The Naked Man, a Cathedral, and a Small Monk (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have finally have arrived in France and are busy photographing our beloved churches. But we delayed the trip because we got news a couple of weeks ago that my father was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that has attacked his brain stem. So everything that has happened on this trip seems fraught with significance.

After our arrival in Paris, we drove immediately to Troyes. When we finally hit the A5 highway about 40 miles from Troyes, I sighted something extraordinary in a clearing in the woods next to the highway. I saw a man, about 45-50 years old, totally naked, standing motionless facing the highway. It was such a jarring sight that PJ thought perhaps I was suffering from jet lag. But no, he was there, en plein vu.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

From there, we were just a short way to the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Troyes, where we were able to stop for a few photos, even though we had flown all night. We were both doing quite well when the officious guardien brusquely closed the church for his lunch hour. C’est fermé, monsieur! We could have shot for hours more, but settled for the light appetizer instead of a full meal.

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally we arrived at the Crispol hotel outside of Vézelay, had a wonderful dinner and woke the next morning for our visit to the monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire and a visit with Angelico Surchamp. As always, Surchamp was a delight. We heard him walking down the hall toward the lobby where we waited, his cane tapping on the stones. As we rose to greet him, his face lit up and we were so warmed by his greeting. I’ll describe the visit in detail later, but suffice it to say that our visit with this self-described petit moine was simply extraordinary, warmed by his complete and total faith in God.

Side Aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side Aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

Last night I lay awake wondering about the confluence of these three things – the naked man, the cathedral in Troyes, and Surchamp. I could make sense of the last two – Surchamp was born in a house on the parvis of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul. But nothing could bring the naked man into the picture.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

This morning, PJ and I attended the mass introducing the week of Pentecost at the Basilique Saint Madeleine in Vézelay. As always, we were tremendously moved by the church, but today’s high mass was different. During the service, my thoughts were on my father and his deep and abiding Catholic faith, a faith I have always envied and that has sustained him throughout his long life. I found myself talking to Mary Magdalene, asking for her help. I dared not address God himself for I have not been a believer, but I asked her to intercede on my father’s behalf, to help him find his peace, to be able to end his life with his faculties intact, knowing my mother, his self, and his faith. During the mass, sunlight streamed in from the south clerestory windows toward me, and I recoiled in fear, as if the rays might burn me. But concentrating on my conversation with la Madeleine, I realized that I was praying. I have not prayed for fifty years, but on this day in Vézelay, I turned to PJ and said, “I think I was praying”. We both had tears rolling down our cheeks.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

My father was a soldier and it is too often the soldier’s duty to die. We have witnessed the losses in their thousands and tens of thousands. Each of them, man or woman, was someone’s father or mother, husband or wife. The tragedy of their loss is magnified by the enormity of their numbers. But still I am moved more by the loss of this one old soldier who has been the rock of my life.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

During our visit with my family last week, I told my father that during my career, I have often met, conversed and negotiated with people who are famous, rich, and powerful. My secret weapon was always to ask myself “Is this person a better person that my father?” Inevitably, the answer was “no” and that gave me the strength to say and do what I needed to do.

Stained glass, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Stained glass, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Only once in recent years has the answer to that question been “Yes.” That person in question was Anglelico Surchamp. During the mass, I thought of my father and of Surchamp who I consider a second father. I thought of soldiers and their passing. And then, out of nowhere, I thought of a naked man on the side of the road. At that moment it seemed that in a way, we are all that man, unadorned and exposed; that when our time is finished on this earth, each of us must stand naked before our God and accept His judgment.

23 responses to “The Naked Man, a Cathedral, and a Small Monk (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Your photos and histories are prayerful themselves, and give inspiration to those who see them. This entry is emotional and moving.

  2. I have two thoughts re your naked man. One is that he may have been emulating a popular French TV programme where each week TWO chums are deposited – naked – in a bit of country & have to make their way to civilization & spend a few days receiving kindness & generosity – it always seems to work for them. Secondly, we had this experience a few years ago. The person in question turned out to be a British sunbather who thought he was alone in the woods. All our sympathy re your wonderful father. Robin is in like case but doing well – as are so many of our old friends with cancer. It does seem like a bit of an epidemic. Don’t forget to visit us when you are near Montagrier. Best, Julianna

  3. Dennis & P,J.
    What a beautiful and touching post. Tears of sympathy for you, your father and the rest of your family gathered in my eyes as your amazing words entered my consciousness. You are all in my prayers.

  4. You brought tears to my eyes. You and PJ have such a way of showing and expressing beauty. I can’t express how much I appreciate you and my sister’s dedication. My prayers for your dad. Wish I had met him.

  5. Beautiful post, Dennis, in both pictures and words, as usual. My dad drowned when I was only nine, so I never got to hear from him his stories of his experiences as an infantryman in Europe (he was drafted in 1944 even though he had four dependent a – few today realize how desperate we were for manpower after D-day!). However, unknown to us until my mother’s death, he wrote almost every day from June 1944 until July 1955 and she saved those letters for us. One of the treasured in that box was a letter from a lady in Austria that my dad never saw because it arrived after his death. It begins, Dear Mr. Fredrich, you were our savior . . . (He ran a Displaced Persons camp in Linz for three months after VE Day – even though he was only a PFC -he could speak and understand a little German so he was retained for a few months beyond what should have been his discharge date to run the camp).
    Your post reminded me of what he means to be the descendant of an American hero.

    • Jay, shame on me for not responding earlier, but in the midst of all my travel, I missed your note. You were not allowed the pleasure of knowing your father for all of your long life, but you received a gift in the letter. I have been lucky enough to travel six times in France as an adult with my parents and PJ together, and it was one of the great pleasures of my life. My father is near the end today; we fly to California on Thursday to be with him. I love him, will miss him, but I can be thankful that he has been so important a part of my life.

  6. Dennis, I will read this to Dad. He is still understanding, though he can’t always articulate his response. And I’m sure he’ll be surprised that he is so greatly loved and so highly admired by all of us children. Thanks for posting this.

  7. Beautifully written, Dennis. Difficult to read here and there. My father has been gone 25 years now and my mother 9 1/2. My father spent 4 years in the Army, he served in the Corps of Engineers in North Africa on detached service with the British Army then in Italy. He never spoke about his time in the war. Keeping you and your family in my prayers.

  8. Dennis and Ann, I am almost lost for words. A lovely tribute to your Dad. I had been looking forward to visiting him again, I am extremely sad that it is not to be.
    Regards
    Richard Aubrey

    • Richard, so wonderful to hear from you, even though the timing is difficult. Don is actually doing pretty well, all considering right now. We think of him every day and light candles in all of the churches we visit. We can only hope that Madeleine can help.

  9. Dennis: I share your pain (I felt the same way about my father) and am grateful for word of Surchamp. So glad to know that he is still doing well. The books (one for the abbey and one for him, inscribed) were mailed by Penn State from the conference on Saturday so they should arrive at PQV soon. Will you be seeing him again to let him know? I addressed the box to Abbé Luc.

    • Janet, thanks for your thoughts on my father. We had a wonderful visit with Surchamp. He uses a cane now and sort of huffs and puffs his way around, but he was full of energy and brightness. We took him to lunch at a very nice restaurant in Quarré-les-Tombes and he tucked away everything. His appetite for food, like his appetite for life, remains undiminished. He talked quite often of you and seemed genuinely touched by your considerations. An interesting change, however. When we suggested it was time to leave the monastery for lunch, he said that he needed to ask permission. Not like Notre Dame de Venere; at La Pierre Qui Vire he is still ruled by the observances!

  10. I think of you and PJ often and miss you both very, very much. Knowing you both as I do, and having been shown the Basilique Saint Madeleine by you, for me your post ‘The Naked Man, a Cathedral, and a Small Monk’ was exceptionally moving. You are in my thoughts and prayers, and I wish you and your father the very best during this difficult time.

    • Carolynn, only saw this response after getting your wonderful card today. Thank you so much. We were just talking about you the other day and how much we miss our July 4 celebrations. Take care; I’ll talk to you soon.

  11. Dear Dennis, So enjoyed your images and post, with so many comments. Saddened to read about your Dad. Prayers and thoughts go with you as you make your way to be with him. Wish you well and thank you so much for sharing your passionate work and a little of the good man you are. Appreciate you, man! –FW

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