Thursday, June 14, 2012

Down by the Bayeux (Tapestry, that is)

Our group arrived in Bayeaux from Cherbourg early on a Sunday morning. The town’s celebrated tapestry museum hadn’t opened yet, so, in the meantime, we headed for the cathedral just a few blocks away. Bayeux is a graced and fortunate community. Remarkably, it is architecturally intact, little changed from its ancient foundations. Relatively remote, it has never held any strategic importance militarily. So both the town and its cathedral have been spared the kind of devastation experienced in other parts of Normandy throughout history, the most recent manifestation of which was the D-Day invasion of World War II. Upon entering the church, one immediately experiences a sense of surprise and delight. Contrary to expectations, this Gothic interior, at least, is warm and inviting, bathed in light instead of ominous shadows one might otherwise anticipate from such a medieval structure. Its pillared columns really do soar heavenward. The effect is astonishing: majestic, jubilant, justly proud. While meandering around the sanctuary on my own (and quietly snapping a few forbidden photos in the process), I noticed the cathedral’s rector, who was dashing about simultaneously welcoming people and trying to organize the liturgy. His sacristan just shrugged, sighed, and grinned: “He is always like that. Always.” When I introduced myself to him and mentioned to him that I was a priest visiting from the United States, Fr. Lauren Berthoult immediately invited me to concelebrate the Mass with him. “When does it start?” “Right now!” Oh. Thereupon, I was immediately shown into the sacristy to find an alb big enough to cover my jeans and t-shirt and long enough to hide my Adidas sneakers—and voila! Let the Mass begin. It was Pentecost Sunday so the place was packed—even after the tour groups (including my own) had been shooed away from the sanctuary for the time of worship. I sat behind the high altar a bit dazed, looking in amazement over the sizeable crowd and thinking to myself: “Is this supposed to be post-Christian Europe where the pews are empty and the faith is just fading away?” The liturgy was wonderful: the people were engaged and responsive; the small, but well-trained choir of eight voices led the congregational singing with confidence. Father Lauren preached, greeting the assembly in French, English, and German and speaking movingly about the power of the Spirit in our midst this Pentecost. The parish was particularly grateful, he said, for the children receiving their First Holy Communion, for the group of young people confirmed in just the past week, and for the young man to be ordained a transitional deacon in the coming week. Oh, and for the three families (presented at the end of Mass) as well, who had brought their children for baptism that day. From the line of people edging up to greet their pastor at the end of Mass, it was easy to see that he is a popular and well-loved leader. I asked an American woman who was living in the area if this had been a typical Sunday liturgy. Yes, she told me, but not only that. Apart from the liturgy, the people in the parish were really active and involved in multiple outreach efforts: to the poor, to young people and students, and to other faith communities. As I turned from her, I recognized our local escort, a gentleman of French Muslim of Tunisian background. Not only had he come back to claim his errant charge, but he had actually stayed for the entire service. “I love the Mass,” he told me. “I feel the presence of the Divine there. My wife is a Catholic and so we take our children to church and also teach them to observe the customs of their Islamic heritage as well. We trust that they will sort things out for themselves as they get older.” The group had a free period, so I slipped into the Tapestry Museum to view the millennium-old embroidered depiction of the Battle of Hastings (1066). And I am so glad that I did. The cloth is in remarkable condition, having miraculously escaped the depredations of both the French Revolution and Nazi occupation. The colors are vibrant and the narrative, engaging. A frieze depicting resilience and vitality—a vitality which continues unabated in the contemporary faith of the people of Bayeux.//

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