No matter how long we spend prepping for it or how the Church prepares us through Septuagesima, I always feel Lent is upon me faster than I expect. I particularly enjoyed a friend's piece on Mardi Gras, and I add my own below.
Fr. Le Gal very kindly hosted, after Mass on Tuesday night, a small soiree for the "jeunes"of the parish - a group I am slowly but steadily aging my way out of - featuring traditional galettes (the ham, cheese, and tomato crepes one eats on that day), some fellowship, and a film. It's at gatherings like this where I not only get to take my French out for a trot - or a run - but I also get a real sense of what the traditional Catholic youth are like in Europe.
Some want to practice their English so my compromise is to let me speak in French and ask for correction and they can reply in English and hear similar corrections. It was in one of these exchanges that my weekend came up, and I related I had taken advantage of yet another Free Museum Day in the city. Now, it's not called that. It's simply a fact that on the First Sunday of each month all museums in Paris are free. I call it Free Museum Day. It's a great chance to go back to museums you love for free (for me, like the Cluny or Orsay) or places you haven't ever been. As usual, I did a bit of both. Now - you can't have any illusions about Free Museum Day. It's crowded and busy and you won't have time "alone" with the art. But if you aren't agoraphobic and you move quickly (after Mass, of course) you can see a lot.
On all my previous visits to Paris before moving here I had tried to get to all the museums that "mattered" leaving only ones that were great but not essential. One of these that I missed that I was happy to get to this time was Le Petit Palais.
Le Petit Palais was one of two beautiful buildings built for the 1900 World's Fair and is proof that even in the 20th Century architecture had not entirely lost its mind. The beautiful day suffused the exterior galleries with a lovely light - not too bright and yet not too dim, either. I strolled through the interior garden, where it was clear that nature, at least, thought it was Spring already. I then made my way in to one of the innermost galleries on the first floor and saw this portrait of Our Lady.
I was genuinely surprised. I had admired that image for many years but had never thought to know the artist or where it was. I stared in serenity at the image for some time. It was placed near two other good religious images. But, disturbingly, in the same gallery, there were two vulgar - nay, obscene paintings. One may think that in its mildest form, this is French indifferentism: the Madonna or obscenity, it is of no matter, as long as we judge the art to be worthy: vive la difference! And yet, two centuries after the horror that was the Revolution, this is too kind to the French. I'll explain why a bit later.
My second stop took me to Sainte-Chapelle. For those who don't know this blessed place, it was built by St. Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns. While it is smaller than the magnificent cathedrals that are all around France, it is quite breathtaking to behold. It has been under restoration ever since I first started coming to Paris, though 2014 is the last year of that restoration and for the first time I was able to see this.
I need hardly add further reflections, dear readers. This art is a testimony itself. Man, reaching up with poor eyes and hands, to eternity, hoping to reflect, through the glass, and by the light we have been blessed with to warm the earth and grow our crops, the Divine Majesty. These stained glass windows are both a silent testimony and a startling accusation to anyone who hasn't allowed the din of the world to be the sole strummer of the strings of one's soul. Testimony: Here are works of art that attempt to show, in a small way, man's gratitude for God's condescension. Accusation: What world religions have even one building to rival Sainte-Chapelle, which is merely a miniature of much large Gothic Cathedrals at Rouen, Amiens, and Chartres? And that's just in France.
For most of us, the word "Pantheon" reminds of us Rome's ancient equivalent to the Parthenon in Athens. Ancient beauties made before computers designed buildings. But the Pantheon in Paris is a disgraceful takeover of what was the church of St. Genevieve, one of the patron saints of Paris. It's a disgrace in a number of ways, not least because it is such a well constructed and beautiful neoclassical church: something that would fit in well in the Eternal City (indeed, the dome is evocative of St. Pietro in Montorio). I walked in and was immediately struck by the greatness and sweep of the interior. I looked into the nave and saw a still-preserved mosaic in the apse which would have been over the high altar. What was that sculpture group underneath?
I walked closer, dreading what I would find yet feeling the inevitability of having to discover it for myself. A ridiculous group presented itself. An austere lady (ostensibly "liberty") had in her right hand a sword and resting under her left hand a bundle of rods which the observant would note are fasces. Underneath her the inscription read in French: "The National Assembly, live free or die."
On the statue's right (my left as I gazed at it), a crowd of men of all classes anxiously reached out to "Liberty." On her left, my right, the armies of the Revolution headed out to spread the disgusting, bloody bile that was and is to this day the principles of that Revolution: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies. Bishop Williamson once told me (via Malcolm Muggeridge) that "the mouths of Liberals drip with honey but their hands drip with blood." France wouldn't dare again memorialize "Reason" as a prostitute upon the blessed altar of Notre Dame, as in those days of Robespierre. But here they have gutted a church and placed in the place of the altar of God, an altar to man and liberty that is the living tribute to that ridiculous and sacrilegious quote of Thomas Jefferson: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." I shook my head. I looked around. Happy tourists snapped photos of this disgusting and visible lie and offense to God. Why take photos of something if you don't know what it is?
I thought I would take a look around the Crypt. I remembered hearing that Marie Curie was buried down there. But, almost as soon as I came down the stairs and into the crypt, I found the bodies of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Marat, in close proximity to heart of Leon Gambetta, a villain from a later time period. I was in shock. These murderers of the mind and soul were in a place of honor for the French nation. I realize I've forgotten to mention above that the "repurposing" of St. Genevieve had come by way of turning this into a mausoleum for "heroes" of the French state.
All honor and respect - to those who had torn down the ancien regime and so much that was lovely and good about old France. They were here, buried in a former church. Well, it's poetic in a number of ways. Our Lord was pictured in the apse, directly above their bodies, as I'm sure He looked down in judgment when they went to theirs. And they - who had succeeded in tearing out the altars and had placed themselves and "humanity" in the place of God - were buried underneath a building they gutted through their words, pamphlets, and deeds.
My young friend stopped me: "But Stephen, that is not...France (he paused). That is...a masonic, illegitimate state. It is not the real France."
Ah, yes, the two Frances. I saw the Pantheon as both acceptance and celebration of the impossible schizophrenia of the two Frances: the Frances that came apart as King Louis XVI's anointed head was cut away from his body. One was royalist and Catholic, the other anticlerical and republican. French Catholics have long since tolerated the infamy of the Revolution and its effects but I was surprised that this was the enduring solution: "it's not really France."
I felt that I needed time to reflect on his defense of his own country and I didn't tell him that I thought it would be better than the Pantheon be razed to the ground than for it to be a testimony and testament to so many lies and villains. I felt dirty after being inside, and had rushed out of the building.
I could not let my museum day (nor this story!) end on such a down note, and so I entered St. Etienne-du-Mont, just next door. This place not only formerly housed the relics of dear King Clovis, who had set France on the path to righteousness by his abandonment of paganism and all its works and pomps (he was moved to St. Denis, resting place of so many kings of France, in the mid 1700s), but was now also home to dear St. Genevieve, patronness of Paris and who the building now called the Pantheon was originally built to honor.
St. Etienne, with its rood screen, evoked the most ancient sentiments. Most Parisian churches that aren't Sacre-Coeur or Notre-Dame aren't too crowded, and you can have the place to yourself. I took a few moments with St. Genevieve.
My outrage, anger, and heartbreak were gone. The silence of the ancient beauty had covered it with balm. I knelt in front of her relics. I prayed that while Catholicism had been banished from "legal France," that it would never be forgotten in "real France" and that her presence in St. Etienne, mere steps from what would have been her resting place - the building now logically called the Pantheon - because it is a memorial to all the gods that have been set up in the place of the One True God - would be a stubborn reminder to all French Catholics that you may displace Catholicism - and yet it perseveres in the shadow of its former glory. It is not gone - please God - yet.
Prophecies speak of the French King who shall unite Christendom before the Final Judgment. As a Catholic I cannot truthfully say I do not believe in prophecy. So I must simply say, "J'espere."