The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

All Hail Covetotop (Dennis Aubrey)


This year’s trip to Europe has been filled with visits to friends old and new. We saw Servane de Layre-Matheus in Chartres, our lifelong friends Therese Gayet and her son Francois in Vivonne, France. We saw Albert and Monique Pinto for lunch in the Provençal town of Saignan in a wonderful local restaurant Au comptoir de Balthazar. We will see Angelico Surchamp at the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire later this week. But we had the immense pleasure to finally meet one of our favorite bloggers, Covetotop, whose eponymous blog chronicles his native Catalonia and the Costa Brava, in English no less!

Covetotop is famously reclusive and even gives no details of his private life, not his name, his profession, where he lives. His blog does give specific instructions on how to contact him – “Telepathically: close your eyes and think aloud: “I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author …”.”

PJ and I followed the instructions to the letter and were actually able to make contact and schedule a luncheon during our visit to his beloved Empordà region of Catalonia. The day arrived for the lunch we arrived early, anxious not to miss a moment with him. We went into the restaurant, were shown to our table and speculated on what he must be like. PJ asked if I had a mental picture of him and surprisingly I realized that I didn’t. I knew he was well educated, witty, well-travelled, a gourmet who favored the best small restaurants of Catalonia, but no physical image. As we were speculating, we heard a tumult outside. We went to the window and saw hordes of small children waving Catalan flags running alongside a 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6 roadster painted the same bright yellow as the Catalan flag itself. It pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant and out stepped an impossibly handsome man dressed in a white suit, greeting the children and the adults who crowded around noisily. He looked up and saw us and flashed a brilliant smile in the sun and we knew it was he – it was Covetotop.

Covetotop’s car

As we sat to lunch, his graciousness made us feel immediately at home. When he asked how we were enjoying Catalonia, we mentioned that many of the Catalan churches were closed and our disappointment in not being able to photograph. Covetotop merely smiled and suggested we visit a few churches that he mentioned by name. Of course, when we arrived at each on the following day, they were open and we received full cooperation from the local residents in our work, including the ever-present children waving Catalan flags. In the town of Beget, though, with its stunning site and the picturesque church perched at one end of the village, we arrived during the hours of the siesta. But when the church warden heard the delighted cries of the children and realized that we had arrived, he rushed out of his house, pulling up his yellow and red suspenders and tucking in his shirt as he rushed to open the church for us.

Exterior, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside the Església de Sant Cristòfol in Beget, we were able to see on the ornate Baroque retable the “dressed Christ” that Covetotop told us about.

Nave and apse, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

When it came time to order our meal, rather than try to select individually among the many offerings, Covetop recommended that we eat Pica Pica style, featuring a “little bit of this, a little bit of that”. There was a truitas de patata, the Catalan omelet, the croquetes de pollastre, the canelones de Can Roca, gambas, honeyed botifarra, fried carxofa, and the Anxoves de l’Escala, among many other splendid dishes.

Side aisle to nave, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

As we progressed through a wonderful lunch of Catalan specialties, Covetotop gradually revealed more of his intensely private life. We learned his real name, but promised on our very lives never to reveal it to anyone. We found that he was born in the little village of Beuda and was baptised with great celebration by the entire community in the font of the church of Sant Feliu, a font filled with the local Empordà wines.

Baptismal font, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

We found that he spent time in a Benedictine monastery in Austria before moving back to his native Catalonia. After spending years as a calligrapher working in traditional materials using handmade inks and tools, he began his current career crafting wooden fishing boats in a small village on the Mediterranean coast.

Altar, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally our lunch was finished and we faced the end to a fascinating visit with the enigma that is Covetotop. The empty plates that covered the table somehow reflected the physical and mental feast that we had shared together and we said our fond goodbyes. We will see the Empordà with new eyes now, and look forward to our next visit in the Costa Brava.

Side aisle, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Our visit ended as it started, with the crowd waving their Catalan flags as the Hispano-Suiza disappeared down the road, like us, inspired by the visit from the great Covetotop.

This is clearly a fanciful post, not reflecting the exact nature of our encounter with Covetotop, but a fantasy based on how it should have gone if the universe were as fanciful and imaginative as Covetotop himself. While the details of Covetotop’s private life are obscured, there is one true personal fact included that we invite you to identify. Meanwhile, PJ and I continue to revel in our visit with our new friend.

In a further development, Covetotop has revealed fascinating private details of his life and our visit in his prequel to our visit. A must-read for Covetotop fans thirsty for knowledge!

The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)


I am reposting this article from June 3, 2013 for a very special reason, which will be made clear by the post that will follow shortly But it is important to introduce Mr. Milton Hammer, one of my life mentors. It also, in light of our current political election cycle, completely expresses my sorrow and frustration.

As a very young man, I worked a year in a rare book shop in Santa Barbara, California. The shop was owned by a wonderful couple, Milton and Jessica Hammer, who encouraged my passion for books and my love of all things literary. I spent half my meager salary on books and was never happier than browsing among the treasures. When Milton and Jessica traveled across the country on buying trips, I waited anxiously for the boxed treasures to arrive – to open and catalogue them, the first to touch the wonders.

"The Mystic Mill" capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“The Mystic Mill” capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One year while traveling they called me to see if a certain important shipment had arrived. I enthusiastically described the books and how I had cleaned and prepped them for pricing and shelving on their return. Milton asked how I liked the letter? What letter? I saw no letter. “Right on top of the books,” said Milton. “There was a letter that we wanted you to see right away.” But I had not seen any letter; I was distraught, even more so when Milton said it was a letter from D.H. Lawrence, one of my favorite writers at the time. It turned out that I was so anxious to look at the books that I threw all the packaging paper away and the letter was among that detritus. I immediately went out to the garbage dumpsters where I had cast the packaging, but this was also the garbage for El Paseo, a large Mexican restaurant next door. No matter, I climbed in all the bins and searched every fragment, in vain. I was covered in filth but all I felt was the shame of losing the precious letter, written by the hand of Lawrence. I still regret this loss.

I have talked often of my sympathetic understanding of medieval relics, and this story probably explains much. To see and hold a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was like a religious experience to me. I treasure my copy of Siegried Sassoon’s “To A Red Rose” with the hand-tinted illustration by Stephen Tennant.

Stephen Tennant illustration, "To a Red Rose" by Siegried Sassoon

Stephen Tennant illustration, “To a Red Rose” by Siegried Sassoon

One of the treasures I discovered all those years ago at Hammer’s Book Shop was Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy‬” originally published in 1621. I still have my copy of a later edition that was owned by the Hollywood producer Walter Wanger. One of my favorite passages was about the wise men of the past – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Augustine, and others whose works have endured for centuries. In regard to these wise men, Burton described Bernard of Clairvaux‘s thoughts – “Saint Bernard will admit none into this catalogue of wise men, but only prophets and apostles; how they esteem themseves, you have heard before. We are worldly-wise, admire ourselves, and seek for applause, but hear Saint Bernard … the more wise thou art to others, the more fool to thyself.”

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have lost the ability to see ourselves in this way. The secular rationalism that dominates the western world today has contributed little to the ethical universe but to give us the tools for rationally justifying just about anything, any behaviour no matter how reprehensible. Greed – rapacious desire – is not only condoned, but praised. Envy, insatiable desire, is stoked by an international popular culture where we are exposed to the excesses of the rich and famous and then model our happiness on those excesses. Pride, gluttony, lust, and sloth have been redefined and transmuted into virtues. And wrath? Uncontrolled hatred and anger? It has become the staple of our political life for both the Christian right and the secular left. And expecting our leaders to lie, we no longer hold them to any standard of truth.

If Bernard’s examination was true for the great thinkers of the ancient world, what would he have to say about public figures today? Would he thunder in a voice of righteousness like the prophets of old and lay bare the deceptions and oppression? Would that voice even be heard, or would he be another unheard cry in a lonely and barren desert?

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photograph copyright PJ McKey (All Rights Reserved)

Last night PJ and I were talking and she said how she was so disturbed by the world today, how it moves so fast and is ruled by deception and fear. It breaks my heart to hear her talk like this because I can’t protect her. We can only live our close life with our art and books, family and friends. The flow of the world will nurture or destroy itself and we will be carried on the torrent like leaves on the Orinoco.

Postscript: Milton Hammer contributed a collection of books and letters to the Special Collections library at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The gift contains correspondence, photographs, and other material collected by Milton, much of it during his career as a rare book and manuscripts dealer. It features names like Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Napoleon Bonaparte and Harold Pinter. Box 1:1 is labelled with a name not nearly so distinguished but it has my complete curiosity. The name? “Dennis Aubrey”.

Ohio Rhapsody (Dennis Aubrey)


Sitting in a chair in my new home in Ohio, thinking about Via Lucis, I realized that the project is as much about my beloved France as it is about medieval architecture. To me, these churches and places are infused with history and the collective memories of the millions who have passed through the stone portals.

Now PJ and I have moved to rural Ohio, just about 40 miles south of Columbus and every day we are moved by the beauty of the countryside around us.

Borah Hill and Westpoint, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Borah Hill and Westpoint, photo by Dennis Aubrey

We are continually reminded of France as we drive in the countryside around. Most of Ohio near us is flat farmland, rich with crops as far as the eye can see. From the town of Lithopolis, with a modest elevation of 945 feet, one gets a clear view of the high-rises of Columbus, 20 miles distant. But in our little corner near the Hocking Hills, there are small farms, small roads, and small villages, much like we see in France.

Sacred Heart Road, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sacred Heart Road, photo by Dennis Aubrey

But it doesn’t take long to realize that there is something here that we don’t see in France. The first hints are signs on the back roads. We discovered that we live in the midst of a conservative Amish farming community.

Traffic sign, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Traffic sign, photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I were familiar with the Amish to a degree – in 2009 we bought some lovely Amish furniture, and this spring we bought a full set of living room and dining room furniture built by Amish craftsmen.

Amish furniture, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Amish furniture, photo by Dennis Aubrey

The word “craftsmen” is an understatement, however, because this solid oak furniture is of extraordinary workmanship and quality. Even in close, detailed inspection the seam in our dining room table is invisible when closed, so finely matched are the wood grains and so perfect is the fit. And when we opened up the table for the first time to put in the leaf (stored in a special compartment), we were surprised to see that the slides are geared so that the table opens and closes with smooth action.

Dining room table slide detail, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dining room table slide detail, photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the Bremen area, where we live, these are farmers. We see them working in their fields early in the morning and late into the evening. They grow, harvest, and provide for their families. They sell in farm stands, at the local farmers’ auction, and to local businesses. Everywhere is a bounty of vegetables and fruit, baked and canned goods, and occasional hand crafts. I bought a beautiful hand-turned cherry wood rolling-pin.

Amish harvest, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Amish harvest, photo by Dennis Aubrey

And what can I say about the quality of the produce? The watermelon was a revelation – unctuously sweet and ripe. All of the fruit – peaches, nectarines, Shinseiki pears, blackberries that we picked from their bushes ourselves (“we don’t have any picked but you can take a flat and do a ‘you-pickum'”), strawberries and ginger gold apples! Vegetables like we’ve never seen, even though PJ is an accomplished gardener. Farm corn here is unlike anything that I had ever tasted before.

Amish farm stand, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Amish farm stand, photo by Dennis Aubrey

The prices for these fruits, vegetables and farm eggs are remarkable. In the village of Bremen, I approached an Amish farmer who was in the town meat market to sell his leftover produce after the bi-weekly farmers’ auction. He sold me a flat of 25 perfectly ripe tomatoes for $5.00! The price list on the farm stand will give you an idea of what we pay for this bounty. On Tuesdays and Friday we can go to the auction and bid for lots if we need to.

Prices, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Prices, photo by Dennis Aubrey

In a world of unbridled materialism and brand consumption, the Amish are conspicuous exceptions. Nothing is wasted. The brimmed straw hats worn by the men are converted into brimless caps for the boys when they wear out. One small boy of about nine or ten wore a hat that was composed of at least ten other hat remnants, woven together for him. It was a patchwork of different colors and weaves, but it worked. His clothes were hand-me-downs and the pant cuffs were at his calves instead of his ankles. In the summer, the entire families are barefoot – men, women and children. This is not poverty but thrift.

Farm stand advertising on Sacred Heart Road - photo by Dennis Aubrey

Farm stand advertising on Sacred Heart Road – photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a purity and openness in these people. The piercing blue eyes of the children are clear and unafraid, utterly without guile or pretense. The older children marshal the younger and everyone has a chore. When PJ and I stopped at our favorite Amish roadside stand, two young girls attended to us. One disappeared into the fields and returned with a cabbage – the most perfect cabbage either of us had ever seen, the size of a bowling ball. The girl held it in her hands like an offering, an angel offering a gift. PJ was moved almost to tears at the sight. How much we want to photograph them, to capture just these fleeting moments, but that would be a violation.

This is a different world, co-existing with our own materialistic culture. We – “the English” – are foreigners here. These people belong to their land, God, families, and laws. We are so moved to see this around us.

Yesterday there was a cow lying next to the road near the farm stand and I made bold to pet her like I had seen the children do. The cow was completely calm and I could almost swear that in her soft brown eyes I saw the same shy modesty that shone in the eyes of the children.

Roadside seat, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Roadside seat, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Somehow, we feel close to rural France that we’ve always loved when we are among these people, we feel the same echoes of the past.

Amish wagon, photo by Dennis Aubrey

Amish wagon, photo by Dennis Aubrey

And not a tourist to be seen …

Improperia and the madness of it all – Dennis Aubrey


Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
“The Masque of Pandora”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1875)

The long dark nights magnify our solitude and lay us to waste. The world is mad and we just don’t know what to do.

We are willing to take great risks for the sake of our purses. We know what the destruction of the rain forest means, but we are unwilling to stop. We know that the global climate is changing but we won’t cut back on the creation of greenhouse gases. We suborn slavery and tyranny for cheap products to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace. We destroy the last of animal species that are the product of millenia’s selection and evolution for the pleasure of the kill. And we destroy each other in a frenzy of bullets, bombs, hatred, bigotry and greed.

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As individuals we believe ourselves peaceful and righteous, but somehow as a race we are possessed by a madness of blood-lust and destruction. We are so because in our little private worlds of peace and righteousness, we believe others are evil and mad. Demagogues have long been skilled at using our divisiveness for their own power. This is true the world over and has been now and forever.

We know this because our poets have remarked on it for the last two thousand five hundred years. In his tragedy Antigone, Sophocles quoted a proverb, Quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat primus (Whom Jupiter would destroy he first drives mad). In the second century of the Christian era, Ahtenagoras of Athens wrote, At dæmon, homini quum struit aliquid malum, Pervertit illi primitus mentem suam (“The devil when he purports any evil against man, first perverts his mind.”)

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 5th century, the Sanscrit poet Bhartṛhari wrote,

Nor do the gods appear in warrior’s armour clad
To strike them down with sword and spear
Those whom they would destroy
They first make mad.

Quoted in John Brough, Poems from the Sanskrit, (1968), p, 67

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Is the madness that surrounds us a sign that we being destroyed, or that we are simply destroying ourselves? Is there a reason that we stand at the precipice of disrupting the careful balance of nature that nurtures life as we know it? We must ask the question, because there is a difference between the madness that we see today and that which preceded. Today the madness destroys not just men, but more apocalyptically, it threatens to obliterate a world.

Gothic painted cross, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Gothic painted cross, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a peculiar sculpted form of the crucifixion of Christ, known as the Improperia or the “outrages to Christ”. The implements of the pain inflicted on Jesus are attached to the crucifix. What would constitute the improperia to the body of humanity – torture, murder, war, sectarian politics, demagoguery, starvation, and greed? The implements of pain would be so numerous that we could not even see the wracked body beneath.

Improperia Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Improperia Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

We can only hope that this suffering and madness eventually will yield a purpose and a meaning, that it is not hollow and purposeless. But try as I might, all I can hear is the echo of the words of William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I long for our churches in France where PJ and I can sit quietly together, contemplating a monument to the higher purposes of our species.

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Reception, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne)  Photo by Didier Long

Reception, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne) Photo by Didier Long

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.

Angelico Surchamp and Dennis Aubrey, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Angelico Surchamp and Dennis Aubrey, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Le Morvan,  Quarré-les-Tombes

Le Morvan, Quarré-les-Tombes

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.

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

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

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).

Happy Accidents and the Well-Rememberéd Mr. Priebe (Dennis Aubrey)


Most of the time when I think of Poitiers, I picture the great Romanesque churches of Notre Dame la Grande, Saint Hilaire, Sainte Radegonde and the Cathédrale Saint Pierre. I remember taking one of my favorite pictures in the north side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande.

I had been waiting for the aisle to clear so that I could take a shot of the empty view. Some women kept going in and out, spoiling my long exposures, but I just kept shooting, hoping for a moment without intervention. In this shot, an elderly woman walked in, lit a candle in the distant chapel, and moved off. But through sheer serendipity, her movements were quick enough that they did not register in the exposure. This resulted in one of my favorite shots ever.

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Serendipity played a role when I lived in Poitiers as a boy, which I have described in previous articles. My father was stationed at the Abbeville Caserne on the hill across the Clain River from downtown, beneath the monumental Notre Dame des Dunes that watches over the city. I went to 7th grade at the American Army school in Poitiers, where my favorite teacher was Mr. Donald Priebe. He taught English with a panache – he called the students “Mister” and “Miss” and was formally polite – and he challenged me as I had never been challenged before. He taught the etymology of words as well as vocabulary. When he diagrammed sentences, he was describing the architecture of our thinking as much as the construction of the words. This jowly, bespectacled and prim man wearing a bow tie was an inspiration to me.

Perhaps because Mr. Priebe was such a challenging teacher, we continually engaged in a war of nerves, but in very good spirits. It was a contest that I think he encouraged and used to push me further and further. One day in class he reviewed a reading assignment from the evening before. I am certain that he saw my furtive look indicating I had not read the selection, because he singled me out to answer the question “And who, Mr. Aubrey, was Eddie Rickenbacker?”

Completely ignorant of the answer, but unwilling to admit it, I blithely answered “A race car driver.” Mr. Priebe’s face took on the long-suffering look that I knew so well and the entire class knew that the Wrath of Priebe would be visited on me. And it was – he promptly assigned me a two page biography of Eddie Rickenbacker, due in class the next day. This was, of course, in addition to the regular assignment.

That evening I glumly went to the library and consulted the trusty Encyclopedia Americana to find out who Rickenbacker was. I discovered that he was a famous pilot, a World War I aviator who won the Medal of Honor, and aeronautics pioneer both in military and civilian applications. But in the midst of the long biography, almost as an afterthought, there was a short mention of Rickenbacker as a race car driver! Salvation! The rest of my evening was spent in a frenzy of research and writing.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell on the Avenue of Palms, during either the 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup in San Francisco. (February or March 1915)  Image in the public domain.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell on the Avenue of Palms, during either the 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup in San Francisco.
(February or March 1915) Image in the public domain.

The next day in English class, Mr. Priebe immediately called me up to read my paper. Solemnly, I went to the front of the classroom and started. It was not a two-page paper, but an ostentatious six-page chef d’oeuvre, filled with details of Rickenbacker’s career as a race car driver before World War I, including his four competitions in the Indianapolis 500 and being a driver for the Peugeot team. I talked about his Maxwell cars, predecessors to the Chrysler line. I told how he got his sobriquet “Fast Eddie” from those racing days, recounted his first car (a 1905 Ford) and how his first race ended in an accident. I told how he eventually bought the Indianapolis Speedway. During the entire recitation, I kept a completely straight face, despite the open mouths of my fellow students who stared back and forth from me to Mr. Priebe. For myself, I didn’t dare look at him.

Finally, I turned theatrically to the last page of the document and read, “Mr. Rickenbacker was also famed as an aviator in later life.” There was a long moment of silence until Mr. Priebe sighed heavily and said, “Very well, Mr. Aubrey. You may take your seat.” I was a hero at lunch that day, basking in the admiration of my fellow students.

	Eddie Rickenbacker and his riding mechanic Eddie O'Donnell in a Mason race car c. 1914  (Image courtesy of Auburn University Libraries

Eddie Rickenbacker and his riding mechanic Eddie O’Donnell in a Mason race car c. 1914 (Image courtesy of Auburn University Libraries

It was the first and only time that I beat him fair and square, all because of the happy accident of saying that Rickenbacker was a race car driver. Sometimes the Gods do indeed smile on fools.