Silence of Concentration (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Narthex, Église Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

North side chapel, Église Saint-Laurent d'Auzon, Auzon (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side chapel, Église Saint-Laurent d’Auzon, Auzon (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

The Silence, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

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”.

Cathédrale Notre Dame, Senlis (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Église Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

16 responses to “Silence of Concentration (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! to the entire post. The marauding of profiteers and the will to power and destruction are no less with us now than when the damage was done at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. Greed, banality, aesthetic numbness or hatred of that which aspires beyond the lowest common denominator, shrinking the world to the size of the Naricissistic self – these diminishments of the divine and human spirit leave us cold and ultimately alone with nothing but the roar of our own motorcycle. I need the silence. I need the sense of transcendence and immanence of which you speak. “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.”

    In the film “Grand Canyon” the tow truck driver, played by Danny Glover, sits on the steps of a garage in Watts (LA) with the wealthy Yuppie whose Lexus 400 had broken down in “the wrong neighborhood,” putting the driver’s life at risk. The tow-truck driver has literally saved his life from a gang that had taken the driver at gun point. “You ever been to the Grand Canyon?” asks the tow-truck driver. “Get yourself to the Grand Canyon. you just sit there looking out at that vast canyon. And those rocks have been there for millions of years. That thing’s been there forever. And our little worlds – yours and mine? It’s so grand. Makes you feel real small.”

    These churches do the same. Thanks again, Dennis and PJ. I need what you’re giving us. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who needs it! Gordon

    • Gordon, sorry I wasn’t able to reply earlier, but we had an internet outage. Boy, does that throw our life for a loop!

      I love how you turned the anecdote into a metaphor (“leave us cold and ultimately alone with nothing but the roar of our own motorcycle.”) I am working on a post based on Anselm’s credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order to understand”. The world that PJ and I study was based on those words and there is something noble and inspiring about that, certainly more noble than things like “reality” TV, Facebook IPO’s and the orgies of self-congratulation that we see around us today.

      • Dennis, I wish you well on Anselm “credo…” piece. Also “fides querens intellectum” (“faith seraching for understanding”). I tend toward Peter Abelard more than Anselm because of the Christological differences, but Anselm’s insight about the relationship between belief/faith and understanding/perception has guided me since I first read it. We “see” what we already believe/think/trust to be real. Only suspension of belief or a new experience that challenges the way I have understood can change what I see. Thanks again, for prompting a good morning of epistemological, theological, pyschological and philosophical reflection.

      • The post is about Normandy and the monk of Bec, which led inevitably to this idea. We are always astonished how a ravaged 10th Century territory became the vibrant Normandy of William the Conqueror and Matilda, and the newly Christianized viking invaders became the most prolific of church builders.

    • It is a “Zone”, isn’t it. PJ has her own zone as well, which is different than mine. She wanders through the church with her eyes searching everywhere. She gets to a point where her mind is disassociated with her photography and she just sees. Some of her best photos come from this state. Thanks for the kind words about our work, it was a pleasure to hear from you. Is your name Maundy?

  2. Wonderful pictures. I wish I could concentrate like you…at a point of not hearing anything at all. I really enjoy the silence that churches and cathedrals throw upon us…it is the time my thoughts can flow freely.

    • Thank you, Pat. Sometimes this concentration gets me in trouble – walking into telephone poles (twice), having a partner who thinks that I am ignoring her, walking somewhere and not remembering where I was going, to the complete enjoyment of my colleagues. But (as Squawking7000 says) when you are in the Zone, it can be a special place where time and place are secondary to thought, feeling, and imagination.

  3. beautiful work, I met someone recently that said that he didn’t enjoy visiting the great churches of France, he found them cold and empty. After some discussion I realized that he didn’t understand the history, or the architecture; he should see the churches through your eyes, he would fall in love immediately. both of you have a special way of showing the world the beauty that exists and that is missed by so many. I am grateful to have found your blog, and to enjoy the pictures and your writing almost daily. Forgive me if I gush regularly with little to say except thanks for bring this beauty to my world.

    • You are welcome to speak (or to gush) at whatever pleases you here at Via Lucis. We find that the comments of those who read the blogs helps sustain the fairly great effort it takes to publish here. And when someone understands exactly what we are trying to express, however clumsily we manage it, that means even more.

      As for your friend, he is like many people. Sometimes it is lack of knowledge that you reference, but sometimes it is the lens of personal experience. I know of a man who would not see beauty in a church because the builders believed in a God that allowed Crusades, the Inquisition, other violent behavior. He felt deeply about this. He was also a bit of a lonely man because he judged his fellows as severely as he judged history.

  4. Agree with all of the comments you’ve listed for June 8th – so true.
    Your gifts are so special – and amazingly beautiful. I feel as if I could walk right into your pictures and be there.
    Bless you.

  5. Pingback: Refuge, survival and the Romanesque | Curlew River

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