The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)


Angelico Surchamp June 23, 1924 – March 1, 2018

The first time we saw Père Angelico Surchamp, the diminutive monk was with a group of admirers at the Convent of Notre Dame de Venière just outside of Tournus where he served as confessor to the nuns. One of the guests – obviously a great admirer – insisted on taking his picture. Smiling, Surchamp asked, “What am I? A national monument?” I remember thinking at the time, “Of course you are!”

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

PJ and I have been planning our fall trip to Europe. As always, we put on the list a visit to the Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-Vire, home to our great mentor. The last time we saw him a year ago his health was failing and we were hoping that he would be well enough to receive us. This is not to be; today we received a letter from Father Mathias at the Monastery.

Chers amis,
Nous vous partageons le départ de notre Frère Angelico Surchamp.
Bien fraternellement.

This short announcement came with an obituary letter from Père Luc CORNUAU, Abbé of La Pierre-qui-Vire, giving the briefest summary of his life and accomplishments. The key phrase in the document is the following; “Artiste et moine, f. Angelico a cherché à unifier sa vie, non sans tension lors des évolutions de la liturgie après le Concile. Son regard pétillant et malicieux laissait entrevoir sa forte personnalité, et son sourire accueillant, sa simplicité ainsi que sa belle confiance en Dieu.” Translated, this reads “Artist and monk, Father Angelico sought to unify his life, not without tension during the changes in the liturgy after the Council. His sparkling and mischievous look revealed his strong personality, his welcoming smile, his simplicity and his trust in God.”

So few words, hinting at so much. But what nothing in the document says is what he accomplished for the history of architecture, specifically, Romanesque architecture. His chef d’oeuvre – the Éditions Zodiaque – is a monumental accomplishment in art history, a collection of over 200 volumes on Romanesque art and architecture. No work in the field is complete without these studies.

Frères Surchamp and Norberto photographing a church in Aragon, September 23, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Románico)

Our admiration for Surchamp is complete, but the sense of loss at his passing has nothing to do with his work. We have lost the luminous spirit of the small monk in the Morvan who had become our friend, our mentor, and our spiritual guide for Via Lucis.

We have one memento of our visits to him that carries his inimitable touch. On our first visit, we met him at the convent and then took him to lunch in Cuisery. Afterwards, he took us to see the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in the village of Le Villars. He thought it would be interesting for us to photograph. At one point I was shooting the exterior capitals and joked with Père Surchamp that he had now to “sing for his supper”; I handed him the remote and asked him to take the shot. He smiled at me and said “Is the photographer the one who presses the button or the one who composes the shot?” I laughed and said, “Now we’re talking philosophy.” Here is the shot he took – posted in black and white, of course – and even though we never completed the discussion of who the photographer was, I have the pleasure of assigning the metadata and therefore attribute the photo to the master.

Portal of Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dom Angelico Surchamp

That night I asked PJ to express her thoughts on Surchamp. “We were so excited to meet him; I thought it was the meeting of the minds for the two of you. You found someone who you could talk to about the churches on a different level than anyone else, because there is a philosophy in his speaking of these places and the experience of photographing them. You can really understand him when you have done it, like we have. It means a great deal to hear him speak. I think that he looked at the churches as an artist, not just as a priest or a monk or from strictly a religious point of view, but also from an artistic point of view. Which is why you don’t have to be Catholic to love the places. He understands this on a very profound level, as I think we do.

And I love his explanation of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic – the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

And this from a woman who professes not to speak French.

Surchamp’s artistic view of the world comes from his early love of and training in the fine arts. He was a student of the great Cubist painter Albert Gleize and was greatly influenced by Gleize’s work.

Paysage cubiste, Albert Gleize (1920)

PJ had further thoughts on Surchamp. “He sees the interaction of lights and planes, shapes and shadows. He wasn’t just shooting – most of the photography that you see from that era, they are shooting a picture of the church. But he’s really shooting like we shoot, he’s shooting something else. He is trying to capture the church, but he’s shooting deeper than ‘I want to show someone what this place looks like.’ He’s trying to express all of these other things – the interaction of the architecture with the light, it’s multidimensional feel.”

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

She continues, “He’s shooting as an artist – taking the religious content aside, you can see that he is shooting it the way an artist would. Of course it’s very realistic, there’s nothing more real than architecture, but like your shot of Fontenay that I love, that’s a perfect example. There’s nothing more realistic than that, but it also wonderfully abstract, and you can look at it and see the bands of light only, it’s abstract.”

As if to confirm this thought, when Surchamp saw PJ’s photograph of the side aisle at the Cathédrale Saint Front in Perigeueux, he smiled at her and said “You photograph as I photograph!”

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

We were lucky enough to visit with Surchamp in the company of my parents some years ago. At the Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, we walked through the old columns of the nave together. We descended the steep stairs into the crypt, and seeing Surchamp in his black robes walking with his hands behind his back was like being taken back centuries in time. I could almost hear the plainsong chants of his Benedictine predecessors as he walked these stone floors among the strong pillars.

We mounted again up into the main floor of the abbey church, my father and Surchamp walked arm-in-arm. I thought, “These are my two fathers, my birth father and my spiritual father”.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Driving away, my parents were delighted to have met Surchamp – “He was everything you talked about,” my mother said. Indeed, and more, because my words can never do justice to this accomplished Benedictine monk who has become so important to our lives. “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”

On our last visit with Surchamp at La Pierre qui Vire, 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.

“We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.”

I felt at the time that he was saying goodbye, and it turns out that feeling was correct. He is back in the arms of his great, giving, and loving God who Surchamp cherished with all of his heart. We wish him farewell on his long journey into eternity. We will lay flowers on his grave when we return to our beloved France in September.

Here are links to our previous articles on père Angelico, José Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp

The Monk in the Morvan Forest

A Christmas Letter to My Father (Dennis Aubrey)


My mother and father have given me so many gifts that I don’t know how to ever repay them. By their example they imbued their family with a home filled with love and inspiration. For me, they encouraged a love of travel, of culture, and of history. When we lived in Europe they made sure that we knew the French, that we experienced their life and culture. That encouragement opened my eyes, heart, mind and soul to influences that mark me indelibly to this very day. I was so lucky to have them in my life for so long, but as the years passed, thoughts of mortality intruded into the conversation.

On February 7, 2013, I wrote to my father,

Dad, I know in my heart of hearts that some day I will lose you both, but refuse to believe it and try to convince myself that you will live forever. It is so hard to know that one day my life will go on and you will not be there. All that I can do is to cherish the fact that you are both in good health and part of our life. PJ loves you both – you have filled a void in her life, a corner of her heart that has been empty since she was seven years old. I am so proud to be your son.

Chateau d’Harcourt, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Cosmos (CHAUVIGNY DANS LA VIENNE)

Later that year, on June 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm, my father wrote a comment on a post that I had just published on growing up in Chauvigny, France. He wrote:

Dennis: Your mother and I recall another incident in Chauvigny. You remember that dinner time was when we all talked about what had happened that day. It was our time for stories from school or work or car repairs, as when Lucille took our Corvair station wagon to the local mechanic to have the carburetor repaired (it was the alternator). One evening it was obvious that you had something important to share. After we said grace you said, “Mom, Dad, do you realize we live where the Battle of Poitiers was fought?” We recognize that day as the one that began your love of history.

That note meant the world to me, reminded me of so much personal history and so many memories, but I never wrote him back.

Side aisle looking at apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We did lose him two years later, on July 6, 2015 in the same town – Santa Barbara – where he was born on January 14, 1928. In the intervening years he traveled the world over; the Middle East, New Zealand, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, Africa, and almost every country in Europe, almost always accompanied by his beloved wife, my mother Lucille. She just turned 90 this month and is a force of nature, but she longs to be reunited with her husband of almost 70 years.

Donald Richard Aubrey (1928 – 2015)

So now, perhaps it is about time to write back to him:

Dad, no question that Chauvigny was a turning point for me. I had forgotten about Mom taking the car to get the carburetor repaired! Sounds like something I would do. But I remember the Battle of Poitiers at that time was the Charles Martel victory over the Saracens, and then later, the English defeat of the French and Jean II in the Hundred Year’s War. Later it also included the battle of Vouillé where Clovis defeated Alaric II – the same Alaric who was supposedly buried in the Champs d’Alaric near Vivonne on the Gayet’s property. The Église Saint George in Vivonne was where Ravaillac had his dream to assassinate Henry IV of Navarre. Just up the road from Vivonne is Lusignan, home to Guy de Lusignan, king of the crusader state of Jerusalem during the Crusades. It was as if oceans of history washed over us. And if that was not enough, from the Poitou we moved to Verdun!!!

I think it would have been impossible for me not to love history as I do. I have always cherished the way you encouraged me in this, walking the battlefields and talking to me. I love you and miss you so.

Your son,

Dennis

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.