Thursday, November 25, 2010

Brittany – Part II - We return Susan’s mother’s ashes to her native land and visit Normandy

Exterior of Notre Dame de Lorette in Roudouallec.  We interred some of Susan's mother's ashes beneath the hollow tree in the churchyard

The hollow tree.
On Thursday, we drove back up to Roudouallec to inter a small portion of Susan’s mother’s cremated remains beneath a very special hollow tree in the churchyard.   Local lore states that the tree is 1,000 years old.  One can sit in the hollow at the base of the tree and we have a picture of Susan’s mother sitting in that tree from our previous visit.  Interring her ashes was a very poignant moment for us as well as for the family members present who felt that we had brought “Anna” home.    

Monument on Omaha Beach
After tea and Gateau Breton in a local cafe with Lillian, Jean, Christian, Marie Louise (Christian’s wife) and Rene, we bid the Roudouallec family a tearful farewell and set off for Normandy.  It was about a four hour drive.   

Les Braves by French Sculpture Anilore Banilon is on Omaha Beach

We arrived in time to get lunch and then made our way to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.   Susan and I had not been to Normandy before.  I found myself silenced by the sanctity of this place in both the world’s history and the American story.  On that soil the depth of sacrifice is profound and the horror of war is writ large.  The Gospel words, “Greater love hath no one than this, then to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13) resounded in my mind and heart.   It was deeply prayerful time and many emotions and thoughts came to me there.  Among other things,  it was stirring to note that headstones of soldiers from all over the United States were next to each other without regard to region.   A headstone for a young soldier from Texas was next to one from Minnesota which was next to one from Pennsylvania which was next to one from Florida which was next to one from Massachusetts. There were Christian crosses next to Jewish Stars of David.  This was a time when our nation was united in purpose to accomplish something vital for a great cause.  It was challenging to consider this in light of the bitter divisions of “Red States and Blue States” and the often petty partisanship which marks our own time.

At the American Cemetery in Normandy
I was also deeply moved by the many stones engraved “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known but to God.”  How much we owe to so many whose names we don’t even know!  It also occurred to me that it is the same way with the Christian Church.   Our yearly observance of All Saints acknowledges and celebrates the saints, known and unknown, who have been exemplars of the faith and models of the imitation of Christ.
To an unknown

We approached Mont St. Michel as the sun was setting

We left the American Cemetery just after the American flag was lowered and the cemetery was closing. We had decided to head for Mont St. Michel.  I was thankful for my GPS, which I had loaded with European maps.  It was invaluable in our getting around and especially in France where we were often on back-roads in the dark.   We arrived at Mont St. Michel as the sun was setting.  Floodlight illuminated that historic and beautiful site.  We were too late to go up to the top, but we had all been to the top before Nd weren't too disappointed. Instead, we walked around the base a little bit then had a lovely dinner and then got on the road back to Quimper.

Some of the 3,000 standing stones of the Carnac Alignment

On Friday, we focused on some of the Celtic dimensions of Brittany.   We visited Carnac which has an exceptional number of so-called “Standing Stones.” There are more than 3,000 of these standing stones which are part of the Carnac Alignment.  They are actually Pre-Celtic and date to between 4,000 B.C. and 2,500 B.C.   In visiting Carnac, we were making a connection with New Grange which we had visited in Ireland, and also with Stonehenge which we had visited before.   It was striking to see many of the same designs and symbols we had seen carved into the stones of New Grange in some of the stones at Carnac.   These designs and symbols would be incorporated into Celtic art and some are lasting symbols of Brittany.  

We also visited the Cathedral of St. Corentin in Quimper as well as the Breton Museum which is in the old episcopal palace and tells the story of Breton history and culture.   The Cathedral is remarkably beautiful and quite unusual in that the nave is slightly bent between the transept and the choir and sanctuary .  One source reports that this was to avoid a swampy area when it was being constructed.  Another source adds a more pious image, suggesting the bend in the cruciform church hints at the tilted head of Christ on the cross.

Interior of St. Corentin with its distinctive bend in the nave

When we had visited on our previous trip, the Cathedral was being renovated.  The renovation and restoration has been very successful.   Of English birth, St. Corentin is reputed to have come over from Wales as a part of Celtic missionary activities and is considered one of the “seven founder saints of Christianity in Brittany.”  A brochure published by the Cathedral notes, “According to tradition, Corentin chose to live a hermit’s existence on the wild slopes of the Menez-Hom to bear witness to his faith, with the Eucharist as his only means of survival.  Every day he took a piece of fish from the nearby holy well, only to find it miraculously whole again the following day.   The same Latin source recounts that Gradlon, the king of the region, sought out Corentin and begged him to become the minister of his capital, Kemper [Quimper] at the confluence of the rivers Odet and Steir, so making him one of the founders of the dioceses of Brittany between the 5th and 7th centuries.”  It should be noted that my favorite on-line resource, Wikipedia states that Corentin is “the patron saint of seafood!”  I was intrigued by this hermit-bishop who seemed to me to tie together the Desert Fathers that had dominated the early part of my sabbatical experience with the Celtic saints like Cuthbert who had punctuated our journeys to Scotland, Ireland and England.  The Cathedral had a stunning sculpture in wood and polychrome of the Entombment of Christ which dates to the 18th century. 

Entombment of Christ in St. Corentin
We also visited  the Breton Museum which is adjacent to the Cathedral and once had been the episcopal palace.  I wanted to see if they had information about the Celtic influence on Brittany, and especially about the Celtic Christian experience in the region.  Unfortunately, there was nothing.  They do have wonderful examples of Christian art of the area and especially examples of wood and polychrome statues.  All are, however, from a much later period.  There was no information about the Christian experience of the 4th - 7th centuries which was of particular interest to me.  The Museum does have some wonderful local paintings and also has a terrific collection of the distinctive costumes worn by the local people on holidays and fetes. The woman's lace bonnets are especially noteworthy and each town in Brittany has its own design.  I really want to have one made for Susan!

John the Baptist - Wood and Polychrome form the Breton Museum

An example of the traditional costume of a Breton woman

Late Friday afternoon, we had a special rendezvous and met a family member for the first time. A woman named Catherine Belleguic-Coulis had contacted Susan via Facebook.  While we were very well informed about Susan's mother's maternal side (the Bourhis family), we knew very little about the paternal, Belleguic, side of the family tree.  Catherine, who lives in nearby Lorent, arranged to meet us at the hotel for tea. Her father and Susan's grandfather were cousins. Their town of origin was Scaer, also in Brittany and not too far  from from Roudouallec. Catherine had done extensive work on the family tree and she was interested in meeting Diane and Susan and filling in more information.  It was quite exciting to meet her.
With Catherine Bellequic-Coulis

After our get-together with Catherine, Rene picked us up to drive us to dinner at the home of Sylvie and Sebastien Bourhis and their two children.  Sebastien is Jacqueline and Rene’s oldest son.  Once again, we were treated to an enormous and delicious meal, and wonderful company and conversation crossing back and forth between French and English.

We left Brittany on Saturday and returned by train to Paris for our last full day in France.

The line of people waiting to go through security at Versailles

Neither Diane, Susan nor I had ever been to Versailles.  We had hoped to visit it the week before, but it had been closed.   We decided to get an early train on Sunday morning and get to Versailles by its opening at 9:30.  

Versailles had originally been used as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII and was renovated and expanded to incredible glory by Louis XIV.  It  is now an amazing museum dedicated to knowledge, science and the arts.   As we walked through it, one couldn’t help but be amazed by its magnificence.  I also found myself understanding why there had been a revolution!  The king had himself and the royal family removed to Versailles in order to get away from the “rabble” of Paris.   The huge disparity between the nobility and the average people and the poor of Paris is symbolized in Versailles and one can understand how the populace would have reacted to Marie-Antoinette’s callous, though likely apocryphal, “Let them eat cake.”
Versailles was also featuring a special exhibit of sculptures by the modern Japanese artist Takashami Murakami.  His playful and very colorful works offered quite a contrast to the stately Grand Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles.   Lots of people loved the contrast.  I had my reservations feeling that building distracted from the sculpture and that the sculpture distracted from the building.  To each his or her own!

A Murakami sculpture in the Hall of Mirrors

Another Murakami in Versailles

On Sunday evening we met Nicholas and went to have tea at the Paris apartment of his brother Julian and Julian’s fiancé, Audre.  Julian and Audre have just become engaged and plan to marry in Spring.  As we waited at the top of a Metro Station to rendezvous with Nicholas, we noticed a large group of Paris Pompiers – fireman, standing nearby.  Diane’s two sons are New York City Firemen, so we decided to ask for a picture.  We informed them that Christopher, Diane’s oldest, had been a fireman at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and this immediately garnered their interest and respect.  One of them asked if Chris had survived and, thankfully, we were able to say he had and that he is still active in the N.Y.F.D..  They readily agreed to let us take their photo.  

Les Pompiers in Paris!

After tea at Julian and Audre’s, we headed up to Montmartre where we walked around the shops and the historic and beautiful church of Sacre Coeur, enjoying a captivating view of Paris at night with the Eiffel Tower lit up against the sky. Unfortunately, it was misty and rainy, so we didn't stay out for too long.

Nicholas had made a reservation at Le Bon Bock, reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Montmartre and a longtime hangout for artists.  Nicholas informed us that some of these artists had exchanged works of art for meals. It was a tiny and very old cafe decorated with none too carefully hung art on all the walls.  What a great way for us to bring our adventure in France to a close.   We bid farewell to Nicholas, Julian and Audre and headed back to the hotel to pack.

Monday morning was uneventful.  We had a leisurely breakfast, brought our bags down and got in a cab for the ride to Charles de Gaulle Airport and our flight home.  It was hard to believe that Susan and I had been out of the United States for nearly two months.  It had been an incredible adventure, but we were longing to return to those we love.

In my next entry,  the closing chapters of the sabbatical and some reflections about our experience.     



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