Churches in France

Sometimes the group of wine industry professionals I travel with in France does or says things that catch me by surprise. None of these friends – and they are friends – are what I would describe as religious and I doubt that most of them would describe themselves as Christians. They don’t like to talk about faith or church or God and are uncomfortable if those subjects come up. Nevertheless, there are moments.

Because we are often in France during Lent, they once asked me to explain my Lenten discipline. I did the best I could and they listened with interest but quickly moved on to other topics.

Another time, one of them asked about the small cross I wear on a silver chain around my neck. I told them that I rarely notice that it is there but that when I do notice it, it seems I am about to do or say something I shouldn’t. I’m sure they think I am terribly quaint, at least with regard to religion.
All of this brings me to something that happened on my last trip. When we stopped at St. Emilion for an end-of-the-tasting-day glass of Champagne, we all scattered briefly before meeting at an outdoor café in the square next to the church tower. I headed toward a particular shop to buy a particular gift for a friend. Another of our group was looking for a bank machine, and so on.

Although St. Emilion is a very small city, there are two Catholic churches that dominate the view. One is a church cut into the limestone rock on which the town is built. It has a huge tower/steeple you can climb to see a spectacular panorama of the surrounding country. Nearby is another church I can only describe as a cathedral – although I don’t believe it is so designated. I have been in it a few times and it is truly beautiful but, for me at least, it is a little sad because it doesn’t look like it gets much use.
Many of the larger churches in France are treated as public buildings: They are open, often with no visible attendant, for whoever happens to walk in. In some, regularly scheduled tours are conducted for visiting tourists. I once went to see the great cathedral at Reims where the French kings were crowned. When I got there, the Sunday morning service was about half completed. Even so, a large number of people – most obviously tourists – were standing around in the back of the nave speaking loudly in several languages and two tours were in process. It seemed more surreal spectacle than worship. We were in St. Emilion on a Wednesday and there were no tours. The church was just open to whoever would walk-in.

When my friends and I met up at the café and had our first sip of Champagne, two of them talked about how they went into the cathedral-like church for a moment to look around. Both commented that their moment in the church had given each of them a sense of peacefulness and, maybe, the sacred. My face must have been the picture of incredulity. Both looked at me and said “What?!”

I said “Of course that place gives you peace . . .”

One of them quickly interrupted to say that that only happened with churches in Europe and that churches in the US did not have the same effect and in fact were quite boring.
When I tried to respond, both of them stopped me and said words to the effect of “don’t get all religious on us.” I did stop talking but I didn’t stop thinking about it.
I thought about the two of them and that church and other churches. I thought about what makes a church. I wondered how to more effectively do my duty as a Christian with regard to my traveling friends who “don’t want to hear it”.

When someone asks me where I go to church, I say “I’m a member of Epiphany.” I try not to say “I go to Epiphany.” There’s a small but significant semantic difference. I’ve come to think of the people of Epiphany as the church that meets at a place called the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany located on the southwest corner of Gessner and Bissonnet in Houston, Texas. I enjoy and appreciate the place but I worship with the people.

Those large ancient Catholic churches in France are not places where I can really worship. It isn’t the building, it’s the church. I don’t understand the language and, as a Protestant, I’m not welcome to participate in the Eucharist. I’ve worshipped in churches both grand and quaint in England and Australia (and many other exotic places such as the Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco where the communion wine was white). I think of those as churches. The French Catholic church buildings are (to me) beautiful places to stop and think and pray – but I have often felt like an intruder when I am in them – and there are a lot of other places I can stop and think and pray.

Still, there is no denying the effect, however short term, that the church in St. Emilion and others like it have had on my friends and many others. They felt as “peace” the real presence of God. Clearly God is present in these places as He is present in all places but there is something particular about the beauty and antiquity and majesty of these old French churches that can make them a lens able to focus light through the walls around the soul of even the unbeliever. Even if I can’t worship in them, I need to appreciate them more and to use the place to stop and think and pray.

It makes me sad that these men who are my friends don’t have a place to worship and won’t understand that they need one. One talks about going out on his boat and the other about going to Mexico as the things that give them peace. I understand that. Time with my horses does the same for me. Still, that psychological peace is not the same as the Peace of God that comes from worship. And when I have that Peace of God, I even more fully enjoy and appreciate the peace my horses give me. And I understand that it too is a gift from God.

All of this is well and good but I have a still unanswered question: How can I better do my Christian duty when called by circumstance or opportunity such as that moment at the outdoor café in St. Emilion? How do I effectively speak up in the presence of those who don’t know or don’t want to know. Maybe that’s actually two different questions. Either way, I don’t have that answer. I’ll pray on it.

Or maybe one of you have it and will tell me.

– Charles M. Bear Dalton

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