Historic Churches and atmospheres of prayer

We’ve been pottering around France (between Cauvignac and Sigalens east of Bazas) on holiday and have just been to Chateau Cadillac pictured here. We took a little detour to Rions – a small 13th century village stuck in time somehow, before the archaeologists and tourists have discovered it (so no tourists explanatory boards, just a quiet, sleepy walled village with stone paved streets 2 metres wide).

We have visited three churches in amongst the other things – Notre Dame in Paris, St. John’s in Bazas, and St. Martin’s in Cadillac. In Notre Dame the crowds were, well, crowded. In we poured through the entrance, struck by how heedless most of the tourists were to the fact that there was a Communion service taking place in the main nave of the building, traipsing across the church right in the way of the view of the congregation seated for communion. Any disturbance we get in our services from children and adults wandering around in Christ Church do not compare to the volume of people wandering around and amongst the people in Notre Dame, heedless of the sonorous melodies of the priest and people intoning the ancient tunes. I know the tunes and if I didn’t know the French, knew enough to know where we were in the service and felt lifted up by the sense of history and meaning in this celebration of God being present with us as a human being all those years ago. I wondered if, for most, the sum thought was ‘ooh it’s a bit dark in ‘ere init?’.

The other two churches, although almost empty of people, had gregorian chant going constantly in unseen speakers. All three churches were darker inside than I’m used to and had many more candles lit at prayer points. The emphasis seemed at all three to create a sense of prayer, touristic interest just tolerated as a byproduct of existence – no entry fee, no bookshops, tea rooms, guided tours, and other paraphernalia of touristic help, just the church and it’s worship. The financial costs are presumably amply covered by the sale of candles – Dhs 12 or so for one little tea light, or Dhs 30 for a full candle, and although I didn’t try it, the facility for confessions in English or French while you wait (in Notre Dame) presumably comes with a suggested donation/financial penance.

In English protestant churches and cathedrals we try to make ourselves more intelligeable at first aquaintance and more approachable with a smiling personal guide, guidebook, leaflets, gift shop, coffee shop and in comparison to the three churches we’ve seen here, we somehow end up advertising the history of the place more than the purpose of the place. In England I’m drawn on, with others, to the next interesting historical facet, but here I felt drawn to sit and listen and the desire to pause was much stronger. I really love the historical interest in a place but the celebration of God coming among us in Jesus Christ is a much deeper thing and to sit in a place that has celebrated this for centuries, and still seeks as it’s main aim to celebrate it, is a wonderful thing. But how can it reach out to all those who pass by as tourists without any understanding of the melody of the place?

At Christ Church we don’t have a big history to make a fuss about so it’s easier not to get distracted by it and our leaflet (Using the Church to Pray) at the back encourages people to sit in various places in the church building and ponder deeper things.

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