“La signification de l’art roman, en notre temps, est évident. Il y faut voir un regret, le regret d’un monde. Le regret d’un ordre qui fut le nôtre et qui brille d’un dernier éclat à cet instant où l’horizon s’enténèbre, inexorablement, et où l’esprit, vaicu, semble sur le point de disparaitre, chassé, battu, anéanti par la matière.” (Dom Angelico Surchamp, Signification de l’Art Roman, Bourgogne Romane, Editions Zodiaque 1954)
“The significance of Romanesque art, in our time, is obvious. One must see a regret, the regret of a world. The regret of an order that made our own and that shines with a final brilliance as the horizon inexorably darkens, and where the spirit, overcome, seems about to disappear, chased, beaten, annihilated by the material.”
PJ went to Provincetown this weekend to direct a play and left me alone; readers of this blog all know that this is a desperately bad idea, although this time it was only for two days so the effects have been minimal. But I was rereading the first book of the Éditions Zodiaque series and came across the quote from Angelico Surchamp. The words assaulted me off the page with the intensity of truth – “annihilated by the material.”
I am so tired of the worldly wise who denigrate religion and believers. It is one thing not to believe oneself, but to insult those who do believe is shameful. To condemn religion for the past actions of its adherents is like condemning medicine because it once practiced leeching and bleeding. People only know what they know, and it is impossible to judge the past, only to try to understand it. I have said this before and the more I think about it, the more clear that is. And be sure, I am not speaking as a religious man, which I am not.
When Pere Surchamp and I met the first time, we had a long conversation on a bench behind the church at Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in Le Villars near Tournus. During that talk, Surchamp talked about Descartes and his famous cogito, “I think, therefore, I am.” Surchamp said that he admires the French mind, but aghast at the presumption of the statement. “If we didn’t think, don’t we still exist? La réalité est plus grand que nos pensées humaines.” Reality is greater than our human thoughts.
These churches represent a facet of that greater reality – a spirituality that literally changed the face of Europe. These monks used faith and their devotion to hard labor to rebuild that shattered land, a land invaded, burnt, and benighted. They returned civilization and they created for the first time a European identity. This was done because of their beliefs. Nobody forced them to praise God in this way. Some internal flame drove them to their calling and their plainsong is part of a choir of voices singing the praises of a God whose traces we can sense but cannot understand.
PJ and I regret the loss of this world, the spiritual component of which created a renaissance in the 11th and 12th centuries. We mourn the loss in the depths of our souls. To see traces of that spiritual world that created our own – but from which it has all but disappeared – is to feel a sense of immense loss.
We see the twilight of that world – the flash of the sun on the horizon – as we move into the new order of the material which swallows up and annihilates the light of the medieval God.