Thursday, 30 April 2009

A Sensible Faith


It's been a busy day, so I'll work backwards through it to the beginning, to the place I really want to think about.

This evening all the household, 12 people in all, went two doors down to Madame Ogi's. Madame Ogi runs a restaurant. Not a huge affair, just 6 tables: the sort of place which performs the sort of function I suppose the local pub used to perform at the end of British streets. It is the place where locals gather; where everyone knows everyone else, and where the events of the village are discussed in intimate detail. And where, just incidentally, the food is superb. I had the perch, caught that day in the lake, and served with potatoes, salad and the most delicious sauce. There was a local pinot noir to wash it all down, and it was, quite simply, the best fish I have eaten in my life. When we left, there were the regulation handshakes and three cheek kisses for everyone, and from everyone - the chef, the waitress, the other diners - and the sense that you hadn't so much been out for a meal as popped into the family's other dining room.

Earlier we visited a castle. A real castle, not some pretentious Edwardian mansion such as we have in Dunedin. Built in 13 hundred and something in the village of (I kid you not) Grandson, and still occupied and still in perfect condition. It had dungeons. It had swords and cannons. It had suits of armour. It had gardyloos. It had ancient furniture and tiny windows designed not for light or air but to fire arrows at the pesky Germans. Someone had installed an impressive collection of antique cars in the basement - including Greta Garbo's Rolls and Winston Churchill's Austin 10 - but by and large it was all pure 14th century. The cappuccino in the gift shop was, fortunately, pure 21st Century.

Earlier still we looked at the ancient town of Neuchatel, including the old parish church. This 13th century place of worship was already three hundred years old when the Reformation hit town, and as the Catholic chapel of the local Chateau it was a particular focus for the removal of papist errors. Once it had a high altar and two side chapels but the ancient altars had all been removed and in their place was a plain table for the Lord's supper and a simple cross. The nave pulpit was still extant but the nave itself had been filled with small and ugly pews. The old church had become a place for the exposition of the word. After the grandiose over decoration of Italy it all looked a little sparse. I have been into a couple of Swiss Catholic churches, and I must say I liked them. In one there was a wonderful font which incorporated a fountain so that Jesus' words about living water took on a new, sensual depth. In another, all the altar furniture was fashioned from unworked timber, so that the organic forms spoke of the congruence of nature and the Gospel. Here there were no such fripperies; just pure, clear, sensible human logic. The vague certainties of Catholicism had been replaced by the absolute and strongly defended vagaries of Protestantism. Body Mind and Spirit had all been subjected to the dictatorship of Mind alone, and although I grew up in the shadow of the Reformation and can objectively see the necessity of what happened in the 16th Century, in Neuchatel today I had the srongest sense that something was profoundly wrong. It was all very sensible, but we humans are seldom sensible, and perhaps, neither should be our approach to the infinite.

4 comments:

Brian R said...

I had similar feelings this week last year when I was in St Gallen (North east Switzerland) and visited in quick succession the Evangelische Kirche and the Catholic Cathedral which are almost opposite. Having grown up an evangelical (Sydney Diocese???) and moved to anglo-catholicism via working in Catholic Schools, I did feel more spiritual uplift in the Catholic Cathedral even if it was a bit over the top.

Peter Carrell said...

Perchance you may visit a Cistercian monastery, Kelvin ... recently I made my first visit to Kopua and was struck by how 'Protestant' it was in the simplicity and starkness of its chapel fabric and furnishings (I felt quite at home :) ) and yet, of course, was thoroughly Catholic in its liturgy. The blend reminded me of ... true Anglicanism ...

VenDr said...

Spartan surroundings have their place, and I can quite understand the wisdom of Zen practice: meditating facing a blank white wall. And many of the over decorated Italian churches would be distracting for me as places of worship, to put it mildly. Also, I have been in some elaborate Protestant buildings here, Bern Munster for example. It's not the decoration or lack thereof, it's something a bit deeper: the realisation that the church and its furnishings have a role in worship that is not rational and probably not entirely conscious. It's about a sense of place, and the realisation that the Gospel comes to us in ways that are not rational, in addition of course, to our rational appreciation of Gospel truth. For example, he frescoes in Florence's Duomo give a wonderful sense of the transcendent but I wish someone had had a good think about them before committing dye to plaster

Anonymous said...

Hey Kelvin, can we have a fountain for St John's font? Can we? What a great souvenir that would be from your trip! Maybe keep your eyes peeled while you are on the Camino - maybe start looking in the last 100kms or so (wouldn't want Clemency to feel too overburdened) - if you see a likely looking one, just chuck it in the panniers of that Norton, eh?
Good hunting....
Jo F