“De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.” Psalm 130
“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” Psalm 130, King James Version
One of our readers, Aquila Herus, introduced me to the music of Arvo Pärt, and through this music he inspired this entire post. This composition is called “Spiegel im Spiegel”.
We are also inspired by the Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, one of those masterpieces from the Auvergne. Saint-Julien is beautifully painted and a pure Romanesque creation, all round arches and small windows, filled with extraordinary capitals in the manner of Saint Austremoine. She also holds one of the finest of the many vierges romanes in the region, Notre Dame de Chauriat. PJ and I were alone in the church for most of the time we photographed.
In this remote part of France, ten miles east of Clermont-Ferrand, we felt part of a world in a time long past, far from the frenzy of our modern world, when the community of nuns made this the center of their world. And thinking about this church and these women, my mind turned, as it does sometimes, to the long passage of time and the inevitability of death. Usually this makes me think of PJ, whose mother died when she was only seven. This time, however, I remembered something that happened when I was thirteen years old.
When my family lived in France near the town of Poitiers, I was sent after school by my father to help the mother of one of his French workers carry groceries to her home. I didn’t feel like helping because I was ignorant, young, and energetic. I had things to do in my life and none of them had anything to do with this chore. But my father told me to go and I did, meeting the elderly woman at the front door of a house and carrying her small, light box of groceries up the stairs and into her small second floor flat.
She was a veuve, a thin, frail widow, probably sixty years old, which seemed ancient to me. In those days there were so many widows in France, dressed always in black, the enduring harvest of two World Wars. I was anxious to finish, to be about my boy’s business, but as I set the groceries down in her small kitchen she asked if I would like an aperitif. This changed things. I was, after all, almost a man and deserved to be treated as such. I nodded politely in a manner that I hoped was adult and left her to the mysteries of the drink making and I went back into the living room. It was a musty, shadowed room, full of old furniture. The large window was covered with a heavy dark drape. I pulled it back to reveal yellowed, intensely complex lace curtains over the windows. The movement of the drapes sent out clouds of fine dust and as the particles filled the room, the beams of the late afternoon sun burst into view; the room turned golden as the patterns of the lace became the patterns of the light.
I looked, startled by the beauty of the light and the softly floating specks of dust that sparkled as they swirled. In the center of the room, at the exact terminus of the beams stood an exquisite round, antique wooden table, highly waxed and polished. As I looked closer, I saw that the wood had thousands of tiny wax-filled scratches in the surface, scratches that looked like the small network of wrinkles around the eyes of someone you love.
Something about the absolute silence of the room, the heavy gold of the light, and the utter solitude made it feel like the home of a ghost. I was calmed, like a wild child touched by the gentle hand of an understanding mother. Into this silence the widow entered, carefully carrying two small glasses filled with a rose-colored liquid. When she handed me the glass I saw her impossibly thin wrists and forearms. My own hands felt gigantic and clumsy as I took the drink. She looked up at the opened drapes but didn’t say a word.
We drank the slightly bitter wine and I tried to converse. It was awkward because I spoke little French and had absolutely nothing to say. My heart was somehow turbulent but there were no words. After a few minutes, she walked to the corner of the room and opened the glass doors of a secretary. On the shelves was a collection of pictures, tarnished medals, ribbons – stiff and faded ribbons – and a framed letter. I could make out from the letter that it was about the heroic death of a man, her husband. The letter was dated April 1917.
There were ornately framed monochrome pictures of a handsome young soldier with a rifle and a bugle, and the same soldier with a pretty young girl with a long dark skirt and a white blouse with long sleeves buttoned at the wrists. After a moment I looked at this woman standing beside me, small, thin, frail. I found in that face the faintest traces of the face of the girl, but also a beauty that I had missed before, beneath the age. The same loveliness of the girl in the picture but more. She must have felt me staring at her but she did nothing. She just looked at the pictures, her eyes moving without the least haste from one to the other, reading something, but something that I didn’t understand.
This collection in the corner was a monument to a man who had died forty-five years earlier in the first World War at the age of seventeen. When he died, she joined an army of her own, an army of women without men, without resources. Somewhere from what must have been such a brief union, she was left with at least one child to raise on her own, and he … and these pictures … were all that were left to sustain her memories. And maybe the reading that she was doing was trying to restore and recover the memories. And she allowed me to see these memories and mementos, these relics.
I looked at her profile and was afraid that if I spoke my voice would crack and I would ruin the moment, and so all I could was to look. What I wanted to do was to take her in my arms, hold her, touch her, comfort her, love her, and make her feel beautiful, show her that I understood. But I was overcome, afraid, a child and not a man. And in that confusion I realized that this woman looked at me and saw me as she remembered her husband. She could not see much difference between my thirteen years and his seventeen. And because of that, she saw that it could have been me that died forty-five years earlier.
This was the first moment in my life when I knew absolutely that I would die, was certain in my heart that I too would one day die, just as he had died. Her memory showed my future, and the future of all of us.
✞ This week we got word that one of our Via Lucis community, Bruce Andrews, passed away. We dedicate this post to his kindly and quiet soul, which I hope is at peace.
Location: 45.751037° 3.279917°