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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.