This last May at the beginning of our trip to France we had the opportunity to visit again with Dom Angelico Surchamp. He was no longer at the monastery at Notre Dame de Venère near Tournus, but instead at La Pierre qui Vire in Burgundy, which had been his home for decades when he worked on the Editions Zodiaque.
The monastery of La Pierre qui Vire is deep in the woods near the town of Saint-Léger-Vauban in the Morvan. The name (“The Stone that Spins”) is called after a lieu-dit that received its name from a dolmen, or a stone megalith composed of large stacked boulders. There are several different legends for the name of this dolmen; one of the most interesting is that on Christmas night, the upper stone turned to reveal a fabulous treasure. The monks from the monastery on this site are famous for two things – their books on Romanesque churches and their delicious soft cheese from cow’s milk.
PJ and I entered the reception hall of the abbey and asked for Père Surchamp. The monk made a call on the phone and told us he would be out shortly. About five minutes later we heard the sound from the long hallway, the slapping of sandals on the flagstones moving slowly towards us. I waited as patiently as possible but finally jumped up to look around the corner. Surchamp was approaching with a cane and when he saw us, he burst into a huge smile. After the greetings, he took us to a small interview room with two windows. “The others are too severe” he said as we were seated.
We gave him a copy of our book “Painted Romanesque” which we had printed for him and he spent the rest of the afternoon leafing through it while talking. On almost every page he would make some appropriate comment because he recognized the church or saw that it had been restored since his last visit.
We had made arrangements as usual to take him to lunch, but this time Surchamp said that he needed to ask permission from the abbot. Seeing our look of surprise, he smiled and said, “I am merely a monk here.” After he received permission, we took him to a nice restaurant, this time Le Morvan in the small town of Quarré-les-Tombes. The site of a Benedictine monk among the diners always causes quite a few heads to turn and the full restaurant here did not disappoint. But our waitress was very attentive. Normally we share a small bottle of wine when we dine but this time Surchamp fanned himself and said le chaleur while declining. But we all had a fine traditional French meal to bolster our conversation.
During the meal, Surchamp reminded us that he was born in the town of Troyes, in fact he was born just off the parvis of the cathedral. We had just photographed the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul two days earlier and had a wonderful discussion about the church. After about a two-hour lunch, we left the restaurant and returned our friend to the nearby monastery. It was clear that he was tired and we left him to his rest.
People often counsel against meeting one’s idol because of the inevitability of disappointment, and certainly there is truth in that position. But the glow of the meeting with Surchamp lasted for days for both PJ and myself. He is an extraordinary artist and human being, animated by a deep unwavering faith. When he says “This was a blessing from God”, we know that he is absolutely sincere. Our blessing has been to spend time with him and to feel his anima enter into us, informing our own work at Via Lucis. On this trip more than any other, I felt his guidance. I listened to the churches in a different way and found the difference between work done for God and work done for man. And this small Frenchman from the cathedral town of Troyes allowed me to see with new eyes.
Note: the photograph of the reception hall at La Pierre qui Vire was taken by Didier Long who has a wonderful blog in French on WordPress, Spiritualités sans frontières. Long is a theologian who was once a monk at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire where among other things, he served as an editor of the Éditions Zodiaque. He was featured in a TED talk in 2012 (program is in French).