Years ago, when I was still a teenager, I rode a friend’s motorcycle, a new Kawasaki 500. Compared to my own Honda 350, this was like another world of speed, certainly the fastest bike I had ever ridden. Coming onto the freeway one day, I accelerated so fast that the noise of the motorcycle and the roar of the engine disappeared. It was a zone of silence in the midst of turbulent motion.
I have always associated that sensation with the sense of pure concentration. At times, when I am working or thinking on a certain project, I concentrate with that same attention and all noise disappears. It is a realm of total silence. I hear nothing; not a car horn, not a person entering the room and talking to me. It is not that I am shutting out the world, but am so totally immersed in a different one that everything else disappears.
This sensation comes to me sometimes in these Romanesque churches. They were designed, I believe, to encourage contemplation of spiritual matters. Inside was a silent refuge from the complex demands of the outside world. The building was designed to lead the thoughts in this direction. Cupped in the hands of a protecting God, sheltered by cool stone, isolated in the darkened corners of the church, a person felt safe to ponder the infinite. With nothing to interrupt or disturb, the soul could wend its way around the dark corners of life and seek the glimmers of a light of guidance. Such contemplation requires the utmost concentration and a place where such concentration is possible.
We have mentioned before how sometimes it feels like we can hear the voices from the past, an echo of a thousand years of intense spiritual activity leaving its mark in stone. And so many of these churches have been destroyed or horribly damaged by war, revolution, religious iconoclasm, neglect, and even restoration. Part of me feels that these churches screamed out their agony at the moment the injury was done. Those echoes stay in the churches as well. The only path we have to save them is to respect them, to cherish them. If we do so, we will not allow them to be destroyed.
The great Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres was damaged in the French Revolution but avoided destruction. I have heard two stories about how this happened. The first involves a mob trying to destroy the sculpture on the north porch when a citizen of the city convinced his fellows that there was revenue to be made from people coming to see the great works. The second is that when the Revolutionary Committee proposed to destroy the Cathedral with explosives; they were stopped when a local architect, Antoine-François Sergent-Marceau, pointed out that the vast amount of rubble from the demolished building would clog the streets and would take years to clear away. These two actions saved a structure that Rodin called the “Acropolis of France”.
In World War I, as the German army prepared to enter the town of Senlis, their artillery began a bombardment which took as its focus the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis, an early masterpiece of Gothic architecture. A third of the shells struck the church and those that missed hit the houses in a direct line from the artillery to the cathedral. When the German army entered the town, they used incendiary devices to destroy many houses and buildings deliberately. Despite this, the tower of the cathedral was spared when the Curé went out to the German commander and pleaded for him to spare the masterpiece. His devotion saved the great tower of the Cathedral.
We must show that devotion to others who threaten these churches, even the “restorers” who claim to have the best interest of the buildings at heart. They may have the best interest of the archeologists or historians at heart, but not the interests of the millions who worshipped and those who worship still. These are not places of “historical interest” merely. They are beacons to spiritual contemplation. Such beacons are not common in the world today, and those that remain must be protected.