Tag Archives: French

Disturbing French church buildings — and what we’re not building

church ruins in Lyon

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).

St. John the Baptist Cathedral church building in Lyon
Those niches below the rose window used to have statues

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.

missing statues heads on the church in Lyon
A couple of survivors got their heads chopped off.

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.” But 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 were often 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.

Tales of two types of French men

If I say one word of French, most of the natives of France will know I am an American. I think they can tell I am an alien by the way I walk, how I look them in the eye and smile, and how I laugh too loud. I am not quite the “stranger” the Bible tells us to take care of, but I am close enough — I certainly need a lot of care! Just yesterday a canoer extended his paddle to me so I would not float away down the Dordogne River, and then a woman volunteered info on how to use a parking kiosk which only spoke French. I suppose I’d be dead or destitute if I stayed in the country too long without people who care for strangers.

Our first major stop on this trip was Amboise in the Loire Valley, the fabled land of chateaus. My first major lessons on two kinds of Frenchmen were learned on the shopping street of that city. The little stories of two men meeting strangers have become a pilgrimage parable for me and might teach you something too.

Be kind

When we travel we often struggle to find something to eat, especially in French. (I studied up for the trip, apparently to little avail). We found a restaurant in Amboise which looked promising but the tables were all full on a lovely day perfect for lingering — and the French do like to linger. We decided to wait and see if a table opened up. I think I may have looked a bit like a Hugo pauper hoping the rich would offer me a crust of bread. To our surprise, a man who had been sitting contently with his wife suddenly got up and said, in halting English, “Would you like to have our table?” His wife smiled and looked at him with humor and approval and also got up. We made our way to their seats and he left us with a blessing. “Enjoy. And be kind.” There was more to his admonition, but it got lost in his accent. His actions spoke louder than his words anyway.

This care for others is a French virtue which appears as a stubborn streak in their societal personality. A few days later I was in Tours visiting the church of St. Martin, the soldier who turned church planter in the 300’s. He is almost always pictured cutting off half his cloak for a beggar, which he apparently did one time. Although the French generally appear to be disinterested in their old saints, a saintly charity is deeply rooted in many of them. I run into it all the time – and need it.

Speak French

On another day on that same Amboise shopping street, we were again scavenging for food and trying to buy a sandwich. I was attempting to speak French and the server was vainly trying to explain things in English. A man about my age was standing there watching it all. I don’t think he was in line, he was just checking us out. When the server went to collect our order, he said, “You are in France now. You need to speak French. This is not America.” I said, “I know. Qu’est-ce que c’est en Francaise?” He wandered off. But all that day he stuck with me. I was shamed for not speaking French as I was trying to speak French! Oh, the injustice! And what kind of guy butts into a transaction to make someone feel stupid? “What are you, the French language police?” Maybe you know how these internal dialogues go when your shame button is pushed.

This disdain for others and domination of others is also a streak in the French societal personality. I know, I visited Louis XIV’s Versailles, and who knows how many other chateaux by now. Someone commented on one of by brag pics to say, “The French garden is mostly about making boundaries!” That is sort of true. You get over the moat, through the castle, into the walled garden, and every flower bed has an exquisite little hedge around it or some other “wall.” They are territorial and don’t mind telling you.

What will become of us?

Looking at the United States from far away, I have to wonder which of these kind of people will prevail in my country. Quite few of my friends have been out demanding school children be allowed to grow up without needing an armed teacher. But many of them are also rabidly in favor of filling Ukraine with weaponry so they can beat back Russia. Are you kind about either opinion? I’ve been wondering what my dominate streak is.

I am trying to be kind. I find that relatively easy with my loved ones, or with people who look like they are about ready to be kind back. But if you look violent, or you have a face that looks ready to shame me, I might wall off my garden. So on my pilgrimage, I keep looking for places to pray and wonder and listen for a deep way to form my personality. Thank you, Jesus, that so many others are also looking, and even looking out for me!