Lyon was beautiful to see. But Lyon was disturbing.
But then I could probably say that about you. You are undoubtedly a beautiful, even wondrous piece of God’s art, but you are disturbing at times.
The world is so beautiful! – it stretched out mile after mile in the French countryside. I saw it. But it is also disturbing.
In Lyon on a beautiful day, we tore ourselves from the lovely view on the bridge over the Saone River and came to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old City (a UNESCO site). Behind the cathedral were the remains of even older church buildings. All that remains of them are an artful arch, a remarkable baptistry surviving from the 4th century and stubby markers of where there used to be walls (my pic above).
The French Revolution
What had remained of the churches of Saint Stephen and the Holy Cross in Lyon were reportedly destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-92) like so many old church buildings were torn down and often used as quarries after they were nationalized. The still-standing cathedral was spared because it was turned into a “temple of reason.” Somehow the ancient baptistry survived. You can read more about the destruction of church buildings here. We saw even more ambitious vengeance when we visited Cluny, a huge, bucket-list, historic complex reduced to almost nothing. When we visited Fontenay Abbey, founded by St. Bernard (also on my bucket list), we saw it stripped to the bones.
After visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau, I could understand even more why people wanted to destroy the ancien regime with its fully-politicized and oppressive church. I have never really been comfortable with most churches dominated by powerful men. I could not even spend a full day at the famous Taize last week, when I realized how women were marginalized. The need for change felt like an emotional itch that needed to be scratched then and now.
As I wandered through history, I could not help wondering what the revolutionaries are doing to the present-day church once I got a personal look at what they did in the past. It did not work out that well in France. After a decade of hysteria, villainy, murder and ineptitude the French Revolution ended up with Napoleon, ensconced again at Fontainebleau. The U.S. might be ripe for the same kind of thing and install Trump or DeSantis. Meanwhile, its fully-politicized church, largely listening to Fox News (or not), would keep tearing itself apart as surely as people literally tore down stones in Lyon.
The age of the Huguenots
The Church of John the Baptist in Lyon is striking. When you look at it more closely, you realize it has also been struck. That fact speaks to me.
One of its founders was St. Irenaeus (b. 130!). By 450, a bishop built a big building there. By 1079 the archbishop there was named the “Primate of all the Gauls.” The present building was begun in 1180 and called complete in 1476 (these buildings are all a constant rehab project). Some people blame the missing and defaced statues on the cathedral on an outbreak of Huguenot looting in 1562. Huguenots were statue-hating Protestants like John Calvin (92 miles away in Geneva who died in 1564). They were kin to the Puritans in England and the U.S. There is a lot of church history in your face as you face the church, which left me with more questions than answers.
The church I experienced for most of my adulthood feels a bit looted, of late, from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Part of that is me being old. But more, I feel violated because, just like the Huguenots and like the Revolutionaries who followed them, reaction to the horrible excesses and corruption of the rulers these days is more about tearing down the past than building a sustainable future. I told one of my guides, “We spent some time in the church,” during one of our tourist stops and he gave me a pitying and puzzled look. I said, “We’re like that.” He was surprised anyone still is. The French church has never recovered from the Huguenot wars and the Revolution. I have a lot of friends who aren’t recovering very well right now, too.
I am disappointed over how often the newly-powerful keep doing the same damned things that are as plain as the nose on your saint’s face — chipped right off a Lyon statue! The new regime often throws the baby out with the dirty bath water when they throw a statue into the Saone. (I am not sure anyone did that but those statues are somewhere!). Yet another leader turns out to be a sexual predator and it is off with everyone’s head and burn some books. The ever-present powermongers get a whiff of how they could use your convictions for further profit or fame and we all think being at loggerheads is normal and every institution needs purifying (often in the name of tolerance and intolerance).
What Church are we building?
It seems I must have visited most of the French church buildings by now — they leave them open, so we go in to pray or sing. They are usually beautiful – so regularly beautiful you begin to take for granted the art, skill and passion that went into creating them. But they were disturbing. Empty. Echoing with violence and corruption as well as with praise. I met God repeatedly and wonderfully in them – but they have a lot yet to teach me.
We are in the process of making ruins of the 20th century church. I admit to abandoning it once Ronald Reagan got a hold of it. I probably threw out some babies. There is a lot worthy of reform and I hope we are doing it somehow. But I can’t see what we are building. The lovely things so many people attempted to build in the last 20 years are being swept away for what?
History has a lot to teach us about what creates faith lived out in community. The French revolutionaries thought history began with them so they missed some lessons. I can sympathize with them, though, and I feel the fervor of people who want change now — when it comes to racism, sexism, gun proliferation and climate policy, among many things; so do I. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.