De Profundis (Dennis Aubrey)

“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”.

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Transept, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Transept, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Last Supper capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey
Last Supper capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Notre Dame de Chauriat, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

West portal, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey
West portal, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

In Memoriam Bruce Andrews, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey
In Memoriam Bruce Andrews, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Angel capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey
Angel capital, Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 45.751037° 3.279917°

26 thoughts on “De Profundis (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Lynn, thank you for this. I remember how moody I was in those days as these understandings started to penetrate. It is a wonder that my parents had any patience with me at all.

  1. Architectural photography as it should be done. You get such warmth from the cold stone …. beautiful control over vertical perspective and detail. Wow!

    1. Thanks, Eric. I see that you know whereof you speak, so this means a great deal. PJ and I have made this study of Romanesque and Gothic churches our life’s passion. Glad you stopped by.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, your photos, and the music. I listen to the music as I read. Once again as you tell you story, and share your passion I am touched, my heart and my eyes are opened a little wider. All I have is a simple thank you.

  3. I have never read an elegy so moving, nor seen pictures so befitting the words that they accompany. Very inspired stuff–and no doubt thanks to Arvo Part, whose music is incredibly melancholic and powerful. If you have not before, you need to listen to Olafur Arnalds. His music carries has the same quality of evanescence which so perfectly captures life itself. Try listening to “Sudden Throw” and work backwards from there. And thanks for sharing this beautiful post.

    1. Nathan, I have not heard the music of Olafur Arnalds, will have to do that later today, so thanks for the reference. Appreciate your kind words about the post.

      So are you in Paris? For those who don’t know, Nathan has changed his entire life, left his job and has bought a one-way ticket to Europe. This link takes you to the record of his adventures.

  4. Dear Dennis:
    Your always amazing photographs and beautiful blog brought tears to my eyes. The memories of my husband and 57+ years of marriage were paramount as I recalled not only our visits to many of the French churches and cathedrals, but our love of nature and the wilderness in remote areas of Monrana as we shared a different type of spiritual joy.

  5. Dennis,
    How do you do it – time after time after time – beautiful photographs that need no words and beautiful words that need no photographs? Combined they transport us to the deepest place of our inner selves. Your gifts of self – an eye for finding the beauty in these ancient buildings and your ability to capture that beauty and share it with others – those are your blessings on those of us fortunate enough to know of you site and follow it. This post is one of the best ever: with or without words; with or without images. Bless you.

  6. Thank you for that moving elegy, Dennis. Sometimes the truth of life strikes us at very particular moments.

    Regarding those lovely photographs of Saint-Julien de Chauriat, I love the vierge romaine because it is a classic sedes sapientiae figure, but the paintwork on the walls and piers intrigues me for another reason. I note that the ashlar block are outlined in red paint along the mortar joints. You haven’t said if this is the original medieval paint or a careful nineteenth/twentieth century restoration of the paintwork, but either way it must reflect the original. My opinion is derived from an Irish poem composed shortly after the year 1200 which contains a description of the Cathedral of Armagh (on the site of the present Anglican cathedral there – which my incorporate original fabric). The poem describes the walls of the cathedral as being brown in colour with the blocks outlined in a different colour – red, just as in Saint-Julien. It’s an extraordinary poem because it is the only suriving description of a building that no longer exists in its original state and the poem even describes some of the furnishings. Strangely Irish historians have ignored or failed to spot this reference in the poem. So it is really nice to see the same paint effect in Saint-Julien (and a few other churches illustrated on this blog).

    1. Tony, I don’t think that the painting in Chauriat is original, like most of the other churches in the region, they were restored in the 19th century. However, in almost all of them there were traces of the original medieval paint to guide the restorers (although in Issoire, it appears that there was a great deal of artistic license in that restoration). In Saint Julien de Brioude, for example, there are a great many areas that still have some of the original coloring. And we have seen many other churches with traces of the color outlines of the stone blocks.

  7. Dennis, I just came across your photos and article about l’Église Saint-Julien in Chauriat. Once a year when I return to France to visit my family, I spend a few days in Chauriat with my cousins there. My cousin’s husband is a retired professor of pediatrics and a very knowledgeable church historian, and we always go to visit the lovely vierge romane sheltered there. I delight in that visit for I have such a love for those impassible statues!


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