When nostalgia gets in the way of grace
I have loved the city of Caen, in Normandy, since I first came here years ago for a summer school at its university. The university was founded by John of Lancaster in 1432, though the modern campus dates from the 1960s and is architecturally pretty brutal. Two-thirds of the city, the university included, was destroyed in a bombardment as Allied battle groups sought to break out from the Normandy beach-heads and met fierce resistance. The areas that survived intact give an impression of the charm and beauty of the city before.
There are substantial ruins of a colossal castle and two beautiful extant Romanesque abbey churches, the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames, at different ends of the old city. They house the tombs of their founders, William the Conquerer and his Queen Matilda respectively. Both were desecrated during the French Revolution and the monastic buildings were seized for government offices.
The abbey churches are still places of worship and as straight and proud as when they were built. The smaller Abbaye aux Dames is virtually unaltered externally. Seeing it was, for me, a kind of homecoming. We had in the Norfolk village where I spent some time as a youth, the ruins of a Cluniac priory built by the Norman invaders at more or less the same time as the Abbaye aux Dames was built.
Seeing the Abbaye aux Dames was like seeing Castle Acre Priory church as it would have been. I used to go down to the ruins at full moon to see the broken outlines touched by the moonlight, and softened and bathed in a lustre which somehow made the destruction less painful. In that light it was possible to see shapes and silhouettes not visible by day, giving the impression of a living thing which changed shape and even regenerated. I would entertain the fond imagination that one night I might come down and find the place entirely whole again and a ghostly choir of monks at their devotions in a candlelit church. I never did, of course, but seeing the abbey in Caen was a powerful experience of recognition – and, I would say, of spiritual healing.
In some analogous but opposite way to how St Francis heard a call to “rebuild my church” and related this to what he could see, rather than something more abstract, I think that in longing for the restoration and completion of a holy place I was actually longing for the completion of the temple that was my own body. An image of what the priory was when it was newly built was a powerful reminder of what baptism had given me, what sin had damaged and what grace could restore. I think that a lot of spirituality about “accepting yourself as you are” can be a little like Ruskin’s reflections on the sublime.
There is a noble beauty in a ruin, in the remaining intimations of a vanished perfection of form, but this can easily become a mere spiritual nostalgia, a kind of resignation that things can never be as good again. God’s grace always wants to restore us to the vision the builder had, to realise in us a perfection of form which is not the triumph of history and experience alone, not the partial charm of quirky and quaint perspectives, but the triumph of the Resurrection of Jesus.
Such a temple grace was able to build out of the sad and difficult early life of Léonie Martin, the “ugly duckling” older sister of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Near the Abbaye aux Hommes is the Monastery of the Visitation, and I have come to pray at her tomb, the newly erected shrine to the Servant of God, Sister Françoise-Thérèse. She is the real prophet of her sister’s “Little Way” because she had none of Thérèse’s natural gifts. “I am not good at anything,” she wrote to Thérèse during one of several failed attempts to join the convent. “You are the spouse of Jesus,” her sister replied.
“I would like to grow,” Léonie writes, “and to remain little at the same time. God has shown me as clear as day that I must always hide in my nothingness. He has made me love my littleness, my inability to do any good.” Thus she lived 44 years hidden in her monastery in simplicity, joy and peace. As she lay dying she asked her sisters to sing the Magnificat. A few days previously she had written: “I am too little to be damned. I trust I will fall into the arms of Jesus.”
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London