We chose Alençon for a stop on the way back from the Vendée to the ferry, arriving in the mid-afternoon on Saturday.

Alençon Basilica

The Basilica of Nôtre Dame, raised to this status by Pope John Paul II in recognition of its role in the life of the family of St Thérèse of Lisieux, is a strange mix of two styles. At one end the Gothic windows form a tracery along the walls of the nave; beyond this the solidity of an 18th century tower and transept (which replaced the former tower, toppled by a storm). The newer end is solid, unbreachable stone, like a fortress; the older exuberant and confident. The mixture somehow leaves a sense of change and uncertainty.

We sat outside a bar across the square from the Basilica and drank a beer, while perusing the leaflets provided by the tourist office. The English in the leaflet about the Basilica itself likewise leaves a sense of change and uncertainty; it’s once been translated well, then had extra bits added!

Inside the Basilica the side chapel dedicated to St Thérèse and her sense of peace and gentleness lies immediately opposite that of St Jeanne d’Arc, whose image is military and patriotic; two deeply contrasted derivations of the Christian life face each other, each unashamed. The information boards are clear and gently understated.

Mass is celebrated at what appears to be a wooden altar in front of the original stone one, as though the practice of the priest facing the people during Mass is still regarded as a temporary phase; the omissions and slight variations in the liturgy perhaps also indicate an uncertainty over the Roman Liturgy itself, and are even more confusing to the visitor already working in a foreign tongue.

The congregation is reasonably numerous but aging. The homily focussed on the feeding of the five thousand as a sign of the unity of bread, word and mission. One senses a contrast between the older, quieter people at Mass inside and the noisier and younger life of the square outside; but the clangour of the bells announcing finally that we were dismissed into the world to take Christ out into its carelessness brings the two into unity. If those bells did not ring out the town would not be the same, and one senses that the town knows that.

Photograph of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor...

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (via Wikipedia)

We stayed overnight at the Hotel du Dauphin, St Pierre des Nids, for which an unashamed recommendation. The room, recently redecorated, still perhaps no more than a room, but comfortable and fresh; the food is excellent and the service from the owners, Olivier and Sonia, is welcoming and cheerful. In the morning, we strolled round the village and gained the sense that there is more to do around here then we knew – we will return.

Then back to the city to visit the Martin’s House, where the parents of St Thérèse lived, and where the little flower herself was born. A smiling nun with a good grasp of English is called to show us round, and does so with a mixture of history, spirituality and personal joy which is quietly inspiring. The réalisation of the museum is very well done and brings the past alive, preserving something of the life of the family amid the shrine which has grown up alongside it. There is perhaps little of St Thérèse herself here – the house saw only some of her early childhood, though there are glimpses of her life and character – but the daily holiness of the lives of her parents stands out clearly.


chartres cathedral

Image by cloudsoup via Flickr

We’re in France, for a holiday.

The autoroute from the channel port takes us to Chartres; a convenient stop on our way to the Vendée coast. Chartres is a delight – the centre of the city with its small streets clustered round the Cathedral; one feels connected with the mediaeval. This is probably enhanced by the city having placed all its major car parks underground; the rush of the modern buried beneath the feet of the ancient.

The market in the sunshine is a riot of colours; there is a sense that there is food everywhere, from the market stalls to the dozens of restaurants. The Cathedral may be several centuries old, but the realities of life – the need for physical as well as spiritual sustenance – have not diminished.

Chartres Cathedral is a jewel; relatively untouched by the attentions of reformers and of wars, it retains a full suite of saints and angels in its carvings; its unmatched towers strive for the heavens. Inside there is more colour, at times rivalling the market; the stained glass in the windows catching the high sun and spreading a pattern of gem-like light across its floors and the ranks of chairs. On its floor is a famous labyrinth, said to have been used by the monks as part of their life of prayer – could they not have used the maze of streets outside? – but no, for they were monks, and aware of the labyrinth of daily life as well as the internal labyrinth of the soul.

There is a major programme of cleaning and restoration going on, meaning that part of the interior is clothed in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Looking up one can see where the clean stone meets the stone still carrying the grime of centuries in an inadvertent parable of purgatory; one day, we too shall be as clean as this, having been as grimy as that.  In the cleaned area, the light is more intense, the darkness is seen as an artefact of time. We must return when it is complete (in 2014); to appreciate how this cathedral (and presumably most mediaeval cathedrals) were in fact places of light and air, not the dark and heavy places they now so often seem.

We pay our money and climb the bell tower – I have too much respect for man-made heights to venture too near edges, but there is space here to stand a little back. On the roof of the transept a stone angel blesses the town, and from the bell tower stands out against the fields of the countryside, making its own urbi et orbi, as it has for hundreds of years, and will no doubt continue to do for many more.

The Angel at Chartres