PJ’s Doors (Dennis Aubrey)


This post begins with a piece of music recommended by our dear friend Nathan Mizrachi. Since it was the inspiration for this post, Einaudi’s Primavera makes a perfect accompaniment for a moment that was Spring in itself.

Today, PJ gave me a series of pictures of doors that she has photographed in Romanesque churches in France over the last decade. I ran a number of errands and used the time to think about the shots, about what I would write to describe her fascination with these old portals. I thought about how these doors lead us into a long-gone world of spirituality, of generations of veneration by the residents of the small towns where the churches were found. I tried to find a key to these doors; a way in, a way to understand.

Église Saint Martin de Tours de Gausac, Gausac (Val d’Aran). Photo by PJ McKey

But my thoughts were muddled; I felt overwhelmed by polarizing political dialogue, the self-righteousness of both the ignorant and the educated. We have created the horrible condition where children are gunned down in their schools, where our political world is corrupted by special interests, and our culture debased by celebrity and fashion.

Église Saint Martin d’Ur, Ur (Pyrénées-Orientales). Photo by PJ McKey

After awhile, however, I just grew tired. I was tired because I am ill, I was tired because I felt inadequate to the task of writing, and most of all felt so tired about the world around me, wondering if a word that I wrote would mean anything to anybody.

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

In this exhaustion, I needed something different, a momentary diversion, an infusion of beauty, if I could find it. So I put on Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera on my car stereo and drove the back way home through the forest. In our rural area there was no traffic to distract me from the music. Suddenly, three does crossed in front of me on the road ahead. When they saw my car, they did what they usually do – they bolted up the side of the hill and disappeared into the trees.

Notre Dame d’Orcival, Orcival (Puy de Dôme). Photo by PJ McKey

For some reason, however, I stopped, rolled down the window. Then I turned up the music so that they could hear it clearly. Instantly, all three deer stopped and their ears peaked; they turned and stared down at me from forty feet away. I turned up the music even higher and just sat there, watching and waiting. Within thirty seconds, they had started down the hill and approached the car, eventually stopping just five feet away, staring at me. The music was so beautiful, the deer responded to that beauty and stood there listening, calm, unfrightened. The closest deer looked at me with an ethereal calmness, her brown eyes fixing mine, probably wondering why there were tears running down my cheeks.

Basilique Saint Fris, Bassoues (Gers) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally the music stopped and the deer looked up and around, then turned and silently disappeared into the trees. They left me alone, car idling in the middle of the two-lane road, sitting for some period of time. When I emerged from my reverie, I felt a certain calmness, that everything was temporary; my illness, the politics of this world, everything. Beauty still exists and the I still respond to it. PJ and I respond to it in our private Romanesque world. Even the animals of the forest respond, their hearts beating a synchronized duet with my own.

Église de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy de Dôme). Photo by PJ McKey

And suddenly I thought of a small 90 year old French monk who lives in another woods at La Pierre Qui Vire in France. I thought of Angelico Surchamp who has loved these same churches as we have but for fifty years longer.

And I thought of what he said about beauty; “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”. And PJ’s doors opened to me and I felt her love.

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 Infinite Interior (Dennis Aubrey)


The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth. ― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a conceptual difference between Gothic and Romanesque churches and cathedrals. While the Romanesque builders paved the way for the Gothic, there is a deep and wide chasm between the two worlds. It starts on the outside – Gothic cathedrals make you want to sit on a bench and admire the exterior. One enters later and experiences the wonders of the soaring internal architecture.

The exterior of Romanesque church architecture is different, much simpler. It is dominated by three features – the clocher, west front, and the chevet. The clocher (or belltower), like the contemporary church steeple, identifies the structure from the distance as a church.

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The west front is usually the decorated main entrance to the church and sometimes contains one or two towers. And the chevet is the extreme end of the chancel or choir, usually dominated by the rounded ambulatory chapels. Other than these elements, there is little else that distinguishes the outside of the church, because the goal of the medieval builder was not the exterior, but the creation of interior space.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Within the Romanesque church there are a multitude of elements that define the space. The groundplan alone yields a narthex, nave, side aisles, transepts, chancel crossing, apse, choir and ambulatory. The vertical elements include arcades, tribunes, triforia, clerestories, and vaults, all combined in harmonious order creating rhythms of arches and bands the length and breadth of the church.

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

The careful arrangement of these elements represents the artistic struggle to define the architecture of belief in an architecture of stone. While they share many of the same structural elements, the Romanesque and Gothic styles reflect different worlds. The Gothic churches speak to our minds, hearts, and aspiring imagination. We admire the achievement of the architecture and are transported by the beauty, elegance, and sophistication. Inside and out, they remind us of the medieval glory of God and a universal order explained by the Christian faith.

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque churches don’t inspire admiration for the exterior; they invite you immediately within. And in these shadowed interiors with their unlit corners, we sense a space that reflects an understanding of the human soul and a darker human imagination.

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

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

We sense a faith that does not illuminate brightly like a torch, but acts like a flickering beacon in the distance. We sense the distance we must travel and the dangers we must overcome in order to reach that light. We acknowledge the fear of evil and the terrors of the dark. In the protective embrace of the Romanesque church, we hear the murmuring of subconscious phantoms and sense the truths of which they speak.

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

A Holiday Recommendation


Gordon Stewart visiting our home in Ohio, 2017

For those who might be looking for something calming during this holiday season, I recommend a book written by our great friend here at Via Lucis, Gordon Stewart.

Gordon has been a long-time contributor to the Via Lucis world and his magnificent sermon based upon one of my posts about Vézelay still moves me to tears. Hearing him, it is hard to remember that these are my words. This sensitivity to language and ideas is embodied fully in his blog, Views from the Edge.

He brings this magic to his new book, “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” is such a collection of sensitive, deeply felt essays. This link will connect you to his publishers page where the book is available for a discount, a perfect gift for the holidays.

“Mea Culpa” (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I would like to apologize to our faithful Via Lucis community for the lack of posts in the last three months, especially recently. We have recently completely changed our life situation, moving from Cape Cod to the hills of Ohio.

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In doing so, we have had to disrupt our physical as well as emotional lives. Part of that physical disruption is that we STILL have not taken delivery of our furniture (that was picked up on June 1). We won’t be receiving it for at least another six or seven days! Perhaps it was not wise to use a moving company broker after all. But this has prevented us from having access to some of our equipment and photos (they are all safe, but inaccessible).

The good news is that we love our new home in Hideaway Hills, just southeast of the town of Lancaster, which is itself about 40 miles southeast of Columbus, where PJ’s siblings live. We live in hills surrounded by trees, deer, pileated woodpeckers, and Amish farms. The backroads could pass for the backroads of France!

Our new house in Ohio

Our new house in Ohio

It is a bit different from life on an island in Cape Cod, looking out over the sparkling waters of Buzzards Bay, but the Hocking Hills are magnificent and we are glad to be here. Right now, PJ and I are trying to plan our next trip to France, hopefully this coming Fall. And most of all, we are so anxious to get back to work on our beloved Via Lucis and to once again have you as part of our lives.

Finally, we would like to thank Jong-Soung Kimm who quite independently gave us three new posts to help fill the void. His contributions always contribute enormously to Via Lucis and these three were particularly appreciated.

Thanks for your patience!

Reflections of light at the top of the World (Dennis Aubrey)


Sometimes I get so sad, so depressed at the state of the world. The antics of our politicians, the naked greed of our Wall Street masters of the universe, and the sadness at seeing the land of promise and opportunity turning into the land of baristas. Sometimes I just think it is my age, but looking back, I don’t see a golden time. We have always been troubled as a people, but now we have descended further into an abyss. I despair at emerging into the light.

But then something happens to change my heart – first it was PJ who came into my life like a warming beacon. Sometimes it is the generosity and kindness of my friends who I cherish more than I can ever express. And my family (and PJ’s) are a fertile soil that nourishes the seedlings of hope and faith. Today, however, one of member of that family, my nephew Scott, is in my thoughts.

Nepal vista

This young man trained as an engineer at Santa Clara University and immediately got a responsible and well-paying job in his field of civil engineering. But his work there was not fulfilling and he made the choice to change everything. He originally planned to get a master’s degree in Engineering for Developing Communities but decided instead to go to Nepal for a couple of months to help rebuild the country devastated by earthquakes.

Making bricks, photo by Marissa Reis

Making bricks, photo by Marissa Reis

He has now been there longer than two months and he is committed to the process and the country. He speaks conversational Nepalese, and his words glow with the belief that he – and we – can make a difference.

Building walls, photo by Scott Hanson

Building walls, photo by Scott Hanson

To read his own words on his mission, please read this link.

Nepal Scott

So thank you, Scott, from your perch high atop of the world, for sharing your light with this old soul.

Nepal sunset, photo by Scott Hanson

Nepal sunset, photo by Scott Hanson

The Metropolitan and his Cathedral – Saint-Étienne de Sens (Dennis Aubrey)


The Department of Yonne in Burgundy is one of our favorite places in France and very fertile for our photographic explorations. It is home to the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Auxerre, the Collégliale Saint Lazare in Avallon and also the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens.

Today, Sens is a fairly quiet town of about 27,000 people, the second most important of the Yonne after Auxerre. One would have no idea from its current state just how important Sens was in the Middle Ages as the seat of the “Primate of Gaul,” perhaps the most important bishop in France and superior to the bishopric of Paris. For much of the early Middle Ages, the Kings of France were anointed here, not at Reims.

Sens was the capital of an ecclesiastical province composed of several neighboring dioceses and headed by a metropolitan, the archbishop designated by the Pope. At its height, the Archdiocese of Sens counted seven suffragans – subordinate bishops – at Chartres, Auxerre, Meaux, Paris, Orléans, Nevers, and Troyes. Only in 1622 was Paris raised to the status of a Metropolitan See and Chartres, Orléans, and Meaux were separated from Sens.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sens was an important settlement long before the Middle Ages. It was the site of an oppidum of the Senones, a Celtic tribe of Gaul. Caesar called it Agedincum and it later became an administrative center of Roman Gaul, situated at the intersection of the roads from Troyes to Orléans and Lyons to Paris . The first recorded Christian activity on the site was founded by the Saints Savinian and Potentian, sent by the Bishop of Rome in the 4th Century to proselytize the Gauls. They were martyred in 390. Their church was rebuilt in the sixth or seventh century. In 731, the Saracens ranged far enough north that they besieged the town, which was rescued by its bishop.

In the ninth century, the earlier church was succeeded by a Carolingian edifice, but this burned in 982. The church was immediately reconstructed by the Bishop Seguin and consecrated a few years later.

Around 1135, the Archbishop of Sens, Henri Sanglier, decided to replace the Carolingian cathedral of the tenth century with a structure befitting the importance of the metropolitan see over which he presided. Archbishop Sanglier was a singular person in the French landscape. He was a friend of both Abbot Suger of Saint Denis and Bernard of Clairvaux. He twice gave refuge to Thomas à Becket during his struggles with King Henry II. The second time was after Becket was forced to leave the abbey of Pontigny after the English monarch threatened to close every Cistercian house in England. When he was welcomed to Sens, Becket enthused, “ô douce, encore, ô très douce France! Oui, elle est douce, vraiment douce, la France!”

At the time of Sanglier’s rebuilding, church architecture was dominated by the great Romanesque churches. Sanglier commissioned a new architect to build his new church, who proposed building with a revolutionary form of vaulting – the rib vaulting that had begun to appear in the Norman churches in France and England. Although the finished cathedral in Sens was not completed for four centuries, the main structure was the product of a single mind, Guillaume de Sens. While there is no direct documentary record, there is enough evidence that we can perhaps infer the identity of the architect.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint-Etienne was constructed in its original form between 1135-1164 and was consecrated on 19 April 1163 by Pope Alexandre III, who was then in exile in Sens. This makes Saint-Étienne the oldest Gothic cathedral in France. The first Gothic structure is the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, built by Suger, but it did not become a cathedral until the 20th Century.

There is an interesting side note to Guillaume de Sens. Becket was at Sens during the time of the building of Saint-Étienne and when he returned to Canterbury, he made plans to rebuild the cathedral there. He was assassinated before he could do so, but the architect who was hired to build was the same Guillaume de Sens. Some historians speculate that Becket made the recommendation. In 1180 while working on the construction, Guillaume fell fifty feet from the scaffolding. Crippled, he returned home to Sens where he died soon after.

Nave and sexpartite vaulting, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and sexpartite vaulting, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The architecture of the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens is defined by three elements – the vaulting, the width of the nave, and the style of the nave pillars and columns.

The church features early Gothic sexpartite vaulting over a modest clerestory, and may even have been the first church to be completely vaulted in this manner. Like the Romanesque churches it was designed to supplant, there was a gallery between the aisle arcades and the clerestory level.

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church’s size is fairly modest, perhaps because the builders were not completely confident in the new architectural style. Saint-Étienne feels Romanesque; it is perhaps more solid than beautiful.

The interior lacks height but is very wide. A comparison with the almost-contemporary Notre Dame de Paris is telling. Sens’ length is 113.5 meters, which is smaller than Notre Dame de Paris at 128 meters. The nave height is 24.4 meters, much lower than Paris’ 33.5 meters. The width of the nave, in contrast, is 15.25 meters, almost two full meters larger than Paris. This width is one of the distinguishing factors of the Saint-Étienne de Sens. It also makes clear the builders’ intent to cover the structure with a vault, since it is too large for a wooden roof.

Finally, there is an interesting variation in the nave arcade supports – alternating piers and columns between the bays. This was not an innovation at Sens, but a very interesting stylistic choice.

Alternating pillars and columns in nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Alternating pillars and columns in nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

In addition to the architectural details, Sens contains some magnificent stained glass throughout the cathedral.

Transept windows, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept windows, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

There are four in particular that are remarkable – the choir ambulatory lancets that were created at the beginning of the 13th Century, probably from Suger’s school at Saint Denis. They tell the story of Saint Eustache,the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and finally the story of Thomas à Becket and his martyrdom at Canterbury.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral is the heart of Sens, visible from a great distance across the Yonne plain. There is little in the modern town to suggest that it was at the center of the life in 12th Century France and home to one of the most powerful prelates in the Church. But stepping inside, we can see the care and pride of both the patron and the builder in the stone and glass of Saint-Étienne de Sens.

Ambulatory chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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