things are with us as we near the mid-seventies mark in our lives. It is NOT a “Christmas letter”! If time or energy eludes you, no problem (as everybody says today about everything, although problems are everywhere!). It is a singular document—such a communication from us is likely not to be repeated. We think you’ll find that it reads rather like a short story. That’s the spirit in which to take it. It’s a mini-autobiography, in a somewhat novel form. Take it slowly—over weeks, if you have to. We’re opening our lives and thoughts to you and taking you on a tour. It should be fun.
2014 has been a pivotal year for us, to the point that I have wanted to set down in writing an account of our most memorable activities. Victoria has urged me to do this too. We all know that if not recorded in writing, most of what we experience falls away into oblivion. For my part, I am not a diarist. On a few occasions, such as my period alone for two months in Rwanda in 2000, I have kept a journal, but any concern I may have to leave a legacy has found its focus in my poetry and, to a lesser extent, in my theological writings (I realize that some of you may not even know that I write poetry and have published two books, both in the UK in 2005: Rumours of Hope and a collective work, Forgotten Genocides of the 20th Century, in which I have seven poems that evoke the Armenian and Rwandan genocides; Amazon still has copies of Rumours, I believe. At least two, perhaps three, volumes’ worth of poetry remain to be published). But in the year 2014, I have felt impelled to write down what we have done. This is not because the year has been notably dramatic or adventurous. A number of years in the last hyper-active decade and a half have been much more so. But we sense we’re at a turning point. Our last teaching mission was in 2013, to Pakistan, and we both have the impression that the traveling/theological teaching period of our lives is drawing to a close. It began in 1999 and took us to Armenia eight times and twice each to Rwanda, Burundi, Pakistan, and Haiti, as well as to Johannesburg and Singapore for meetings of an international Anglican commission of which I was a member. Other travels during those years took us to Syria, Jordan, Israel, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Ethiopia, on pilgrimages conducted by a former colleague of mine at the American Cathedral, the Rev. Nicholas Porter. We did not visit these countries to teach, but rather to see and learn, and we would not be inclined to visit them again at the present time. A further sign of change came with Victoria’s official retirement as a translator for the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), the prestigious French institution that groups together dozens of different disciplines.
What has been striking in this last year is the way the events we have participated in have evoked long-gone phases of our lives and brought us together with friends we rarely see or have hardly seen for decades. We’ve had the impression that God has unrolled a scroll of our past, reaching back to the game-changing period in the late 60s when we both experienced radical conversions to Christ, in order to show us that, mysteriously, in Him, our past, which has shaped us, is preserved and is present, the good of it to be carried forward into our future, the bad, its taint effaced through God’s gracious forgiveness, to be dropped away. We have become ever more conscious of the way God has providentially provided for our needs and deepest desires over the years, leading us from place to place, from house to house, from task to task. We are deeply thankful. As disciples of Christ, it has been our aim to follow him over hill and dale as best we could, and it has at times been actually amusing to see how his faithfulness towards us has compensated for our errors, naiveté, and missed cues.
As befits this moment in our lives when we are entering the Home-stretch, we have spent time in these months going over our forty-three years together, looking back on our careers and travels, collating documents, framing photographs, making albums, even while living intensely in the present and working very hard to organize our futures and prepare for our eventual deaths. Owning property and possessions in two countries but having no children of our own to inherit these—a great sorrow for us, but one compensated for somewhat by the gift of many god-children and numerous spiritual progeny—we are finding this last task difficult. But—without giving details—I can say that we are definitely making progress.
This unusual year, and my account of its many happy high points, are not likely to be equalled in the years remaining to us. We have lived these months, and I have written this story, against the backdrop of rising social disorder and anarchic eruptions worldwide; overwhelming population growth; ecological breakdown; the threat of economic chaos; the desertification and pauperization of parts of the world and the inordinate enrichment of other parts; nihilism and moral confusion; mounting religious and/or nationalist fanaticism, notably in the Islamic world but also among Hindus in India and Buddhists in Burma; an exponential increase in criminal networks, human trafficking, and drug-related violence, of which children and women are usually the prime victims; political polarization, paralysis, or outright collapse of governments and nations; the erosion of effective representative democracy in many countries, including America, where lobbies, moneyed interests, and international conglomerates, operating according to an exploitative ideology of fundamentalist capitalism, exercise vast economic and political power; the soft totalitarianism of pervasive and invasive technology coupled with a materialistic, utilitarian, profiteering ideology; the hollowing out of character by meaningless productivism and consumerism; the loss of social purpose other than that of making money; and a growing climate everywhere of fear, suspicion, and desperation, even despair. Within the limits of my competence I have attempted to address this state of affairs theologically and philosophically in my recently published book, The Episcopal Church, Homosexuality, and the Context of Technology. The book is just a sketch, albeit a complex one, but it does try to engage seriously and irenically with issues underlying the civilizational sea-change we are experiencing. Undoubtedly some of you will disagree with my discussion of homosexuality and simply set the book aside, but that would be regrettable; my reflections on that issue, and on the theological meaning of technology, while controversial, would stimulate all of you.
Human civilization is indeed going through a sea-change, quite literally. The roots of our present convulsions go back centuries, of course. The current meltdown didn’t start yesterday. Nor is everything bleak, by any means. Enormous numbers of creative, private, non-political initiatives of every sort are happening all over the world. So I certainly see positive features in our contemporary world, which I trace ultimately to the leaven-like influence on human culture over time, whether recognized or not, of biblical anthropology (man and woman created in the image of God, therefore having innate and equal dignity and a calling to be united to their Creator) and of the Christian Gospel in its authentic expressions (this is why the West’s rejection of its Christian heritage and faith is a case of our sawing off the branch we’re sitting on.). In the developed world, we enjoy, still, a level of social and political freedom, prosperity, security, and comfort inconceivable even a hundred years ago. I am the first to be grateful for this.
But the disruptive trends and phenomena I’ve mentioned—and many more could be added—outweigh these positive factors at the present time, it seems to me, not least because of their planetary reach. They reveal vividly the fundamentally tragic nature of the human condition. All of them are inter-related in our globalized modern context, and have generated, among other catastrophes, chaotic displacement and migrations of peoples and great suffering for millions, in particular for Christians but by no means limited to them. The disturbing novelty is not the phenomena in themselves but their global scale, their conjunction and steady exponential amplification, and the absence of a transcendent vision for human society (which is not to say the absence of religions!) or of any meaningful moral or spiritual purpose to the human project beyond the unfettered increase of technological prowess and the material “goods” that come with it. Society today appears largely blind to what is going on, or at least to the meaning of what is going on, chiefly because of our idolatry of technology and the “good life” it presumes to promise. I’m convinced we’re like the frog in the cauldron full of water that is slowly heating up. The frog doesn’t notice the gradually rising temperature and, if asked, would in any case probably have strong convictions about its frog-capacity to adapt in all circumstances. And then, one day—voilà!—the temperature reaches the fatal point of no return…
Victoria and I are intensely conscious of these realities and follow them closely, though I must confess that our intercessary prayer on behalf of the sufferers falls far short of what it should be. If we ourselves are not exempt from pain, stress, even occasional anguish, we are conscious of how small our trials are compared with what so many must endure, and of how privileged and blessed we are, materially, socially, and spiritually. The fruitful year we have experienced is a good example of this. To us much has been given, so of us much is asked, in terms of faithfulness to God and service in His Name. What we can do—what any of us can do—is very limited, of course, but we must not for that reason discount its importance in the wider scheme of things. God uses all good that is done, and extends it mysteriously. Seeds of good and seeds of evil both have long-range effects that go far beyond what we can ever know. It is our prayer that we may not fail to love and serve ardently our Creator and Redeemer until we pass into His very Presence and see Him face to face.
I am conscious that some of you do not share our Christian faith, and that some of the events I recount, and the language I use, will seem strange, almost incomprehensible, as they would have done to me had I been a recipient of this “story” forty-five years ago. In my case, as I think most of you know, I was confronted all those years ago by a presentation of the Gospel in such a manner as I’d never heard before and, in consequence, by the person of Jesus Christ himself. This encounter, which opened to me the hitherto opaque Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, led me to call into question the sufficiency of the parameters by which I’d been living, and to open my mind and heart to the possibility that this Gospel might in fact be true, including its promise of divine forgiveness—of which I’d come to know my need—and of eternal Life in the Presence of Love, beyond the borne of death. Here, indeed, it came clear to me, was the God-given answer to the tragic human condition I was already keenly conscious of. Here was the revelation, in the Man-God person of Christ, of the Creator’s cosmic purpose of realizing and manifesting in the fullness of time (which is eternity) the union of the material creation with its Author, God, who is Spirit. Existential meaning and hope, centered in the person of Christ and the revelation, through him, of God the Father, swept me up, renewing and focusing my energy and gifts. At the same time and in quite another register, I was lifted out of myself and integrated into an entity far greater than I with my particular cultural identity, achievement, and competence, such as these were: that is, the Body of Christ, the Church, the Israel of God, a reality rooted in the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition going back four thousand years, universal in its sweep and reach to every tribe and nation, and oriented to its ultimate (eschatological) End beyond this present Age, the realized Kingdom of God. This discovery of the Messiah and his people—of the Messiah who fulfils and universalizes the vision of the prophets of Israel—was doubly moving and significant for me on account of my own Jewish inheritance through my mother. In light of these remarks, it is my hope that none of you will be put off by what you read here and that all of you may be attracted, even moved, by the spiritual dimension of this account of our year 2014.
This “story”, I must add, does not include details of our daily lives in our house in southwest France or in Paris. These are not without interest, but to include them might have taxed your patience. It seemed best to limit the account to the major events in our year, of which there were many.
February 21-26: Siloé Annual Retreat
The first important event of our year was the annual retreat of the ecumenical community in Brive of which we have been members for forty years, Siloé. Brive-la-Gaillarde is an attractive city in the Corrèze region of south-central France, about thirty miles northwest of our house in the Lot region. The name “Siloé” is “Siloam” in English and means “sent” or “sending forth”. It refers to an incident recounted in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, in which Jesus heals a blind man by putting mud mixed with saliva on his eyes, and then tells the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man obeys, and “came home seeing” (John 9:7). The members of Siloé, including ourselves, find in this incident a representation of our own spiritual experience.
The retreat took place at the Abbey of St. Antoine, at the southern edge of Brive. Father Roger Telle, Catholic priest of the diocese of Arras, was the retreat leader. He had also led the retreat two years earlier. The theme this year was “The Inner Life”. Father Telle spoke first of how we see the other: we are to see according to the spirit, not the “flesh”; with the eyes of compassion, faith, hope, not of fear, hate, bitterness, envy, rivalry. Using Matthew 13:24ff., he stressed the importance of seeing the world for what it is, with realism. The tares are there with the wheat and will be until the Lord returns in judgment; it is not for us to rip them up. We must accept the reality of the ubiquitous presence of the tares—an attitude, I would add, that is distinct from resignation on the one hand and revolt on the other. It leads not to passivity but to inner peace and freedom, the freedom to see reality clearly and thus to act effectively, as lucid instruments of God’s purposes. Self-acceptance and acceptance of our situation are basic aspects of faith. This does not rule out, obviously, efforts to confront evil or establish justice, but it recognizes humbly, and realistically, that it is not we who are going to change the world and redeem it. It is God’s world, He alone can change it fundamentally, as He has already done in Christ for those who enter into the new covenant, and as He will do definitively and universally when the Messiah returns. Time and times are in His hands; we must walk by faith in Him, as disciples and witnesses; it is not up to us to bring in God’s Kingdom. Our vocation is to love and serve as and where we can, according to our gifts and faith.
Roger went on to speak about prayer, which he likened to our very breathing. True prayer means to address God directly, in a living, personal relationship. It must come from the heart, not just the lips; it must arise out of love or the desire to love. It is the language of faith. Without faith we cannot please God, because we cannot know Him. Faith is relationship with God, and prayer is its language. Jesus greatly admires and rewards faith, and is vexed at its absence. Faith is a gift, but also an act of the will, to lay hold of the gift. It comes by hearing the Word of God—that is, through the revelation of the truth—but it requires our response to that Word. It is not a leap into the void, but a leap out of the void—our existential void—into God’s arms. It requires an act of humility, a recognition of our limits, our condition, our need; it is an act of trust, in God and in the testimony to God as evidenced in the Scriptures and as borne by Israel and the Church through the ages, even in their weakness and disobedience.
Father Roger named a number of obstacles to faith: living in lies and deceit; bitterness, resentment; unwillingness to give up certain kinds of behavior; failure to forgive and to recognize our need to be forgiven; self-sufficiency, pride; rebellious individualism (“I’m fine as I am, I’ve got nothing on my conscience”, “I don’t need God, even if He exists”, “If God exists, He loves all of us, so it doesn’t matter what I do or believe,” “I try to do the right thing, I’m not a bad person, I lead a constructive life”, “When I die, I die, and that’s the end of it; divine judgment and divine mercy are superstitions,” and so on, along with the countless intellectual constructs to avoid simply humbling oneself and saying YES to the God to whom nature, the Bible, and the authentic people of God, the true Israel and the faithful Church, bear witness).
Father Roger put great emphasis on the Word of God, the Bible, by which alone we can discover fully our vocation, who we truly are as human beings and as individual persons (creatures—that is, created, not just evolved—made in God’s image and having an eternal destiny and the calling to be the joint between the material and the spiritual realms), and God’s plan for His creation, which extends beyond this life into eternity. The written Word carries and reveals the incarnate Word, Jesus the Messiah. Roger also devoted a session to communal prayer, the necessity of unity and mutual attentiveness, the power of praise to loosen heavy hearts, lift burdens, and strengthen faith. The last session was devoted to hope, the return of Christ, the call to watch and not to sleep, to stand firm, and to resist distraction, complacency, and discouragement in the face of opposition and trials.
It was a wonderful retreat, carried on mostly in silence. Roger Telle is a saintly, gentle, and lucid man, with great wisdom and experience. It was a joy being with all our Christian brothers and sisters in Siloé. We were challenged, deepened, strengthened.
April to early May: Italy
For three weeks, we stayed with Annamaria Fattorini Vaselli in Siena, on la Via Tommaso Pendola. The weather was cold, and Signora Anna had turned off the heat at the end of March. The larger bed was too small for both of us. Victoria’s cot-bed was tiny, and her bedcovers kept sliding off. There was no chair or desk in our little room. Signora Anna, a kind and well-meaning elderly Italian lady, spoke to us as if we were Italian. I understood about ten percent. This made things difficult. But we were on the same wavelength in our perception of the decline of European culture and the negative effects on youth of cell phones et al. We had breakfast and dinner alone with her in her tiny kitchen every day for three weeks. She cooked well, but our meals were stressful on account of the language barrier. Victoria, having studied Italian at Sarah Lawrence fifty years earlier, was of course able to understand and converse more readily; but even she found communication very difficult. We watched News and quiz shows on TV each night. I understood about five percent. We studied every day except week-ends at the Dante Alighieri Language School, with our teachers Cristina and Andrea. I tried hard, and learned something, but in the months since then, what I learned has dropped into my unconscious, alas. It is probably recoverable, however, if the need should arise, and the endeavour was undoubtedly good for the brain anyway, if not for my sense of accomplishment. It induced a keener sense of my limits, never a bad thing. My memory simply refused to get out of first gear. I found the grammar very hard, and my buried Spanish was more hindrance than help. My French was not much help either, somewhat to my surprise. But at least I engaged with this inebriating language, I grappled with it—so the exercise was certainly profitable. I came away with a good conscience, at least, though without much Italian.
After classes each day, we lunched in a different trattoria, on simple, delicious fare. Mainly pasta. I love pasta, especially spaghetti. But if one had an antipasto and then a pasta and then a main dish and then a dolce, one staggered away bloated, so I shied away from main courses. These were relaxed, fun moments, after the strain of the mornings. It pleased me enormously to see how happy Victoria was speaking Italian (with an excellent accent) whenever she could, in particular with anyone who passed her in the street leading a dog! What she had learned at Sarah Lawrence College fifty years earlier, and then had exhumed later, twenty years earlier, when she taught a basic course in Italian on an American Army base in England for the European Division of the University of Maryland, re-surfaced, and she enjoyed herself thoroughly, even if she was also conscious of severe limitations in grammar and vocabulary.
In the afternoons and weekends we roamed Siena and climbed up and down its steep hills. We made several visits to the splendid Duomo, with its statue- and gargoyle-laden façade and varied yet harmonious architectural styles, going back to Giovanni Pisano’s Romanesque lower section, dating to the late 13th Century; and with its black and white banded marble walls and pillars in the interior and hosts of saints and popes in the upper galleries; and the glorious pulpit of Nicola Pisano, a 13th Century masterpiece; and the Chapel of the Virgin and the Piccolomini altar, designed by Bernini and containing two statues by him; and the Piccolomini Library, with lively frescoes by Pinturicchio; and the astonishing marble pavement, designed by a series of artists and laid between the 14th and 18th Centuries, with panels of Sybils and Biblical figures; and the 13th Century hexagonal Cupola and elegant marble-banded Campanile, so characteristic of Italian churches. We went twice to the Opera Museum of the Duomo, which contains many of the original statues created for the façade by Giovanni Pisano, son of Nicolo, as well as statues by Jacopo della Quercia (among which a tender relief of the Virgin and Child with a worshiping saint and cardinal, exemplifying Jacopo’s developing style as he hovered between traditional Gothic piety and late 15th Century humanism) and the glorious early 14th Century works of Duccio, for example, the indescribable Maestà (Virgin in Majesty) with sober, adoring angels gathered around the seated Virgin and Child, and, in another room, his multi-panelled History of the Passion of Jesus Christ. And we also visited the Baptistry, with the great hexagonal font adorned with superb 15th Century statues by Jacopo, Donatello, Giovanni di Turino, and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
We passed many times through the Piazza del Campo with its nine sections of brick divided by bands of white stone forming a kind of shell surrounded by chiefly Gothic structures, including the Public Palace with its grand tower. We visited the Palace twice, and were moved especially by Simone Martini’s Maestà, more expressive if not more beautiful than Duccio’s of a generation earlier, coupled in the same room, called the World Map Room, with Martini’s very early, surprisingly naturalistic fresco representing the conquering Sienese soldier Guidoriccio da Fogliano; and, in the next room, by the amazing wall-encircling “profane” frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the mid-14th Century, which depict, in delightful detail, daily life of the period, and, allegorically, Good and Bad Government.
The Pinacothèque Nationale was a marvel, containing scores of Maestàs and Nativity and Annunciation scenes. Countless splendid late medieval Gothic presentations of the Virgin with Child, of which the fascination for us was the endless variation in the way Mary holds the baby Jesus and the way he touches her. Both of us find the hieratic style of that pre-Renaissance period of Italian art deeply moving. Time is suspended, caught up in eternity.
We also visited the house of St. Catherine of Siena, the great 14th Century mystic who was proclaimed patron of Italy by Pius XII in 1939. The late 16th Century murals in the chapel, depicting her extraordinary life, convey powerfully her love of Christ, her spiritual authority, and the works of charity and diplomacy that she performed in the years following the terrible plague that decimated Europe in the mid-14th Century. Frescoes and an altar honouring her are also found in the spacious Basilica of Saint Dominic, completed in the 15th Century, with its huge, virtually empty nave and wooden ceiling.
We were privileged to be in Siena during Holy Week, which provided the opportunity to walk through the streets in the candle-lit procession of Good Friday, along with many hundreds of citizens, and to participate in the Easter celebration in the Duomo. We were impressed by the fervor of the bishop, on that occasion and on the other Sundays we attended Mass in the Cathedral. Sitting under the countless statues that circled the nave and peered down at us, I had a deep experience of the communion of saints and the continuity, in time and eternity, of Christ’s Body, the Church.
On leaving Siena, we rented a car and drove to Florence. I was terribly anxious about finding my way to the hotel, lacking a decent map and conscious in any case that a map and modern street-systems in a given city, perhaps especially in Italy, never correspond precisely. But the Holy Spirit—I insist it was He, not chance!—managed to get us to our little hotel without too much difficulty. If you know modern Florence, you will know what a miracle this was. The city was crawling with people from everywhere. We had three and a half days there. We found it suffocating. The weather was chilly and rainy. The queue at the Uffizi was endless, likewise at the Accademia, with its Michelangelos, including his David. The crowds overwhelmed the art; I have the feeling, probably false, of having seen very little art, especially as a Tuesday, when virtually everything is closed, was one of our days in the city. Moreover, the Campanile and Baptistery were under wraps (cleaning and renovation), and of one of Ghiberti’s great doors we had a mere glimpse, of the other, not even that. Too bad. BUT, the glory of Brunelleschi’s great Dome—what a genius he was!—lifted us heavenward, despite all the earthly distractions; and we did get to see the breathtaking Masaccio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine; and Masaccio’s La Trinità, in Santa Maria Novella, along with the wonderful Ghirlandaio frescoes on the theme of the life of the Virgin, and the moving crucifix by Brunelleschi; and Benozzo Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi in the Medici Palace; and innumerable frescoes of Fra Angelico decorating the monks’ cells of the Convent of St. Mark; and Brunelleschi’s impeccable Sacristy in San Lorenzo (the two Donatello pulpits were under wraps…); and the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo, with the glorious stairway and the long, sober reading room. Sadly, we missed the Bargello with its Donatellos, and the Medici Chapel with the great Michelangelos, and the unfinished Pietà of Michelangelo in the Museum of the Duomo. I had seen these years ago, but was very disappointed not to see them again. In the Uffizi, the divine Botticellis and Uccello’s Bataille de San Romano are what I shall remember, along with Michelangelo’s The Holy Family and Piero della Francesca’s portraits of the Duke of Urbino and his wife. And I shall remember the bustle and babble and press of the crowds.
From Florence we went to Cortona, which was a dream. A fortified hilltop medieval town with incomparable views in every direction over the vast surrounding plain dotted with cyprus and olive trees, reaching out in the south as far as Lake Trasimène. On the afternoon we arrived, we watched a storm come in toward us across the valley. The black thunderheads rolled in over the plain like a tsunami, bearing vertical bands of rain spread out in curtains under the clouds. Lightning flashed and zig-zagged here and there in the rising darkness. The wind grew fierce. Finally, the cloud-waves reached our promontory and engulfed us in a deluge. Under pelting drops, we ran for the shelter of our inn.
We had a room in a tiny inn at the top of a narrow, cobbled alley. The high point of our visit, besides the town itself and its setting, was the inexpressibly moving Annunciation by Fra Angelico in the Diocesan Museum next to the church, and, in the same museum, the ravishing Virgin with Child Surrounded by Four Angels painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in 1315, which displays a tenderness between the Virgin and the child Jesus, under the discreet, somewhat anxious gaze of the angels, that is beyond description. Angelico marvellously combines his grasp of perspective, as acquired through the influence of Masaccio, with his religious concern to convey the spiritual meaning of the event portrayed, when God the Word who is beyond time, takes human form in time through the willing consent of a human being, the Virgin Mary.
Another high point in Cortona was the stunningly pure church designed by the Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini at the end of the 15th Century, Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio. The church is located just outside of the town walls and has a fabulous view over the valley and Lake Trasimène. Brunelleschi’s influence—the clean, mathematical line and elegant proportions—is everywhere apparent.
From Cortona we went to Arezzo, in pursuit of Piero della Francesca. We paused for a light lunch at a quiet trattoria in the Tuscany hills, where we sat outside in the sun. I had no map of Arezzo, foolishly, and we came into the city at rush hour, under rain. Hopeless. Twice I stopped to ask my way, using my singular Italian. The city was such a tangle, and we were so lost that nobody could really help, beyond telling us to “go towards the station”. Finally, at the end of my rope, I parked the car and asked Victoria to go out and ask for help. Five minutes later she was back with a shop-owner who said he would lead us to the hotel—it was near, he said, but we’d never find it alone! We were saved! Recipe: Victoria herself, her feminine charm, her good Italian accent, plus an act of Italian kindness. I cannot exaggerate my relief. The hotel was very basic, but we were allowed to park outside and it was near enough to the center for us to be able to walk into town the next day.
We saw first the two great crucifixes, that of Cimabue in San Domenico, with extraordinary grace and clarity of line, deeply moving, and that of the Master of San Francesco, equally moving, which stands tall over the altar and in front of the great apse containing the frescoes of Piero on the theme of the True Cross, according to the Legend of Jacques de Voragine. Following Saint Bonaventura, Piero likens the Cross to the Tree of Life. The Master’s monumental cross opens the way, as it were, into Piero’s great depiction of the Legend of the True Cross. Something in Piero’s work reaches me, as art, more deeply, more personally, than the work of any other Renaissance or pre-Renaissance artist, including Masaccio’s or Pisano’s or Martini’s or Bellini’s, or even Fra Angelico’s. Vermeer and Rembrandt affect me similarly, as does Michelangelo, though in a different way. In the modern, post-Impressionist period, only Van Gogh, Cézanne, Braque, and de Staël, and in a different way Chagall, enthral me in quite the same way. I’m crazy over many post-impressionist artists (e.g. Matisse, Klee, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, Rouault, Poliakoff, to name a few), but only a handful reach my deep heart. What moves me is the intuition that these particular great masters have of the transcendent, of the invisible, indeed of the eternal within the visible—and I would say, of the eternal within beauty, within the beauty of this present world, here and now, the beauty of love, the beauty of form, the beauty of color, all of which resonate with divine truth. Beauty as the radiance of truth. Great art resonates with truth. This is what I find in these artists, and it is why they move me so strongly. This is why we sought out Piero’s work in Tuscany.
Piero’s nuanced color is astonishing; so is the monumentality and impassivity of his figures especially his women. In a way that reminds me of Gauguin, color shapes his space, determines his forms. He is concerned first with a harmony of color and surface, with pictorial qualities, by and through which the narrative is expressed. This is very modern. But of course he is also concerned with spatial depth, and uses perspective with the knowledge of the master mathematician that he was. Though impassive and without definable emotion, his figures are immensely moving, having both a particular identity and a transcendent quality. They inhabit silence, even while playing a role in historical reality. There is nothing anecdotal in his depiction of an event, and his perfect use of perspective does not tie us down to a reading of his paintings as simply realistic portrayals. I feel here an echo of the late medieval spirit, though it might additionally be accounted for by Piero’s platonic sensibility. The ideal contains the real, the real contains the transcendent. But the ideal here is spiritual, not intellectual. This is a sacramental vision. Eternal truth is present in our concrete reality. The Gospel and its eschatological vision, not Ideas or Platonic Forms, are present in the background. This is very much the vision I seek to express in my poetry. The real is sacralised, infused with the invisible, and the sacred is made natural—not naturalistically, but archetypically, yet always at the same time in its particularity, with a rootedness in this concrete world. This is art, not description.
We wandered through the narrow streets of Arezzo, peering into churches and passing under ancient doorways, but time was limited, it was raining, and I am ashamed to say that I don’t remember a great deal of anything else except Piero’s frescoes in San Francesco.
We then drove northeast to the Residence la Ferriera in Loro Ciouffenna, an RCI residence linked with the Wyndham Timeshare company in America, where we stayed for four nights using our timeshare points. Loro Ciouffenna is a dramatically picturesque village situated at the base of the massif of Pratomagno, southeast of Florence by about sixty miles. The Residence is a lovely hotel beside a roaring mountain stream that cuts through huge rocks and cascades down to the town. We had breakfasts and dinners at the hotel’s restaurant, except for one night when we went into town to a little restaurant perched high above the river, where, from the window by our table, as we watched the birds circle and settle for the night, we had the best meal of our entire time in Italy.
On our first two days we hunted down more of Piero’s work. We went to San Sepulcro to see one of the greatest paintings in the world, Piero’s Resurrection, housed in the Civic Museum. The victory and authority of the Risen Christ have never been more powerfully expressed. Death is conquered. A New Creation is here. Alleluia! The Museum also contains Piero’s Madonna of Mercy, one of the artist’s first works, depicting in the central panel, and already in the hieratic (but post-Gothic) style of his maturity, the Virgin as Mother of the Church, surmounted by a stunning gold-background portrayal of Christ on the cross, with Mary reaching towards him and John with his arms stretched out in awe, admiration, and agony, in such a way as to open out the space of the painting dramatically.
We then went to Monterchi to admire Piero’s Madonna del Parto, an astonishing fresco depicting the pregnant Virgin, tabernacle of the incarnate Christ and, by symbolical transfer, of the Church, Mother of all believers. The colors, especially the bluebird blue of Mary’s dress, take one’s breath away; and the Virgin’s expression, archetypal yet capturing the inwardness of all expectant mothers, is beautiful beyond description.
The next day we went to Cascia to see Masaccio’s Triptych of San Giovenale, his first important work, painted at the age of 21(!). Influences of Brunelleschi and Donatello are manifest here, in the way the painter carves out space perspectivally, even within the late Gothic gold background, using the central “vanishing point” and the orthogonal (rectangular) lines of the Virgin’s throne and pedestal to achieve this. The four saints in the side panels, marvelously individualized and grave, contribute to this spatial sense by being placed one slightly in front of the other in each case. The two angels kneeling before the Christ-child, rigid yet realistic in the manner of Donatello, have their backs to the spectator, an unheard-of innovation that also enhances the perspectival movement.
Before returning to Loro, we drove to San Giovanni Valdarno to see another Annunciation by Fra Angelico, housed in the Museum of the Basilica. Again, the intense regard of the archangel, with his glorious red robe and yellow ribbed wings, and the returning regard of the Virgin, creates poetically that moment out of time and yet in time when the Word of God takes flesh within a human womb. A white column separates the two figures, symbolizing the link between earth and heaven; interestingly, Mary’s blue robe here does not cross over past the column into the angel’s sphere, as it does in the Cortona Annunciation.
On our last day we drove to La Verna, a Franciscan sanctuary situated in southern Tuscany to the northeast of Loro Ciouffenna on a high rocky spur separating the Valleys of the Tiber and the Arno. The terrain is wild, with a breath-taking view over the Alps of Serra. This piece of land was given to St. Francis by Count Orlando Cattani and was built up over a long period, starting with a small church constructed by St. Francis and the monks who first settled there in 1218. The saint came here a number of times in the following years, to pray and meditate in solitude. One can visit a cave and a cell where Francis lived. It is here that he received the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) in 1224, two years before his death, and a chapel has been built at the spot where this is said to have taken place.
The chapel contains an overwhelming terracotta bas relief Crucifixion by Andrea della Robbia. Above the Cross, to left and right of the inscription INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), the sun and moon lament the horror of the scene, as do the grieving angels clustered around Christ’s body, and the figures of Mary, John, St. Francis, and St. Jerome at the foot of the Cross. The eucharistic pelican surmounts the Cross, and the skull of Adam is beneath it, picturing the defeat of death by Christ’s sacrifice and the salvation of mankind through his shed blood. Above the Cross is a curved blue frieze of white cherubs, and then, above it, a floral frieze in the center of which is the Dove of the Holy Spirit, directly above and in line with the pelican. The scene is theologically dense and aesthetically impeccable.
Many of the buildings in this architecturally rich complex—now a major devotional site—are beautifully ornamented with other radiant terracotta works of Andrea della Robbia from the last quarter of the 15th Century: Pietà with Virgin and Saints, Adoration of the Infant Jesus, Assumption of the Virgin Who Hands her Belt to St. Thomas, Virgin with Infant on a Throne, a tender Annunciation, and an absolutely stunning Ascension, picturing the awed apostles staring up at the rising Christ, who is both majestic and relaxed, surrounded by very young adoring angels. The blues and the whites of della Robbia, sometimes accompanied by golds and soft greens, are without comparison, and carry a gentleness in the expressions and modelling that moved both Victoria and me to the core. Those who accuse him of sentimentality are perhaps guilty of not knowing what real sentiment is. He has always been one of my favorite Renaissance artists.
A wood of huge and ancient beech trees forms a kind of skirt to this splendid mountain site. What a place! We shall probably never see La Verna again, but it will remain in our hearts and memories until we die.
The next day we drove to Florence, I having prayed desperately that the Holy Spirit guide us into the maelstrom of the city center all the way to the car-rental place. And He did! At a crucial juncture, I made a correct choice and then called to a man at a stoplight for confirmation, and he said all was well, the next turn to the left, over the bridge, to the left again, and you’re there…and it worked! Relief! We dragged our bags about a kilometre to the station, where, as we waited for an hour amidst countless hordes from everywhere, we actually managed to find a bench. We had a change at Milan, where, as I recall (but I really have forgotten, or suppressed, this moment), there was a delay, a track change or something, and we had to race to make the train…but we did make it!
And so back to Paris by 11 pm, after five weeks in Italy. What an adventure! What an education! And what a joy for us to do it together! Unquestionably one of the great trips of our lives, even if the acquisition of the basics of Italian turned out to be a far more difficult task than I had anticipated. At least I tried!
May 9-10: Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Community of Siloé, in Brive
This was an extraordinary occasion. Forty years! For forty years, members of this community (a covenantal, not a residential, community, chiefly Roman Catholic but stalwartly ecumenical), have met every Tuesday to worship God, to share Scripture, and to pray. All are members of local parishes, where they worship on Sundays. Over the years, thousands of people from all over southwest France have passed through these prayer meetings. Many regional prayer meetings have started up as a result. Hundreds of lives have been changed, with immeasurable consequences in the wider society. Siloé has hosted and organized dozens of weekends, dramatic presentations, even conferences, which have had an impressive impact on the Church in the region. The community was founded in 1974 in Brive by Jean-Marie and Clairette Boutot, Lucienne Leymerigie, and Georges and Marie-Josette Bonneval. We arrived in France a few months later and took up residence at the Château de La Coste near Brive, a property belonging to a cousin of Victoria’s mother, Griselda Forbes, and her common law husband, the eminent Spanish ceramicist Vicente Casa Sempere, known as Vigreyos. Somehow Lucienne found out about us and invited us to attend the prayer meeting. We were soon deeply involved in its life and burgeoning activities, and for the next five years, as we worked as lay ministers in the Charismatic Renewal Movement in France, Siloé was our spiritual home. Here we experienced Christian community—the Church—in its authentic vitality, as the family of adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, through Christ the Son of God, hence as brothers and sisters in Christ, bound by love in the Holy Spirit.
The Anniversary Celebration took place at the Franciscan monastery of St. Antoine, as had the Siloé retreat two and a half months earlier. Well over a hundred people attended in the course of the twenty-four hours. Claire Patier, an outstanding biblical exegete, native of Brive and long-time friend of Siloé, presented an exciting study of the theological significance of the number “forty” as it recurs in Scripture, starting with Noah and the flood, continuing in the story of Israel’s forty years in the desert, and concluding with the account of Jesus’ forty days in the desert before starting his public ministry. Father Guy Lepoutre, another long-time friend of Siloé, then gave an impassioned talk about living the Christian life in today’s hostile world. “Jesus wants to live in our hearts!” he cried. It is only by faith that we can know who Christ is, and this comes to pass only by the power and revelation of the Holy Spirit. Certainly this has been my own experience.
The central event of the first day was a presentation of photographs, selected by Toni Contreras from among the hundreds submitted, that evoked countless happy moments over our forty years together. All of us older members were shocked and amused to see ourselves as we were in the 1970s and 1980s. Nostalgic feelings came over us as we saw ourselves moving through time. Events long forgotten rose up in our memories. Members of the community married, children were born, grew up, then married in turn. Some members moved away, some died, some who had moved away, returned. I think many of us had tears in our eyes as we watched the years—our years—unfold before us.
In the evening several people, including Victoria, gave powerful personal testimonies about how they came to Christian faith and then found Siloé. Then Gérard Macario, a long-time member of Siloé and highly inventive artist and playwright, hosted a series of sketches, in which the often hidden or unknown talent of individuals was displayed for all to see, accompanied by much merriment and laughter. Henri Bosch’s imitation, with admirable accents, of a variety of persons being interviewed about their attitudes toward Siloé, was hilarious (Henri is the current, very gifted, “shepherd” of the community).
After morning Mass the next day, celebrated by the Franciscan monks in the monastery church and attended by several hundred people from Brive and the surrounding area, we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch laid out on tables stretched in a line along the main corridor of the abbey. Wine flowed freely. It was great fun, the conclusion to an unforgettable celebration of Siloé’s 40-year history, and the inauguration, we believe, of a new, fruitful period to come.
June 5-8: Victoria’s 50th Reunion, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York
An exciting three days in the beautiful, vibrant college campus where Victoria spent four years in the early 60s. The spacing of the handsome buildings, and the plantings and trees, were a feast for the eyes. The food, served inside or under tents, was delicious. The two main lectures by faculty members that we attended were outstanding: David Peritz on “Shrunken Presidency? Diminished Democracy? Leadership and Political Action in the Eras of Lincoln and Obama”; and Glenn Alexander on “Blues and Jazz”. I shall not try to recapitulate what we learned (and promptly forgot?). But the lectures really were brilliant and made one want to be a student under these men. An address by President Karen Lawrence was also impressive. One understands why the College is thriving.
Victoria was greeted enthusiastically by a number of women: “Oh, Vee Lewis!” At a special Reception for her class, many made artistic presentations or recounted aspects of their lives and work over the decades. The atmosphere was convivial and warm. A long-past, and decisive, period in Victoria’s life was recalled with gratitude. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
We formed a rather special relationship with Alan and Nancy Mandel. Nancy was a classmate of Victoria, but they didn’t know each other. The Mandels were lodged in the same student house where we were, and greeted us when we arrived…in French! They both get on quite well in French, especially Nancy, and they really wanted to talk to us in French (they actually converse together in French, apparently, to practice--impressive!). So we spoke a lot of French in the next three days! Alan, professor at the American University in Washington, is a well-known pianist and composer and often puts poems to music. On learning that I wrote poetry, he asked me to send him all of my work, which I have done. He has responded enthusiastically to what he has been able to read so far—he was quite overwhelmed by May Day Morning in Yerevan, about the Armenian genocide, the horror of which he knew little about. Alan and Nancy are both Jews who have recognized Jesus as the Messiah and chosen to join the Episcopal Church. I told them that my mother was half-Jewish, and we gave an account of our own conversions. A real friendship was established. The encounter was really remarkable. We’ll see where it leads.
We also had the opportunity to lunch one day at a Mexican restaurant in Bronxville with dear friends of our friend Phyllis Morgan—James and Barbara Lee. They are exceptional people. They work for the UN. She is a translator. He is retired, but still carries out, as a kind of ombudsman, delicate tasks of reconciliation in countries around the world. We hope to see them again in Paris.
It was a wonderful Reunion—Victoria was very happy, despite having to acknowledge that what the Reunion signified, underneath the conviviality and excitement, was advancing age!
Figeac and St. Céré theatre and music Summer Festival: July 28 and 29, August 10 and 12
Two stimulating, intellectual-dialogue dramas, a style characteristically French, entertained and enlightened us, in the charming medieval town of Figeac about an hour to the west of our house in Puy del Claux, near Miers, in the department of the Lot. The year 2014 is the Centenary of the death of Jean Jaurès and Charles Péguy. Jaurès, The great French Socialist, was assassinated in Paris on the eve of the First World war; Péguy, the great social thinker, defender of Dreyfus, and poet, was killed at the Battle of the Marne at the start of the War. The first play we saw was a kind of dialogue between two actors representing the political and social views of the two great men and seeking common ground between them, ground that did exist, certainly, but that was severely eroded in their last years by incompatible views on war with Germany and on religious issues, since Péguy, after becoming a Catholic in the latter part of his life, rejected the anti-clerical views he had held earlier as a Socialist and supporter of Jaurès. The acting was remarkable, very intense, on a nearly bare stage with plastic chairs as props that had the actors constantly changing positions, sitting in various poses, stomping back and forth, even throwing chairs around at moments of high passion. Much energy. Moving. But, regrettably, because of the dialogue’s political focus, hardly a mention of Péguy’s faith and extraordinary poetry.
The second play was a dialogue between a young modern person and Diderot, as if the two were contemporaries. The acoustics were bad and the actors spoke their lines too softly, so I missed a lot. Despite the interesting conception, I found the exercise somewhat forced and odd.
We stayed at a very pleasant hotel, Le Pont d’Or, situated right at the edge of the Célé River, beside the main bridge of arched stone that links the two parts of the town. At night our little balcony looked out over the yellow streetlamps reflected in the gently ruffled surface of the water. In the daytime, the reflections of the buildings along the water’s edge created the illusion of an underwater world beneath the river.
The two concerts were among the most wonderful we’ve ever attended. The first was in the courtyard of the Château de Montal, the ravishing Renaissance structure near St. Céré. As we waited for the concert to begin, we admired the friezes along the walls, adorned with fanciful reliefs, birds, animals, etc., and the even more stunning portraits in medallions between the windows on the first floor; these portray, with startling realism, busts of the woman who ordered the building of the château, Jeanne de Balzac (the structure was begun in 1523), and of her husband and other eminent figures, and of her beloved twenty-four year old son Robert who perished in the Italian wars of that period (her motto “plus d’espoir” is carved on one of the dormer windows).
The String Quartet played Shostakovitch’s Quartet Number 8 and Dvorak’s American Quartet. I can’t describe their beauty. These two are among my favourite composers. The Russian’s work was composed in 1960 while he was visiting Dresden, and was dedicated to victims of fascism and the Second World War. Characteristically, it is full of fierce, staccato rhythms and heart-rending sequences, as in the last two largo movements, where he evokes tragic depths in Russian history, including the chant of convicts deported to Siberia. Shostakovitch wrote the quartet, apparently, “to save his soul”; it was his conviction that to forget or turn away from public horrors one has known or been close to is tantamount to death. I was reminded, learning this, of my own efforts to remember in poetry the unimaginable Armenian and Rwandan genocides. Although I did not experience these events myself, I have visited and taught in both Armenia and Rwanda and been deeply affected by the suffering the people of both countries have endured, to the point of feeling impelled to commemorate the tragedies in poetry.
Dvorak’s American Quartet pulls at my heartstrings almost more than any other piece of music. It was written near the end of the 19th Century, when the Czech composer was working in America. One senses in it his intense nostalgia for his homeland, coupled with his delight in American folklore motifs and sonorities. Dvorak’s melodic power is unparalleled, in my view.
There was a near full moon that night, and we drove home in perfect enchantment, watching the white orb play hide-and-seek among the clouds.
The second concert was held at the abbey-church in St. Céré. It was a piano recital by the twenty-five year old French-Moroccan pianist, Dina Bensaid. She presented a chronological sequence of pieces, starting with Scarlatti, that included a short Brahms composition, two Debussy Preludes, and the Variations on a theme by Corelli by Rachmaninov. Her playing was overwhelming, the more so as she came out looking like a teenager dressed in jeans and a loose blouse, so that one hardly expected the instrumental genius she proceeded to demonstrate. She sat down at the piano and then, before playing, turned to the audience and extemporized, with utter ease and not a trace of self-consciousness, as if she were in a private living room in front of a handful of people, a learned, incredibly articulate summary of the music she would be playing. Then she turned back to the piano and began to play with a technique and emotional engagement and power I’ve rarely heard equalled. I don’t use the adjective often, but it was truly awesome. Surely she will become one of the great pianists of our time.
Again, we drove home enthralled; and again, we watched the white moon play hide-and-seek among the phantasmagorical clouds.
June and July: friends, wedding
Rosie Perera, Victoria’s niece, arrived on June 25 for five days. We had two memorable meals out. The first, unplanned, was in Martel, when the quiet beauty of the medieval town (founded in the 8th Century by Charles Martel, Frankish king and grandfather of Charlemagne, who defeated the invading Muslim army at Poitiers in 732 in one of the decisive battles of world history) combined with the perfect temperature to persuade us to lunch at an outside table at one of the restaurants on the market square. The other was at the Relais des Gourmands in Gramat, one of our favourite restaurants. Rosie pulled her French out of wraps and communicated admirably with the waitresses on both occasions.
During her visit, Rosie devoted much time to recording, both aurally and visually, recollections of our lives, our travels, our careers and ministries, our life together as a married couple. With her singular technical know-how, she will edit this material into a coherent video that, we hope, will give pleasure to family and friends in the future. Victoria and I are indebted to her for her kindness in taking the trouble to do this. We were able to talk at length about our family backgrounds and our conversions to Christ in 1969; our on-the-job training in pastoral work in the US in the early 70s; our adventures in France as lay ministers in the second half of that decade, working with all Church denominations; our intense years in Oxford in the 80s studying theology (George) and Medieval mystical literature (Victoria); my ordination as deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1988 and then as priest in 1996; my five years as Canon Pastor at the American Cathedral in Paris, carrying out a parish minister’s duties (for example, preaching, celebrating the Eucharist, doing baptisms, weddings, and burials) and with a particular responsibility for developing the Francophone ministry; Victoria’s outstanding fifty-year career as editor (Houghton Mifflin, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House), teacher (University of Maryland/European Division, Sorbonne), and translator (CNRS) and lay minister, as well as her remarkable achievement in organizing, with the help of a close friend, Robyn Gason (now Russoff), two major international conferences at the American Cathedral, the first, in 2001, to honor the Armenian people on the 1400th Anniversary of the establishment of Armenia as the first Christian nation, the second, in 2004, to bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims from various parts of the world where they are working together for peace; our wonderful experience in Vancouver for three months in 2004, where both of us were Visiting Scholars, I at Regent College and Victoria at the University of British Columbia; and, lastly, our extensive travels starting in 2000, on invitation from local Christian leaders, to poor, often suffering, countries (I name them elsewhere), to teach theology in seminaries and theological colleges. A great deal of detail, of course, could not be included, but Rosie’s recordings nonetheless provide an overview of our eventful lives.
On two evenings I had the satisfaction of reading aloud some of my poems. Rosie now has on file on her computer all of my poems, published and unpublished, including those completed this last summer—an invaluable safeguard.
Our five days together were quickly sped, and we said goodbye to our niece at the handsome new airport that services Brive, from which she flew to London and home. Our three dear cats—the “shaws”, as we call them affectionately, distorting the French word for cat, which is “chat”—told us after her departure that they looked forward eagerly to a future visit. May it be soon!
A few days later, Sue Cleave and Theresa Gray arrived from Oxford for several days, winding up their holiday in southwest France. Sue is one of our closest English friends; we met in Oxford in the early 80s, when we started our years of research at the University. Theresa, who lost her husband last year, has become a close friend of Sue, who has never married, and they enjoy traveling together to remote places (like the Lot in southern France!). They too, like Rosie, were kind enough to listen to me read poems on two occasions; their appreciation, again like Rosie’s, was a real encouragement, as I have few opportunities to share my poems. Auto-judgment of the quality of one’s own work is difficult and precarious.
They visited a number of places on their own, and together we visited Loubressac and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne and dined out once, at Les Charmilles in Beaulieu. Time flowed quietly; the weather was good, unexpectedly; and we had several personal, memorable exchanges over the dinner table, of a kind one is rarely privileged to have in our hurried modern world. Sue, an excellent photographer (like Rosie Perera), took countless photos, including two unusual ones of two of our cats entering the refrigerator.
Clare McQuitty’s Wedding in Oxford
Our beloved god-daughter Clare McQuitty married Richard Woodall at St. Clement’s Church in Oxford on July 12. The Revd. Bruce Gillingham performed the ceremony, and I had the privilege of preaching. The wedding happened to fall on Bruce’s last weekend as incumbent at St. Clement’s, which made the event even more moving and memorable. We were able to attend his final Evensong service on Sunday evening before taking the ferry back to France. We have grown close to Bruce and Helen in the last years, when we have had a number of opportunities to teach and I to preach at St. Clement’s, so we felt honoured and moved to be able to participate in his last official services at the church.
The marriage ceremony was joyful, as everyone present obviously loved Clare and Richard and were convinced that their marriage really was made in heaven. Victoria and I certainly agree. It seems a perfect match between two remarkable people, both committed and energetic Christians. We are sure that Vanessa, Clare’s mother who died many years ago, was watching her daughter lovingly from her place at God’s side.
The reception was held at Witney in a handsome farm made available for public events like this one. The rain held off all day, clearly on orders from on high. The dinner was delicious, the atmosphere jolly, and the toasts were exuberant and heartfelt. Jonny and Chris, Clare’s devoted brothers, were hilarious in their interchanges; and David, the father of the beautiful bride, found himself, when he gave his speech, at moments uncharacteristically searching for words, so moved was he by the whole event.
Victoria and I are very happy that our wonderful god-daughter has found her man, and that Richard, her admirable husband, has found his woman. They will make a fine couple and, should they be blessed with children, will raise a fine family. They will bear much fruit for the glory of God the Father.
Early August: Retreat at Le Puits de Jacob, south of Strasbourg
Our journey across the country to Strasbourg was eventful. We went through Brive, then via Clermont-Ferrand and Thiers on the A79, then on the A89 towards Lyon. We exited at Pontcharra sur Turdine, heading toward Le Bois-d’Oingt and Lamure S. Azergues. Then, on a small, sparsely travelled road winding up through forest into the vine-clad hills of the Beaujolais, we climbed towards the picturesque town of Vaux-en-Beaujolais. Nearing our destination for the night, the Auberge de Clochemerle in Vaux, we came on a vigorous elderly couple carrying heavy backpacks and hoping for a ride that could take them the last few kilometres to their lodging in a small village not far from Vaux. We got them and their packs into the car and discovered that we had a lot in common: the French Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s, several Christian communities that we all knew, and some mutual friends! The couple—the Carliez—are professional people in their mid- to late sixties from Le Havre, seasoned hikers, doing the two-month long pilgrimage from Vezelay to Assisi, averaging at least 25 kilometres a day. Apparently they hadn’t seen a soul all day on the hiking trail they had followed, until joining the macadam road we were on, itself virtually empty of traffic. The serendipity of our encounter astonished all of us.
Having dropped them off, we arrived at our lovely hotel in Vaux-en-Beaujolais in the late afternoon. It was nestled at the end of the main street, overlooking regimented vineyards that marched up and down rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The beauty was breathtaking. We settled in, then ambled to the town center where an exhibition hall displayed original copies of the works of the local writer Gabriel Chevallier, whose best-known work, Clochemerle, written in the mid-30s, made the author and the little town famous and has become a comic classic of French literature. It takes place in Vaux and is all about the local mayor’s controversial decision to provide the amenity of a public urinal next to the church. It is funny, finely written, with strongly-drawn characters in the manner of 19th Century realism, and provides all kinds of insights into political currents in rural France in the 1930s.
The evening meal was sensational. The first-class chef produced a succession of jewel-like dainties and dishes, verging on the esoteric but unfailingly delicious; the guests had no choice in the menu—all local products, and what came, came. No regrets. It was heavenly.
We drove the next day north past Macon and Chalon-sur-Saône, then east through Franche-Comté (Besançon and Belfort) and Alsace to La Thumenau, just south of Strasbourg, where the retreat center of the well-known and highly respected Catholic community, Le Puits de Jacob, is located, next to an enormous, rather intimidating field of three-meter high corn. Only a few members of the community live at La Thumenau and are involved in giving sessions of various kinds throughout the year; others live in Strasbourg at or near the community’s main center.
Arriving a bit early, we signed in and then sat outside on chairs in the grass. Everything was lovely until we became aware that our ankles were being bitten by invisible insects, while other exposed regions of our bodies were being punctured by clever mosquitoes that managed to go about their work largely undetected. We retreated hastily to our separate rooms (the retreat was in silence, so married couples were separated) and emerged for dinner. As it was the first evening, talking was still permitted. We were just over thirty participants, at five tables. The table conversation was animated, the food excellent (as has always been the case at every retreat we have ever been on in France). We greeted our old friends, the Tixiers, who had told us about the retreat, and our American friend from Paris, Carolyn McFarlane.
The first evening and those that followed were lively charismatic prayer meetings of the sort we love and used to take part in frequently in the States and then in France in the 70s, when the Renewal Movement was in spate. The two main leaders, Monique Graessel and Father Bernard Bastian, are formidable and know perfectly how to orchestrate order and spontaneity and to sense the leading of the Holy Spirit. No “theme” was planned ahead of time for these meetings, except in the case of the Forgiveness meeting on the fourth night. A focus emerged gradually each time, through songs of praise, singing in tongues, Scripture, words of knowledge, prayers for individuals, tears, testimonies. An hour and a half of creative movement in the Spirit and deep fellowship. Wonderful.
The main talks in the day-sessions were given by Father Bernard and were of the highest quality. He is crippled from early polio and was not long ago near death and in a coma for two months. He speaks of faith with great authority: a highly intelligent, deeply spiritual man, a medical doctor by profession, who decided in mid-career that he was called to the priesthood. Maurice Zundel, the great Swiss theologian, is one of his mentors. His central theme during this retreat, devoted to the topic of “Inner Healing”, was God the Father and our filiation through Jesus the Son. His words were profoundly illuminating. His colleague, Monique Graessel, who concentrated on the more practical side of the subject, was, in her person and words, an ideal complement to Father Bernard’s quiet, humorous, rich style. She is definite, experienced, full of practical wisdom and exhortation, balancing an insistence on discipline with a gracious capacity to accommodate, even encourage, spontaneity.
Every morning began with the Eucharist after breakfast, followed by the first session. Father Bernard had a singular way of developing or commenting on the Eucharistic texts themselves with brief and altogether apposite reflections related to the themes of the retreat, and his homilies were invariably inspiring. During the day there was ample time for private reflection and prayer. We all met in small groups for an hour in the afternoon, and, at the end of the week, each of us had a private session with his/her group leader. For those wishing to meet with Monique or Father Bernard, opportunity was provided.
Forgiveness—on the one hand, the asking/receiving of it for sins of our own, and on the other hand, the granting of it to others who have seriously injured us—being at the heart of Christian faith and life, much time was spent developing and practicing that theme, culminating in the Forgiveness meeting mentioned earlier. On this occasion, having accomplished in an earlier session the work of asking forgiveness for sins we had recognized, and having been given the opportunity for formal confession to a priest, we were invited now to tear up sheets of paper on which we had recorded our decision to forgive particular individuals who had committed serious wrongs against us, a decision normally reached through prayerful struggle during the previous days. One of the accompanying prayer staff, usually our group leader, stood by as witness, and was privy to the brief spoken act of forgiveness each of us made before tearing up our sheets. The rest of the assembly remained in solidarity and prayer. The sheets were burnt up publically the next morning at the concluding Eucharistic service of praise and thanksgiving.
This final service was extraordinary. Each of us was instructed to hold up our Bible and read in a loud voice Psalms 147-150, while filing around the chapel, between the chairs, and out onto the balcony and back. It was a holy cacophony. We were all together, a united assembly, proclaiming our praises with the psalmist and the people of God down through the centuries, and at the same time each of us was alone before our Lord, offering Him our worship. The effect was overwhelming. It really was a heavenly chorus, whose seeming disorder was lifted beyond itself by our common aim and joy, to become a harmonious hymn of acclamation to our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so the retreat drew to an end. Much healing had come to all of us, as many public testimonies bore witness. God had brought us into a deeper humility and gratitude before His paternal majesty, and we had been liberated by our Savior from multiple burdens and sorrows, by the Holy Spirit’s tender, powerful ministrations. We shall always be grateful to these remarkable servants of God who led us, and to our God who inspired them.
On leaving, we followed the Tixiers to Orbey, west of Colmar, to the Monastery of St. Jean Baptiste d’Unterlinden, where about ten Dominican sisters live and welcome guests, and volunteer chaplains stay for periods and conduct daily Mass. The monastery is perched on the eastern flank of the Vosges Mountains and surrounded by splendid birch trees and spruce.
Compline and Matins the next morning were celebrated by the sisters in the elegant, modern, wood-beamed chapel, oriented so that worshipers look out through a large picture window behind the altar onto the hills and evergreen trees. We were happy to have some time with René and Eliane after dinner, to exchange notes about the retreat and catch up on our lives. We talked quite late into the night, and the next day, before parting, had a moving time of prayer for René, concluding a matter of great importance in his life that had been opened up but not settled during the retreat.
We drove west over the Vosges and lunched at a crêperie in a little town that served us the tastiest mushroom and then raspberry crêpes that we have ever had. We stopped later at a shop on a hillside that sells cheese and meats and wine and chocolates and all sorts of other things. It reminded me of stores in the American south that sell everything from soup to nuts. We bought some delicious cheese and several bottles of Gewurtztraminer wine, our last opportunity before leaving the region of Alsace.
The western slopes of the Vosges took us off the hills and down slowly to the valley lands that led finally to Dijon and Burgundy, where we joined other friends, Nadège and Alain Sigwalt, for dinner and stayed the night at a small hotel near them, in the center of Dijon. Nadège is an old friend from the American Cathedral at whose marriage to Alain about five years earlier I had had the honor and pleasure of preaching the homily. She displayed her passion for astronomy on the one hand and for northern Alsace on the other (where they hope to move soon), and our happy evening together fled by without our even noticing the time.
Eager to get home, we did little more the next morning before leaving than walk around the handsome old quarter where our hotel was located. We travelled west through the vineyards of Burgundy and stopped for lunch in a small town called Chapaize. We ate on the terrace of an excellent restaurant directly opposite a small, very old Romanesque church begun in the 11th Century, which, while undergoing many modifications over the centuries, retains the simple, plain façade of its first construction. The interior was cool and wonderfully still when we visited it after lunch. It had the smell of old stone and dust. We stood spellbound before the colourful, soft, smudge-like reflections cast on the stone floor by the sunlight streaming through the stained glass window panes lining the nave.
Just beyond Chapaize, at Martailly les Brancion, we stopped at a large wine warehouse hidden among houses in the little village, and bought ten bottles of Beaujolais and Burgundy wine, profiting from good prices and the phenomenal selection available. We love doing this sort of thing, even though our knowledge of wines is limited. One feels one is participating in the land and its people and customs, not just passing through.
The last significant episode on our trip was a stop at Cluny, where we spent several hours exploring the modern complex and the recently restored ruins of the great medieval church. The site is overwhelming and, to be honest, rather confusing, and we came away both awed by the grandeur of the original abbey as we were given to imagine it, and dazed by the contemporary complex as it has been elaborated.
On the way back, Victoria was driving. We saw a huge storm building ahead of us, the sky grew black, then suddenly a deluge came down such as we have rarely experienced in our lives. Visibility was terrible, but a large truck with four back lights was ahead of us, so I encouraged Victoria to stay in its wake—at a certain distance, of course—and to keep moving, rather than pull over to the side, as many cars were doing, a manoeuvre that would actually have been difficult and even dangerous. She focused her mind and nursed the car skilfully through the thick of the violent storm, driving for nearly half an hour under torrential rain. It was a joint effort of ours, Victoria fighting to stay steady, I struggling to stay calm myself and keep on encouraging her. She performed admirably, with courage and skill.
We reached Puy del Claux around 11pm, exhausted but content. We had been gone nine days. Our dear “shaws”, whom our neighbors had fed and cared for lovingly, greeted us with excitement and soon started purring as we picked them up one by one and cuddled them happily. We were home.
August 21-24: Hike with Jean-Yves Leflanc
Our old friend from the Community of Siloé in Brive, Jean-Yves Leflanc, joined us for dinner and the night of August 20, and on the 21st we started off from Rocamadour on a three-day, fifty-five kilometre hike that would include three stages on the Pilgrimage Route of St. Jacques de Compostelle. Jean-Yves is a seasoned hiker and had just done ten days on the Pilgrimage Route in Spain. He acted as our guide.
On the first day, from Rocamadour to St. Projet, we walked a while in the narrow valley running southeast beyond Rocamadour, then ascended through woods to the open “causse”—the plateau—of Gramat, east of the Combe de la Dame. We were high up most of the day, under a pale blue sky that stretched far and wide, carrying grand clouds southward that looked like ranks of furled sails set high above green reams of fields and woods of oak and chestnut that undulated gently way out to the southern reach of the Bois de la Pannonie. Farms and small villages lay here and there like patches on the green expanse. One had a feeling of immense horizontality, punctuated occasionally by the exclamation points of church spires.
The weight of my pack, not perfectly lodged on my back, began to trouble me as the day passed. We were walking mostly on small macadam roads. One particular climb of several kilometres I found particularly difficult. Victoria, who carried a pack not much lighter than mine, displayed astonishing endurance and kept close to Jean-Yves, while I fell behind into third position. We snacked somewhere on cheese and ham and at Reilhaguet forked south off the marked track to St. Projet, arriving at a delightful inn by around five-thirty. I was hobbling by then and felt completely bent out of shape.
The innkeepers were John and Lorna, a British couple who had settled in the Lot fourteen years earlier and had hardly been back to Britain since. Lorna spoke good French, John, none. They were extremely kind and welcoming. We were given a pleasant room looking out on the little town and, after showering and resting, we joined John in the back garden at an umbrella-shaded table surrounded by shrubs and bright flowers of all sorts. The drink they served us was an elixir. We rejoiced. “This alone makes the hike worth it,” said Jean-Yves, who was sympathetic to my aches and pains after twenty kilometres of hills. I agreed. As for Victoria, she snapped back from the day’s exertions like a rubber band.
To our surprise, after an exchange of pleasantries, John opened up about his wife’s health. A shock she had had many years before had weakened her organism, and as a result, he believed, she had contracted diabetes, though nothing in her genetic inheritance or her habits had predisposed her to it. She had put on a lot of weight in recent years. Her general condition was getting worse, and he too was beginning to share some of her symptoms and pains. One would never have suspected any of this from the few moments we had had with them. Lorna was all smiles and merriment, John was friendly and robust. But there was real suffering here underneath the genial surface. Jean-Yves had enough English to grasp the essentials, and we filled him in on the rest. It turned out that they were both committed Christians, and I felt moved to offer to pray for them the next morning after breakfast. Both John and Lorna, who had joined us during the first course of the rich dinner that was to come, consented gratefully. They both stayed and dined with us, as there were no other guests. We continued to chat as the setting sun colored pink and orange the fluffy remnants of cloud. We went to bed early, though I did manage to read a chapter from Clochemerle (mentioned earlier) before falling asleep.
We awoke refreshed. As planned, we had a good time of prayer together with Lorna and John before getting underway on the second stage of our hike. I suspect we may hear from them in the course of the year about how God will have answered our supplication.
Day 2, I must confess, has become a blur in my memory. The half-way mark, Le Vigan, refused to appear, and I was close to concluding at one point that it simply did not exist—the map must be wrong! We were much more in the woods today; the high, open country was behind us. Blackberries were still abundant, however, and we picked them with relish as we walked along. Rain threatened us at one stage, but passed us by with only a few spatters. In her poncho, Victoria looked like a parachute. The air was cool, the temperature good for hiking, a fact Jean-Yves kept harping on to encourage us. We went up and down, up and down, but fortunately there was no extended climb like the long one the day before. Jean-Yves misread the map at one place, after we had made a winding descent. We had to lumber back up the road, reassuring our penitent guide, somewhat disingenuously, “qu’il n’y avait pas de souci”—“no problem!”
We did eventually reach Le Vigan, to my great relief, where we had unexpectedly delicious crêpes at a local bistro. Then we carried on towards Gourdon, a hill town with its origin in the 10th Century, which was briefly under the control of Richard the Lionhearted at the end of the 12th Century and was pillaged four centuries later by the Huguenots.
I had contracted a blister, and by the end of the day my feet were seriously bothering me. Jean-Yves had lots of bandages, fortunately, which alleviated the problem temporarily. In Gourdon we found a primitive “gîte” maintained by Catholic sisters at the upper end of the town. Victoria and I had a bare room with two cots. Jean-Yves, in his room, which was the refectory, had to sleep on the floor, though he did find a mattress. The latrine, at the end of a long outside corridor, had no hot water, but we felt blessed to have running water at all. We only paid ten euros per person. Nobody else was there. During the night, to take care of needs, we crept apprehensively along the corridor with our flashlights. It was very silent and dark. I greeted daylight happily…until I examined my feet!
Before leaving Gourdon, we walked up the famous medieval rue du Majou, past imposing stone houses from the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries, to visit the fortified 14th Century Church of St. Pierre, flanked by powerful buttresses. A funeral was about to take place, and guests were waiting under the long arcade on the church square. In the somber interior of the church, dark-suited figures scurried about, making final preparations. The priest and an acolyte busied themselves at the altar. This was old France.
We set off on what would be for me the most difficult day of our hike. I had blisters on both feet. I had punctured them and put bandages to prevent the old skin from peeling off, but I was forced to limp. We advanced past fields and farms, through woods and hamlets, over main roads, and along the Céou River to the town of Abbaye, where the partially restored ruin of a 12th Century Cistercian monastery rises up unexpectedly on the steep hillside. The small settlements we passed through were nicely kept, often with handsome houses and gardens, but few public shops or restaurants were still operating, and “À Vendre” (“For Sale”) signs were not infrequent. Farming and tourism, it seemed, were the sole sources of revenue, and undoubtedly many of the houses were only occupied in the summer months.
We tramped what to me seemed an interminable distance, to Salviac, an attractive, lively little town on the old Roman road from Aurillac to Périgueux that became an important stop in the Middle Ages on the pilgrimage to St. Jacques de Compostelle in Spain. Once again, as always in this part of France, we were reminded of the Hundred Years War and the incursions of the English, and of the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th Centuries, followed by the Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. We found rooms in a simple hotel on the main square, and enjoyed fruit juice in the shade of chestnut trees at the foot of the 13th Century church, St. Jacques le Majeur, its architectural style a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic. After resting and savouring our triumph in making it all the way to our destination, we had a copious meal in a restaurant run by Dutch people, of whom quite a number have settled in this part of France, along with British.
The next morning, Sunday, Henri and Hélène Bosch, from the Community of Siloé in Brive (as mentioned earlier, Henri is currently the community’s “shepherd”), joined us at noon (the church was closed, so we couldn’t attend Mass), and we drove north in their car to Domme on the Dordogne River for lunch. The town, perched on the cliff above the river, is a major tourist attraction and was bustling with activity on this late summer day. We sat outside at a table high above the valley and enjoyed the sunshine and conviviality while watching the kayacs far below moving like water spiders on the meandering Dordogne. The Bosches are dear friends, and Hélène is Jean-Yves’ sister. We had intense conversation about the state of the world and the challenges to Christians worldwide as Islam, even while in crisis itself, gains traction around the globe and the decadent, materialistic West loses the transcendent center of its civilization. It was a fitting close to this unforgettable adventure Victoria and I had shared with Jean-Yves, bringing together many things we love most: Old France outfitted in contemporary dress, a peaceful site of great beauty (even if its history reminds one vividly of the violence of human life), exciting, meaningful talk with long-time French friends. We were under God’s gracious blessing, and our hearts were full of gratitude.
After lunch and a walk around town that included delicious ice cream cones, Henri drove us to Rocamadour, where we picked up our car and drove back to Puy del Claux. Once again, our three Burmese cats—our dear “shaws”—welcomed us with purrs and evident excitement. We thanked Jean-Yves for being such a wise and attentive guide, and said goodbye—until the next time!
September 13-14: The Centenary of Pastor Guy Bonnal
Guy is the only person we know who has reached one hundred years of age. His four children, Jean-Marc, Christine, Dominique, and Sylvie, organized a splendid celebration at the St. Marcel Restaurant in Réalville, just north of Montauban, where he lives in a residence for retired Reformed Church pastors. When we arrived at the Ibis hotel where most of the guests were staying, Sylvie and her husband Gérard were standing in line just in front of us. She had her back to us, Gérard was facing us, and as he and I stood looking blankly at each other, both of us had the amusing experience of seeing the other come slowly into focus, as if a photographic lens were being adjusted. We hadn’t seen each other for at least ten years, and recognition was not immediate. Suddenly, memory’s focus achieved, we both burst out laughing and greeted each other warmly. Most of the other guests whom we had known in the past but not seen for some time, we recognized more quickly, at the hotel and later at the restaurant.
Guy Bonnal, who is still in good health in his hundredth year, was one of the people whom God used providentially to bring us to France. (Guy is one of the four men to whom I dedicated my book, The Episcopal Church, Homosexuality, and the Context of Technology, which came out in 2013.) Victoria and I were in France in the summer of 1973, with the primary purpose of seeing my maternal grandmother, who was very ill. After visiting her in Étretat, Normandy, where she lived in the summer, we learned of an ecumenical conference that was taking place in south central France, in a town called Castres, for the purpose of discussing the Charismatic Renewal that had recently come to France from America. We managed to sign up for the conference. The Reformed Church pastor who was to lead the Protestant party could not come, and Guy Bonnal, a pastor in Sedan, had been appointed to replace him (Georges Siguier, who later became a good friend, to whom my book is also dedicated, was present as well). In the course of the two-day conference, we were asked to speak about what we had experienced in the Renewal Movement in the United States. It was evident to everyone present that the Holy Spirit was doing something extraordinary in many parts of the world. Excitement was palpable. We told of what we had seen in New York, Massachusetts, and the Midwest since our own conversions to Christ in the beginning of 1970.
What we said must have struck a chord with Guy, because it motivated him to write a letter to us a month later, which we received “poste restante” in Le Havre on the eve of our departure by ocean liner for America. We were sitting in a restaurant high above the port, looking out through a large glass window on the waterfront. We opened the letter and read the simple message: an invitation to return to France to work in the Renewal Movement! Guy closed with words that we shall never forget: “Si vous pouvez revenir en France, il y aura du travail pour vous.” (“If you can return to France, there’ll be work for you to do.”) He was so right.
Reading those words, our hearts leapt. Both of us have always loved France: Victoria, ever since she first came over at age fourteen with her parents; I, ever since I came over at age sixteen on a cycling tour with my friend David Noble. Victoria had returned at age eighteen to spend a summer at the Collège Cévenole, a Protestant school famous for its courage and success in hiding and saving hundreds of young Jews during the Second World War, who, if they had been discovered, would have been deported under the collaborationist Vichy regime. For my part, I had spent a year in Lausanne before attending Harvard, and had lived in Paris in 1962-3 and again in 1967. The beautiful French language was my joy, and French culture, with its style, rigor, and sensuality, had always deeply attracted me. Guy Bonnal’s words, completely unexpected, dropped like a horseshoe on its stake—a ringer! This was our heart’s desire, to live in France—but we had not really known it. Only God could have brought it to the surface and opened the way for it to happen. This was a glorious example of divine providence. Our heavenly Father, whom, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, we had only come to know less than four years earlier, was guiding us and caring for us. He was taking seriously our desire to serve Him in whatever ways we were suited for, and He was joining this commitment to an inner and as yet unrecognized desire to live in France.
We sailed the next day for what was then still home. During the next months, we listened to our hearts, talked with friends, and prayed with the parish in Connecticut and the prayer group in Massachusetts of which we were members. In July of 1974, convinced that God had called us to serve Him in France, we sailed back to Le Havre.
All of that was over forty years ago! And here was Pastor Guy Bonnal celebrating his centenary! During the rest of the decade of the 70s, when we worked full-time as “lay ministers” in the context of the Charismatic Renewal Movement in France, and also in the 80s during the summers of our Oxford years, we saw Guy and his dear wife Nicole regularly (Nicole died in 2001). We taught the youth in Guy’s parish in Sedan; we prayed many inner healing prayers for him and with him (Guy’s life had been difficult: he was born at the start of the First World War, his early years were conditioned by war and death, and he was taken prisoner during the Second World War); we ministered together in the large ecumenical summer gatherings at La Porte Ouverte at Chalons-sur-Saone in the Rhone valley and later at the Christian center at Gagnières. We also had the pleasure a number of times of visiting Guy and his family in Brittany at their house in Morgat near Crozon.
In the course of the evening at the Centenary Celebration, Victoria and I were deeply moved to see Guy’s remarkable, and still fruitful, life pass before our eyes in photographs and testimonies. We gave a testimony of our own, which was well received. People we had hardly known or not known at all back in the 70s or 80s, came up to us and said how they’d been blessed by a talk we’d given or a prayer we’d made. We were thrilled to see the four Bonnal children again, all of them committed Christians living productive lives. The number of Guy’s grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, increases every year.
Seeing Guy’s life—a life in which we actually played quite a big part—evoked joyfully by friends and family, was gratifying for both of us. In the process of viewing the photos and hearing the recollections, one of the most fruitful periods of our own lives was evoked indirectly, and we both had the feeling of re-living a unique, long-ago time—a period of hands-on pastoral ministry in the midst of the bustle and excitement of authentic Christian life, when the Christian truth we professed was applied and worked out in countless concrete personal encounters (names of leaders we worked with evoked many memories: Alain Schwarz, Jean-Daniel Fischer, Maurice Ray, Thomas Roberts). Those were wild years, often exhausting, when, still young and bursting with energy, we touched and were touched by literally hundreds of lives. The Holy Spirit was doing a new thing across the world, bringing renewal and fervor to a confused, struggling Church, pouring out love and spiritual power, preparing the way for the pagan, nihilistic, barbarous night we are entering into now—and we were privileged to be caught up in the middle of it! Thank you, Guy!
September 16-19: The Institution by the Bishop of Buckingham, and the Installation and Induction by the Archdeacon of Buckingham, of the Reverend Douglas Zimmerman, in the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aylesbury, England
We met Doug Zimmerman in 1996 at the American Cathedral in Paris, where I was serving as Canon Pastor. Doug was the youth minister, working under the Dean of the Cathedral, Ernest Hunt. A young English friend of ours, Tamara Cluett, was also in Paris that year, doing volunteer work at the Cathedral. They got to know each other, and fell in love. Tammy confided in Victoria, Doug in me (he took me to lunch one day at MacDonald’s on the Champs Elysées!), each wondering if we thought such a cross-cultural relationship, with the possibility of marriage, was advisable for them. We thought it was, if it continued to thrive after Doug left the Cathedral and returned to Florida. It did. Doug was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church a couple of years later, and they married soon after. Tamara moved to Florida, where Doug exercised his ministry in a number of parishes in south Florida, two of which we later visited in the first decade of the new century, to conduct short teaching sessions on the subject of inner healing. Four children followed, one of whom, Anna, now eleven years old, is our god-daughter.
Over the years, the family took holidays frequently in England, but Victoria and I, at least, had no notion that Doug might ever consider seeking an incumbency in England. Doug’s decision to apply for the post of priest-in-charge at St. Mary the Virgin in the town of Aylesbury, northeast of Oxford, and his subsequent appointment by the Bishop of Buckingham, seemed to come virtually out of the blue and was made with astonishing rapidity. Hearing the story, we almost had the impression that the Holy Spirit had done all the work and that Doug, informed of it in good time, had simply signed on the dotted line! In many ways, as Doug would agree, this really was the case. Be that as it may, when we saw them for the Institution and Installation, they were happily ensconced in the large presbytery near the church, feeling more secure and excited than they have in many years.
On our first day in Aylesbury, after catching up around the breakfast table, we were taken on a delightful walk in a nearby forest that runs along a hillcrest and rises to an open stretch overlooking a wide plain dotted with farms. An imposing monument to the British who died in the Boer War at the end of the 19th Century crowned the hill, providing, with its echo from another age, a depth in time that complemented the spatial depth spread out before us. For a moment, looking into the infinite blue sky above us, I had the curious sensation of not being sure where I was, spatially and temporally—England, another century, France, America…? The sensation passed quickly but it was a slightly unsettling experience.
Back at the house we had a moment with Anna and gave her several small presents, including a tiny clay model of a shepherd’s hut of the sort found in the rocky pastures of the limestone plateau region where we live in France. She immediately said she would put it on a shelf with some toy animals she had.
The service of Installation that evening at St. Mary’s was very grand. St. Mary’s is an old church and the most important in the city. Many clergy from around the diocese, as well as the mayor and other dignitaries, were present, plus a large gathering of parishioners and friends. This was the established Anglican Church in force. The Bishop of Buckingham gave a lively sermon in which he enthusiastically welcomed the young American priest to his diocese and urged the congregation to see in this appointment a call to Christians to be bold, to reach out in novel ways to the local community and beyond—in a word, to expand our vision and attempt new things. It was a fine episcopal exhortation, spoken with verve, warmth, and humour.
He then, as Bishop, read the Deed of Institution and gave it to Doug, the new minister, with the words: “Receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine; in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He anointed Doug with the oil of Chrism, signifying the Holy Spirit, and blessed all those involved in ministry from across the parish, who had come to kneel before the Bishop. Doug, now instituted to ministry in the parish, was then inducted by the Archdeacon of Buckingham into the concrete possession of the parish church of Aylesbury, with all the rights and responsibilities belonging to it. This was symbolized by the Archdeacon taking Doug’s hand and laying it on the handle of the parish door, followed by the churchwardens presenting to Doug the keys to the church. After this, the Archdeacon led Doug to his stall in the church and formally installed him as Rector of the parish. Doug proceeded to walk to the bell-rope and tug it several times—we didn’t hear the chimes inside, but they will have rung out over the city—and then the Bishop presented him, the new Rector, to the people. The people replied: “We welcome you! May the Lord richly bless you and make you a blessing among us.” A warm round of applause followed. The Area Dean in turn welcomed Doug and introduced representatives of the local community and various ecumenical partners. The Peace followed, and people moved about the church shaking hands and wishing each other the peace of the Lord. Then came the Offertory Hymn and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist. I had the honour of offering the chalice at one of the stations.
It was a splendid celebration, carried out with dignity, authority, and humility, giving appropriate honour to Doug and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The new rector of St. Mary’s began his work the next morning, while Victoria and I drove into Oxford, where we lunched outside in the sunshine at a riverside pub with two of our closest friends from our Oxford days in the 80s, Stuart and Hannah Sharp. One of the Sharps’ five children, Peter, is Victoria’s godson. We then spent an hour at the Natural History Museum, being dazzled by the displays of dinosaurs, reptiles, fish, and birds. Here, truly, the Genesis mandate to the human race to name the creatures (Genesis 2:19-20) is carried out scientifically with care and immense competence.
Our evening meal with the Zimmermans was very special. David and Saskia McQuitty and Alana Fawcett joined us, all old friends, once again, from our Oxford years in the 80s. The evening was in fourth gear from the start. Alana, a doctor who has been under great stress for a couple of years on account of her mother’s grave health problems coupled with intense professional pressures, was somehow released from the strain through the combined effects of wine and the Holy Spirit. She fizzed like champagne through most of the meal, leading the rest of us into contagious laughter for minutes on end. We had spaghetti and salad and then ice cream with a delicious apple cake made by Saskia, which, at the start, my poor vision insisted on telling me was topped with marshmallows, a mistake that launched us all once again into howls of merriment. A moving moment followed as we sobered a bit, when Tammy confessed that a way she had had with me as a teenager many years before when we first knew her in Oxford and were all part of a prayer group together, she had come to regret. She asked forgiveness for what she was referring to, which I quickly granted, recognizing, as I did, that the behaviour in question, which had not been hers alone, had been out of order and had hurt me. It had been her zeal and the self-assurance of youth that had misled her, not her motives, which had been good. I had failed at the time to canalize the zeal. I was immensely grateful to her for the maturity and humility that had prompted her to raise the issue, which had now been laid to rest for good. She chose, kindly, to stress how much Victoria and I had done for her and many others during our time at Oxford and in the years since. Victoria and I were very touched and gratified.
The importance of inner healing for the renewal of life in parishes and Christian communities occupied our conversation for the rest of the meal, until we realized that midnight had come and gone. Alana and the McQuittys rose and quickly headed off into the night. All in all, it was an astonishing, joy-filled evening, totally unexpected, and altogether led by God’s good Spirit, bringing each of us liberation, peace, and renewal. This was Christian fellowship at its best, as we related to each other in trust, transparency, and love.
The next day we said goodbye to our generous hosts, the Zimmerman family, and drove back to Oxford. We had the pleasure of seeing the McQuittys again for lunch at La Cucina, a good Italian restaurant on St. Clement’s Road, not far from St. Clement’s Church. They are dear, loyal friends. We have known David since 1982. He married Saskia a couple of years ago, and she has become a good friend too.
We then went to visit Elizabeth Clarke and Matthew Stiff, her husband. Elizabeth, the mother of two daughters, is a fine scholar of English literature, much appreciated by her students and the author of several important books, but she has been handicapped for about ten years with a disease no one quite knows the name or cause of, which has gradually eroded her motor and speech abilities. Matthew, who is now shifting professions and studying psychology, has had the sorrow of seeing his wife’s capacities diminishing year by year. Elizabeth has borne the disease, and the terror accompanying it, and the multiple disappointments, with great courage and determination, but the toll is showing. They are long-time friends of ours, and Victoria in particular has had many times of prayer with Elizabeth over the years. This was an occasion for all of us to talk frankly about what Elizabeth is going through, the challenge to her faith, and their struggle as a couple and as parents, to cope. We closed our visit with heartfelt prayer, but there was no way we could not be sad as we said goodbye.
We headed for Portsmouth and the overnight ferry home. Three days in Paris, then we drove back to Puy del Claux, to be greeted once again happily by our three dear “shaws”, whom our neighbors had been feeding and entertaining. We had driven 2000 kilometres in the course of the week, a week that felt more like a month, so rich had it been.
October 12-21: Ile de Ré, La Rochelle, Blois
As I noted earlier, we are owners in a Timeshare organization in America called Wyndham, which has links with many hotels across Europe and in other parts of the world. One of these is the Hotel Thalacap, in Ars-en-Ré on the western tip of the Ile de Ré, just off the west coast of France in the department of the Charentes Maritimes. The hotel is associated with a “thalassa-therapy” center, which dispenses various bubbly water treatments and messages with mud and algae, using salt water piped up from the nearby ocean. While not the sort of thing we would normally have considered doing, it’s fun and healthy, so two years ago we signed up, using our Wyndham points to pay for our lodging, and the experience was happy enough for us to repeat it in October.
The treatments are on alternate mornings and afternoons, and the rest of the time one is free to explore the lovely island. One can choose or not to eat at the pleasant hotel restaurant, which is decorated with potted plants and black and white photographs of island scenes. The weather during our stay was sunny and quite warm. We rented bicycles and rode out each day, enjoying the stillness of the nearby pine forests or the long views across the salt marshes that stretched for miles, circumscribed by dykes into sections for salt quarries or oyster farms. The land is flat, one is conscious of horizontality. The roads are narrow, meandering by the marshes, vineyards, and potato fields and through the small towns characterized by one- or two-storey houses with orange tile roofs and green and blue shutters set in white stucco walls. Always the sea is near, salt is in the nostrils, the horizon on all sides displays banks of cloud that in the evening take the form of turreted battlements or of long pink fish turning gray as the sun sinks deeper under the earth.
Ars-en-Ré is a picturesque, peaceful town with a carefully restored 15th Century church topped by a tall black-and-white, stuccoed spire, the highest on the island. Lime trees shade parts of the church square, and several shops and restaurants hedge it round. One-way streets and narrow alleys, adorned with marigolds and hollyhocks, branch away in all directions like veins. The town has an organic feel. The little harbour is delightful, its moored sailboats rocking invitingly as sunlight reflected off the water ripples up the white hulls.
We attended Mass at the church on Sunday, our last morning: the nave and aisles were packed with people from all over the western part of the island, and the strong sermon, clearly in the line of Pope Francis, was an exhortation “to be the people of God” in a secularized society currently run by an ideologically-oriented socialist government that is pushing measures, especially in education and the area of the family, that stress a libertarian egalitarian ethos at odds with traditional practice and with the views of a majority of French society, professedly Christian or not.
The other town we spent time in was Saint Martin de Ré, without doubt one of the handsomest and most agreeable towns we’ve ever seen. It is marked out by Unesco as a world heritage site on account of its massive fortifications designed by the engineering genius Vauban in the last quarter of the 17th Century, mainly as protection against the English. The immense walls and embankments run for kilometres around the town—one can hardly imagine what it took to construct them (this, I might add, is a feeling I often have when admiring some of the huge stone structures—castles, churches, fortifications—of Europe’s past). The Ile de Ré experienced constant warfare during the 16th and 17th centuries: Protestants and Catholics clashed violently, and English and Dutch fleets attacked the island periodically. In the early 17th Century, the Catholics took back the island from the Huguenots. Then in 1625 the English navy besieged St. Martin. An army under Louis XIII drove them back. Then again in 1696 another Anglo-Dutch fleet bombed the town, destroying parts of the main church in St. Martin. Then, during the Revolutionary period, in the last years of the 18th and in the early 19th Century under the Directory and, later, the Consulate, substantial numbers of Catholic priests and bishops who did not sign an oath of allegiance to the central government, were persecuted by the authorities and either imprisoned in dreadful conditions or deported to the Antilles, where most died. We discovered this little known fact in the Eglise St. Martin, where commemorative plaques record those sad events.
Walking the groomed streets of the town today, or lounging on the terrace of a restaurant beside the arc-shaped harbour crowded with masts and launches, one can have little idea of this tumultuous past. We had an evening meal near the water and watched the half-moon brighten in the dark sky above the elegant, discreetly lit houses flanking the harbour, and it did require an effort to imagine the violence that Saint Martin and the other towns on the Ile de Ré had known in earlier centuries. We were grateful for this example of modern prosperity deployed with taste and careful consideration of both the natural and the historical environment.
Our next stop was La Rochelle, where we stayed for one night in an elegant private house that welcomes guests, located on a private, tree-lined square near the harbor. The city is a jewel and is known as one of the bastions of French Protestantism. Huguenots controlled it from the 1560s until 1627, when, after a siege of thirteen months, the Catholic troops under Richelieu took the town. It is recorded that 20,000 of the city’s inhabitants were slaughtered or died from famine. That terrible time seems distant now. The city is a nautical center, as a manufacturer of nautical materials such as ship hulls and sails, and as the starting point of international yacht races, in which the French excel. The old port is delightful, surrounded by restaurants and paved paths for pedestrians and cyclists. We dined at a Thai restaurant near the harbor that our host had told us about, with delicious cuisine. The streets were full of people enjoying themselves. It was a happy moment.
The next day we went first to the Museum of Natural History and then to the Aquarium. Both are fabulous institutions, of international stature. Thousands of shells, insects, birds, fish, crabs, and mammals, along with fossils and magnificent minerals, all beautifully preserved, mounted, and exhibited, which have been assembled ever since the 18th Century from the Atlantic shore and from around the world, fill hall after hall. We were overwhelmed by the exhibitions, and by the glory of the multitudes of creatures in God’s creation, set out here for us to learn about and admire. As I wrote earlier with respect to the Natural History Museum in Oxford, here is Man properly using his rational powers to name, codify, order.
More was to come. The Aquarium is a tremendous achievement, a huge glass structure with 12,000 sea creatures living in 77 aquariums, designed with such visual and aural realism that one thinks one is there by the sea, or under water with the tortoises and swordfish and sharks and eels, the seahorses and angelfish and octopi, the shrimps, the lobsters, the groupers, the jellyfish, as well as countless shells and sea urchins and types of coral, all these and thousands more gathered from tropical seas worldwide, and from lagoons: the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Indo-Pacific. The color is unimaginable. One is dazzled, moved, humbled. One realizes how little one knows, how great is the creation, how great are the structures and laws by which it operates, how great is the Creator. And again, one realizes how great is Man, as long as he keeps his place and does what he is called to do—keep, study, know, enjoy, develop the creation in the service of the Creator and in communion with Him—and never presumes, through pride and its astonishing power to blind the heart and mind, to take the place of the God who made him. That such presumption is precisely what is gaining ground today under the influence of our technological power and the hubris of materialist ideology, is a matter of the gravest concern for all of us (I address this issue extensively in my recent book).
Our last stop before returning to Paris was Blois, the site of one of the great châteaux along the Loire River. We spent a whole day wandering through the countless wings and halls and rooms of the château, of which extensive restoration has been going on for years. The château, in reality, consists of four structures dating from different periods. The first is the medieval château, begun by the counts of Blois as far back as the 10th Century, but all that remains of it today is the magnificent Royal Hall dating from the 13th Century: a glorious civil Gothic hall with two wide spaces divided down the middle by a handsome file of Gothic arches and columns painted blue and orange, like the arched ceiling. The second is the Louis XII wing, built in brick and stone at the very end of the 15th Century, in the flamboyant, late Gothic style. A collection of paintings and sculptures from the 16th to the 19th Century is on display in what used to be royal apartments. The third, the François I wing, built between 1515 and 1520 in Renaissance style blending French and Italianate features, is the best-known wing, with its stunning open-air spiral staircase housed in a tower attached to the façade. The fourth, constructed over a hundred years later, between 1635 and 1638, for the brother of Louis XIII, Gaston the Duke of Orléans, is a superb example of Classical French style. Its balance and symmetry are perfection itself. We were struck in particular by the glorious stone staircase in the entrance hall that hangs in space without evident support.
Structural engineering—for buildings, bridges, roads, railways, tunnels, and subways—continues to be, in my view, one of the most awesome of human achievements. It is evidence, again, of Man (man/woman) made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). We have been given tremendous creative power. The heteroclite Château of Blois is a splendid example. One always wonders how such an astonishing structure, or structures, actually got built, stone by stone, quarried, hauled, cut, lifted, set in place, all according to master designs traced out on paper with mathematical precision by a succession of immensely gifted, trained minds. A marvel!
I must add in a lighter vein that at moments during this visit my mind went back to 1956, when David Noble and I (I was sixteen), accompanied by a very earnest Frenchman, Edric Cane, whom my grandmother had hired to keep tabs on us, did a memorable cycling tour along the Loire Valley and, later in the same summer, in parts of the Pyrenees Mountains. Lots of Loire-linked memories surfaced as Victoria and I walked around the Château of Blois (I have no particular memories from that long-ago summer of the Château of Blois itself, though I believe my two friends and I did visit it): a gruelling, seemingly endless, twenty-five kilometre after-dinner run through a forest from Azay-le-Rideau to Chinon, in the course of which I found myself yelling wildly at the trees in frustration (the wine at dinner was very drinkable, I recall, and I must have started off the ride a bit tipsy), with the night—once we reached Chinon—spent sprawled under the stars on a sandy spot by the Loire because we got to the town too late to find a place at the youth hostel (we were not equipped for camping); morning coffee with sweet canned milk in a weed-filled backyard of a rundown gîte in the then sleepy town of Loches; burying a heap of unswallowable chewed morsels of a tough piece of meat in a hole dug with my feet in the pebbly ground under the table outdoors wherever it was we were eating (I was too embarrassed to have the waiter see the plateful of mealy-looking spitbacks); David and I, both taller than the French we were with on a tour of one of the châteaux, finding ourselves on opposite sides of a room and staring at each other over the heads of the others as the guide did his spiel, then breaking into irrepressible giggles; my flight down a long, circular staircase of some château to escape what had become for me, in my youthful ignorance and arrogance, an insufferably boring tour, followed by my sitting on an embankment to wait for David and Edric and suddenly becoming aware that biting ants were crawling all over my arms and back, whereupon I ripped off my T-shirt and cried: “Au secours! Des fourmis, des fourmis!” Yes, it was a great bike trip… Nearly sixty years on, I have to smile. I can’t recall that any “secours” came my way that afternoon. I must have turned red from shame. Nor do I recall what I said to David and Edric when they appeared with the rest of the tour (some things are best forgotten). Yet I can see myself still, leaning back on that embankment and staring up complacently at the château I’d just escaped from, until—biting ants! “Au secours! Des fourmis! Des fourmis!”
October 26-31: Retreat in Auvergne with the Fraternité d’Osée
It is exceptional that we should have participated in three Christian retreats in one year. But, as I said at the beginning of this account, 2014 was an exceptional year, a kind of recapitulation in a short span of many aspects of our lives normally spread out over a long period. We have been close friends of Dominique and Christine Vincent, the leaders of the Fraternité Osée, for over fifteen years. Physical therapists, they live in Gisors, a town northwest of Paris, and for nearly two decades have guided and shaped a Christian Fraternity (it is not a live-in community, and all its members are part of local congregations) made up of all sorts of people from the region roundabout. They are Roman Catholics, but strongly committed to ecumenical collaboration. Of chief importance for them is not the Roman Catholic Church as such but Jesus Christ Himself, Head of all those persons from different confessions/churches from around the world who together make up the Body of Christ, the Church universal. As Anglicans, and especially as Anglicans anchored in the Charismatic Renewal, first in America, then in France, we were welcome from the moment we met them. At weekends they organized at Gisors and elsewhere in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was often invited to teach, and together we exercised in-depth prayer ministry of the sort we had done for five years in France in the 70s. Many times we’ve had the pleasure of staying with the Vincents in their handsome house in Gisors.
For the last twelve years, the Vincents have held a week-long retreat in the Auvergne region of central France, in the Massif Central north of Clermont Ferrand, where they rented a large house in the middle of hilly farmland that they have since been able to purchase outright. Persons on a retreat who cannot stay in the main house are provided lodging in houses nearby. The scrumptious meals (ah, French cuisine!), once prepared by a member of the Fraternity when our numbers were smaller, are now supplied by a caterer—a fine chef in his own right—who comes down from Normandy with his fully equipped truck and cooks all the meals out of doors in large cauldrons. There were fifty of us at this retreat in October, and the food was hot, abundant, and delicious.
The five days of retreat were divided between times of worship, prayer, and teaching (indoors and outdoors) and excursions into the beautiful countryside or to well-known sites like the Mont d’Or, the highest peak in the Auvergne. We hiked around two lakes (one of them a filled-in volcanic crater), took a trek through a stunning stretch of forest and farmland, ambled meditatively on a prayer-walk through fields, accompanied by large-eyed brown cows and a couple of bulls, and sang God’s praises on a high hill looking far out over the rolling green land towards the volcanic cones of the Massif Central.
Another singular feature of the retreat, one that takes place every year, was the festive “soirée auvergnate”, at which Fraternity members dress up and present skits, or tell stories, or play music. A local group of musicians happily accompanied us with traditional songs from the region. Two angels, one a lovely African woman from Bénin, directed the evening with sustained humorous chatter. Dominique Vincent, as he does every year, played an Auvergnat peasant clad in the regional costume, including beret and wooden clodhoppers; his wit and perfect local accent brought the house down, as it always does. Victoria and I had the honor of being king and queen in a touching skit devised by one of the women, about a poor boy who, unlike the richer folk who precede him to the court, has no gifts to present to the royal couple, only himself. It was a joyful, sometimes hilarious, evening.
The distinctive aspect of the teaching sessions, which were of the highest quality, was that they were given by two ecumenically-minded evangelical couples. “Evangelical”, in France, designates a rather disparate group of Protestants who are not part of the Reformed Protestant Church and who traditionally are very anti-Catholic. This is changing, at least in some evangelical circles, as this group grows in strength and numbers and, at the same time, takes note of the spiritual and intellectual quality of recent popes, of some of the good things happening in the Roman Church, and of the biblical injunction to manifest unity with all authentic Christians, regardless of their confessional (“denominational”) affiliation.
Three such open-minded evangelical couples joined the Fraternity for the retreat: one led the music and worship (Patrice and Christine Piquery), the other two (Michel and Corinne Allard, Joseph and Marie-Christine Pierre) gave the teachings. Michel Allard is a Canadian evangelist from Quebec who has been a missionary in France for nearly thirty years. Once we got used to his accent, we enjoyed him immensely. His testimony of deliverance by Christ from drugs and alcohol when he was a young man, is impressive, as are the clarity and force of his teaching, which comes clothed in humor and colourful language full of imagery. His wife Corinne, like him, has a painful past; but now, through her vivid experience of God’s love, she radiates peace and vitality. They are a formidable pair. The other couple, Joseph and Marie-Christine, are quieter but no less passionate in their faith. Joseph is a true pastor by calling and works with his wife in the area of inner healing, something Victoria and I have done a great deal over the years. His teaching has depth and precision, and he speaks a lovely, fluent French that simply rolls off his tongue. His manner is modest, but he can be very intense. It was a delight to listen to him.
The two focal points of their talks were, first, the usefulness and purpose of trials in the life of a Christian, to strengthen faith, build character, and deepen one’s intimacy with God; and, second, the great importance in the life of faith of opening our hearts and minds to the truth, revealed in Christ, that we are greatly loved of God and therefore loveable, with the consequence that we are called and enabled to love ourselves in the manner of the Second Commandment (“You shall love your neighbour as yourself”). The judgment due us for our self-will and its disastrous social effects has been taken by Jesus upon himself, so that the person who receives Christ comes out from under guilt and condemnation into liberty. The Apostle Paul declares this decisively in Romans 8:1 and Colossians 1:22. The point our two teachers were underlining was that this great truth should result in joyful, humble, grateful self-acceptance and the gradual healing and integration of our souls. Self-rejection, even self-hatred, is a common attitude among human beings, even among Christians, but it must be resisted. Peace with God entails inner peace, hence freedom and a disposition to love and serve God and others. The sense of guilt and the dour self-deprecation, often accompanied by judgment of others, that sometimes characterize Christians, display a wrong and misguided notion about what it means to be a Christian. Such persons are still living moralistically, according to the Law, rather than spiritually, according to grace. This does dishonour to God, who has redeemed us in Christ. God calls us to repentance, yes; He calls us to turn and face Him. This is not easy, and requires courage and humility, because in His Presence we recognize that we are not worthy. But He sees underneath the unworthiness; He sees the person He has made in His image, who, as a beloved creature, is eminently worthy. Hence He welcomes us with open arms when we turn to Him, whatever our state (one thinks of the parable of the Prodigal Son). Obviously this means that we should do likewise towards ourselves and others. We have all fallen short of God’s holiness, yes—but the whole point of the Gospel is that Christ has manifested the Father’s love for us and borne, in our place, our haughty defiance and the judgment it merits, so that, as we repent of our self-satisfaction and pride (or of our self-hatred) and are forgiven and set on our feet, we may rejoice and enter into a peace, a self-acceptance, and a wholeness of soul unattainable otherwise.
These are familiar themes for Victoria and me. We have tried to live them, sometimes with difficulty, and have taught them for years. But the way Michel and Joseph presented them had a welcome freshness and punch that quickened them to our hearts. All of us present during the retreat were greatly blessed, not least by the mutual acceptance and appreciation between the Catholics and the Evangelicals (and between all of them and us Anglicans!). We moved in one Spirit. It was a joy to experience.
On the last day I was given the opportunity to lead a prayer for suffering Christians in various parts of the world. This is a reality close to my heart. I opened up the subject and then prayed fervently, with tears. That we were a large group made this possible. I personally am not disciplined enough, or yielded enough to the Holy Spirit, to pray powerful intercessory prayers alone, or even with Victoria, though occasionally we do receive the grace to do this. This last public prayer with the Fraternité Osée was a deep, moving moment, which we believe will have sent ripples across the Body of Christ, as God answered and answers. How He has answered and is answering, we will not know this side of heaven. But a Christian walks by faith, according to God’s Word—we don’t need to know everything. Our calling is to trust—to trust God our Father who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.
November and December: Paris
The last two months of 2014 have been spent in Paris, where we rent a small flat. It is a great privilege to be able to live in this ancient, beautiful city. Now that we have more time on our hands, we are trying to use it judiciously, and profit more than we’ve been able to do in the past from what Paris offers: its monuments, parks, concerts, theatre, films, conferences, museums, and restaurants. Above all, we are renewing contacts with our friends here in Paris, as we are doing with you, dear readers. It is the time in our lives to do this. I regret that I haven’t the energy to enumerate here all our activities we’ve done and the friends we’ve seen in the last two months. Occasionally I am asked to preach or give talks or conduct a service at St. Michael’s, the Anglican Church where we are currently parishioners, or elsewhere, and sometimes we are called upon, as in the past, to pray for someone and do spiritual counseling. New opportunities may be in the offing, arising from my poetry or from my book, mentioned above, or from the publication of two short books in French, one, a joint work with two other authors that came out in 2013 and includes two talks of mine given earlier that year about the current state of the Church, and the other on Inner Healing, consisting of substantial articles written many years ago, which will appear in early 2015. In the meantime, the administrative and organizational work that I mentioned at the start of this document goes forward slowly, in which we are both engrossed and will be for some time to come. For all our anticipation of the future and recapitulation of the past, we are in fact living very much in the present, and enjoying life. Our love is deepening in mysterious ways. Each of us is a gift—a gift given, a gift received. We are grateful to God for his grace and care.
December 24-27: Christmas in Bury St. Edmunds, England, with the Apichellas
Michael and Judi Apichella, and their five children—Maria, Lizzie, Francesca, Caroline, Mike jr.—are old and dear friends, met nearly thirty years ago in Oxford. At that time, Michael, an American, was working at Radio Oxford, and Judi, who is English, was launching her teaching career. Times of counseling and prayer spent with them bound us closely together. As the years passed and the children arrived, our lives stayed intertwined. Michael broadcast a reading by me of the first part of The Bells of Swettl (the central poem in my book Rumours of Hope), and provided the poem’s evocation of dawn with a sonorous background of birdsong. Later, when he was teaching for the European Division of the University of Maryland, he opened the door for me and Victoria to teach courses there until we moved to Paris in 1995. Michael wrote many insightful books about Christian life over the years, as well as several novels, one of which, about Ngorno Karabagh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan (which we have visited ourselves several times), Victoria helped him to edit and refine. We visited the Apichellas in Bury St. Edmunds when they moved there, and they visited us in Puy del Claux. At Lizzie’s wedding two years ago, I had the honor of being asked to give the homily. The friendship between us and their family has continued to deepen through the years. In the ups and downs all of us have experienced, we have encouraged and supported each other ardently.
The arts, and the glorification of God through the arts, have always been of the greatest importance for all the Apichellas. In the first decade of the 21st Century, an unusual event transpired: father Michael and elder daughter Maria were both awarded doctorates in Creative Writing at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales! Maria is a fine young poet, and is beginning to receive recognition in literary circles. Two of Michael’s novels are likely to be accepted for publication in the coming year. The youngest of the children, Mike jr., also at Aberystwyth now, is already showing remarkable talent in both prose and poetry. Francesca is finding her way as a painter. Caroline singlehandedly organized a very successful arts conference in Canterbury two years ago, chiefly for students, where Michael gave a lecture, Maria and I read poems and gave poetry workshops, and Victoria gave a popular workshop on 15th Century English mystics. Whenever we get together, poetry readings play a central role. But painting is assuming a high profile too, as Francesca displays her recent work and as Michael himself, who painted as a young man but then dropped it in favour of writing, only to take it up again in recent years, continues to develop a stunning gift as an abstract colorist, producing vibrant canvasses that pulse on the walls of the Apichella house in Bury St. Edmunds. It must be added that none of this joyful and expanding creativity would be possible without the unrelenting, hard, professional work over the years of both Michael and Judi, and the faith, patience, organisation, and integrating love of wife, mother, homemaker, teacher—Judi!
Our Christmas celebrations were joyous. Daphne, Judi’s mother—the chicest grandmother we know!—lives with the rest of the family. Another member, often found curled up in a soft round basket near the wood fire in the living room, is Buddy, a sweet, elderly dog who looks like a slightly over-cooked sausage: brown with traces of black, the be-whiskered head of a sage, ears like limp leaves, a straight tail that wags a lot, and dark, expectant eyes. A new, exciting addition to the Apichella household was Andrea, the Italian fiancé of Maria—a gentle, handsome, attentive man who laughs easily has evidently set to boiling Maria’s Italian blood!
Our Christmas Eve meal at this starred restaurant, The Apichella Place, was the familiar dish that the head of the house has made famous: Michael’s spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese. The chef lamented that some—only some—of the meatballs were in halves and quarters rather than wholes, but the rest of us reassured him that, while recognizing this to be a regrettable flaw in the presentation of his dish, we would overlook the grievous error and enjoy the meatballs anyway. He was grateful for our indulgence, though he admitted shamefacedly to having tried to hide the broken meatballs in the tomato sauce, where they could masquerade, he had hoped, as ingredients in the sauce itself. His ploy was found out, needless to say, but this too we forgave him. The dish was simply delicious, despite the “broken” meatballs. Salad and a tasty 2009 Merlot accompanied the meal, followed by a fruit salad to end all fruit salads. What a feast!
We attended the Christmas service the next morning at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, a forty minutes’ drive west of Bury St. Edmonds. The church was packed with students and professors and Cambridge locals. The worship, with traditional Christmas hymns and organ, then with contemporary songs and guitar, was heartfelt and exuberant. We were thrilled to see such spirited praise of God in one of the main churches in this great university town. The Associate Pastor, a woman, presented a Nativity sketch with a young girl of about eleven years old. Their skill was astonishing. The girl will surely have a career on the London stage. The Nativity account from Matthew 2 was also read by a young girl, with the precise articulation that characterizes English elocution. The short talk by the Vicar was disarmingly simple and profound all at once, laced with humor and wisdom, again in the English manner.
Our Christmas luncheon, prepared chiefly by the gifted and efficient mistress of the house, Judi, was sumptuous: an imposing turkey, stuffing, gravy, cream sauce, roast potatoes, parsnips, salad, and a Christmas fruitcake with cream and brandy butter that was beyond perfect. All of this was served on a splendidly set oval table in the entrance parlor. Michael, who combines American and Italian genes in the body of a boxer, is a story-teller par excellence, with a rare wit that has everyone in stitches when he chooses to deploy it. All ten of us laughed and ate and drank to our hearts’ and bodies’ content, mindful always that what we were celebrating was the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in a stable two thousand years ago.
The opening of presents followed. A rock-pile of boxes heaped under the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room was distributed in a very orderly and civilized manner by Mike jr. The gifts were handed out one by one, starting with Grandmother Daphne. Mike went round and round. Smiles, shrieks, hugs, greeted each gift. We all had different ways of removing the wrapping. Some ripped the paper wantonly, others removed the scotch tape as one might peel a bandage from a wound, then unfolded the paper and pulled out the contents as if performing a surgical operation, probably planning to reuse the paper on a later occasion. Character analysis via a consideration of wrapping-removal styles would be an interesting exercise. As to the presents, they were all a delight, clearly the fruit of thought and love. Victoria and I were greatly blessed.
Later in the afternoon, Michael, who has taught film, showed us the great movie made in 1947 with James Stewart and Diana Ross: It’s a Wonderful Life. We were enthralled. I’m sure that many of you have seen it. With striking originality, it expresses the point that a life well lived, with love, generosity, courage, and a concern for justice, has ripple effects in society and changes countless lives for the better.
In the evening we just sat around the fire and enjoyed each other. Mike jr. read two impressive poems, one of which had been selected in a contest and published in a collection inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem about a hunchback. I read several poems from years back, the first of which is the earliest poem of mine still in my possession, dating to 1962 when I spent a year in Paris after graduating from Harvard and before doing my military service. The second was written in 1965, and the third in 1982, after a hiatus of seventeen years, during which time, among other activities, I had labored on, and then finally abandoned, a complex novel, after being convinced that I was not gifted as a novelist and that the book had become an idol and a false source of identity. The poem of 1982 was a gift from God, and launched me in the re-discovery of the talent that I do have, that of poet.
At eleven p.m. several of us went out for a walk with dog Buddy. The center of Bury St. Edmonds is quiet and safe at night. The empty streets were lit by yellow streetlamps. A handsome Norman tower, and the towers of the Cathedral and of St. Mary’s Church, were illuminated like stage sets. In a few houses where lights were still on and the curtains not drawn, Christmas trees could be seen standing at attention, flaunting their decorations. In the cemetery the headstones stood watch over the dead, while the trunks of tall trees rose up around us like angelic presences. The air was cold; in the silence we heard our footsteps scuffing on the pavement. Buddy trotted in front of us on his long leash, lifting his leg here and there to water street-lamps and cornerstones. We returned to the house refreshed and retired happily to bed. It had been a wonderful Christmas Day.
Boxing Day was slower, as you might imagine. After lunch, Victoria and I had a time of talk and prayer with Caroline, while others drove to a nearby park for a walk, and Maria and Andrea enjoyed each other’s company on the top floor. Another film followed: La Chorale, a recent French movie of great power and insight, about a bunch of rowdy boys in a school for delinquent kids run by a tyrannical headmaster. A new educator is hired, who uses his musical gifts as a conductor and composer to train and shape the unruly kids into an impressive boys’ chorus. He tames the boys by applying his own gifts professionally and patiently, with consummate wisdom, thereby developing their skills and giving them a chance and way to express themselves together in harmony. Meaning and purpose come into their lives, and a consciousness of beauty and order. The educator, splendidly acted, shows by turns toughness, gentleness, and humility, along with intrepid perseverance as he confronts a series of challenges to his authority coming both from the boys and from the headmaster. Once again, without the slightest sentimentality, the film, like the American movie we’d seen on Christmas Day, reveals the power of love, working through truth, to overcome evil. A masterpiece.
The evening was devoted to poetry. Maria read three characteristically surprising poems—what she does in her poems is always unexpected. Then Judi read a long, funny poem by Edward Lear, and Mike jr. read two finely observed prose pieces which he had composed as exercises for a class in creative writing that his sister Maria had given earlier this year at Aberystwyth, where, as a graduate student, she had teaching responsibilities in addition to her own research. Mike’s descriptive powers and the originality of his phrasing are astonishing for a young man of his age. He generously recognizes his debt to his sister. (I must add too that both he and Maria claim to have a debt to me, which of course stirs in me pride and satisfaction!) To close the evening, I had the pleasure of reading a number of poems composed over the last six years, which clearly show considerable development from the earlier poems read the day before.
On the final morning, after a delicious brunch of ham, eggs, and potatoes, Victoria and I had the joy of talking with Maria and Andrea and praying extensively for them as they move toward marriage. They bring together several different worlds and cultures, as well as a mutual commitment to unity and effective ecumenism in the Church. Their lives will be rich and will enrich many.
At last the moment came to leave our dear friends. Michael and I had found time to talk about a project he has to promote the arts in Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, an emphasis he finds to be missing in many otherwise vibrant parish communities. He hopes to involve me in the project, which assures us, if his objective is reached, of frequent visits in the future to this wonderful family, so full of life and love. May God bless all of them abundantly as they press on, in St. Paul’s words, “towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called [them] heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14).
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And so we come to the end of our story. December is closing as I write this. I hope you have enjoyed the journey with us. Upon all of you we ask God’s blessing. We thank Him that He has given you to us, as family and friends. And we offer to you, wherever you are, this account of our year 2014, in the hope that it will draw us ever closer in spirit. How many years are left to us, we do not know. God knows. In Him is all our hope, for this life and the Life to come.
George and Victoria Hobson