I've just returned from France and the places we will visit in September. Here are some of my impressions, from the glorious to the mundane.
Of course I must start here. The poet Shelley once said, "What is in thee, moon, that thou shouldst move my heart so potently." I could ask that of Chartres cathedral. After at least 15 visits, I feel like we have barely been introduced, that I have hardly scratched the surface in absorbing the incredible art and presence of this magnificent structure. It is an encyclopedia, written in stone and glass, of which I read a few more pages with each visit. As is the case with an encyclopedia, the entire universe was its subject, the sum knowledge of medieval minds not yet tainted by the split of soul, spirit and body, not yet alienated from nature and the movements of the night sky, not yet shackled by the myopic egotism of scientific method and philosophical "enlightenment."
In representing the glory of God, all of creation was acceptable material for inclusion. The seven liberal arts are there, along with signs of the zodiac, labors of the seasons, tools of alchemy, sundials, animals, plants and flowers, vices and virtues, choirs of angels, and more. Parables and stories are profusely illustrated in simple, colorful detail in the 176 windows, like a walk-in classic comic book of the Bible and Christianity. Of course, the lives of Jesus and Mary predominate, but this celestial city is populated by thousands of figures, in stone as well as glass, from ancient kings and queens of Judah to Aristotle, Ptolemy and Pythagoras to medieval guild members, countless saints, martyrs and confessors, contributors and donors to the cathedral, royalty, ecclesiastical figures, and hundreds of anonymous portraits whose identity has been lost in the passage of centuries.
Ruth and I frequent a cafe on the north side of the cathedral, a modest place with a few postcard racks and half a dozen white plastic tables and chairs. Before walking the labyrinth we had a light snack of salmon paté, salad, and sorbet. Sister Anne Marie met our group after the cathedral had closed and led us through the crypt, up into the south tower and into the silent cathedral. She shared with us some comments, including the seemingly puzzling statement that Chartres hadn't been "built." I think I know what she meant; she was distinguishing between doing and being. Consider Creation itself. I don't picture God sitting down one day and saying, "I think I'll amuse myself by making a universe. . ." Rather, Creation was a bursting out of Love so expansive that it couldn't be contained, it had to be expressed in its multiplicity of forms. In the same way, Chartres didn't emanate from a committee that sat down and said, "Gee whiz, our cathedral burned down. Guess we'd better build another one. Let's make it big and fancy." Chartres resulted from a bursting out, like Creation itself, of a burgeoning spirit that couldn't be contained. Deep devotion and faith, unbridled imagination and possibility derived from new building techniques, and the pure flowering of intellect - these forces of "being" formed a state of mind which, combined with the unique political and economic conditions, brought into manifestation one of the world's greatest expressions of divine inspiration and human creativity. Its unsurpassed serenity and beauty served as the model for virtually all subsequent Gothic churches of that era.
We had access to the cathedral two nights in a row, one early (7:30-10:00 pm) and one late (10:30 pm - 1:30 am). During the early hours the windows still glowed in the late sunlight. Recent cleaning had made some of the windows brilliantly clear, shining in all of their magnificence. Despite poetic accounts of light streaming into the cathedral, what actually happens is that the windows capture the light. While the stained glass glows in its incomparable luminosity, the interior of Chartres cathedral is so dark that the lights are kept on in the daytime.
We bought 114 votive candles and put one in each lunation of the labyrinth, the circle of light further guiding our way through the circuitous path. We also walked throughout the cathedral, sat in side chapels and meditated. The walls seemed to hum a tone, the memory of 800 years of chanting, music, and prayer. We chanted each of our names, in unison, to add them to the permanent accumulation. To my surprise, I found that the staff does not blow out the candles at closing time, as often happens in smaller churches. As I pondered the flickering light, I thought how each candle represented a prayer, a wish, or an expression of gratitude.
The next day, Ruth and I were standing inside the cathedral when a family entered. The young boy looked around and exclaimed a long, drawn-out, "WOW!" The unknown master builders, looking down from their deserved glory, must have been pleased. "Wow" is an appropriate response to God's creation, to the message of Jesus, to the role played by Mary, to the tradition of service and faith. I am always surprised when I hear the statistics of Chartres, that of all the cathedrals, it has the widest nave, the longest transepts, the biggest choir, etc. To me, it is an intimate place. There are other cathedrals that dazzle me with the number of statues (Reins) and dominate me by their immensity (Amiens), but not Chartres. This wasn't by accident, of course, but there is no time in this letter for me to go into sacred geometry and proportion.
Our stays in Chartres have increased in duration through the years from half a day to two days and sometimes three. A week would be even better. Or a year! Our hotel is three or four short blocks from the cathedral. Don't forget your binoculars.