Vezelay is a little town that I’d never even heard of as of a month ago. But now I count it as one of the most interesting of all the places that I’ve been in all of France. Vezelay itself is a small town perched up on a hill here in Burgundy. Perching a town on top of a hill was good strategic planning at one time, but now, it just makes for a beautiful place with a great view as well as a great workout as you climb up to visit it. But what truly makes Vezelay special beyond its scenic beauty is the basilica that is in its very center. It’s the Basilique de Marie Madeleine, or in English, the Basilica of Mary Magdalene http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilique_Sainte-Marie-Madeleine_de_V%C3%A9zelay Supposedly, they have her relics in the crypt underneath the church. Not being Catholic, I don’t fully understand the relic concept (yes, I know it’s her bones), but it doesn’t matter: the feeling as you enter that space underneath the basilica is one of incredible reverence and holiness. We were entering at nearly the same time as an ancient man in a long white and hooded robe. We sat a row behind him, us praying our prayers, he praying his. All around the room, people were seated on the floor, also praying. Candles were the only source of light, which made it feel even more other-worldly.
After sitting there in the candlelit room for as long as my 8-year-old’s patience would endure, we went back up into the church itself once again. We just happened to be there on a Saturday evening, and as great luck would have it, Vespers was about to begin. We were able to watch as the monks and nuns hurried about in preparation. But no matter how busy they were, they paused without fail to bow to the entrance of the small chapel off the side of the main church. Again, I don’t really know what that was about, but I can say that it made a great impression on my children, and I explained it to them as symbolic of their reverence and devotion to God. We continued to walk around the church until Vespers started, looking at all the beautiful stonework and carvings, but especially at the number of wooden crosses that line the walls of the church. Each and every one of those crosses had been carried there by someone crossing Europe on a pilgrimage to that place, and I don’t mean carried in a vehicle. I mean carried on someone’s back. The one that was the most moving and impressive was the one that was carried from Germany, to France, shortly after World War II. It was built from the beams of a house that had been destroyed by bombs, and it reads, “1946 Germany, Crusade of Peace. France.” Here’s a great link with more about this: http://www.eppinganglicans.org.uk/Sermons/2008/9Nov-PaxChristi.htm
As Vespers began to start, we found a place in the huge basilica and settled in. And waited. Which is hard on an 8 year old, you know. All the monks filed in to the church in their white robes and kneeled down and prayed for what began to seem like an eternity (definitely no pun intended here)… At one point, my little guy whispered to me, “Are we just gonna watch them pray? This is boring!” But then the service began, and the vespers service is entirely sung. Now, I must comment here that the vespers service we managed to see last year at l’Abbaye de Senanque was (can I say this?) better, because the monks there do the singing of the service entirely themselves http://www.abbayedesenanque.com/. At Vezelay, it is prerecorded by a choir, which is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and resonating through that huge space it is impressive. But, I’d prefer it to be less perfect and more, well, real. However, though I was initially disappointed that they weren’t going to sing it themselves, I didn’t think about that for long and just enjoyed the moment. It was still incredibly beautiful.
Now, I’m not Catholic and I didn’t understand much of what was going on. But as I told my children as we prepared to listen and watch, though we don’t understand their words or even necessarily their actions, we could understand their hearts and what they were trying to do: become closer to God through worship, which is something we try to do as well on a regular basis. We go to a church and though it looks very different, the goal is the same. And though it didn’t hold their attention for that long, I know that it made an impression on them. How could it not? I like to think that some day they will look back and realize how truly incredible that experience was. I certainly found it to be very touching. You have to think that all those people have been coming for all those years to that one place seeking God’s presence…
And then, we wandered back out into the chilly early fall evening into the town of Vezelay itself, seeking nourishment of an entirely different sort: food! It was obviously much too early for dinner, being only 6:45, after all. So we wandered from restaurant to restaurant, reading the menus and trying to decide what we wanted to try. As we did so, we fell into step with an older lady, traveling alone, and clearly looking for the same thing that we were, which was a restaurant that was open, affordable, and not booked up for the entire weekend. As we walked, we began to chat, and so by the time we settled on a restaurant that seemed reasonably priced but not too touristy, it seemed perfectly natural when the restaurant owner asked if we were a group of 4 to turn to her and ask her if she’d like to join us. She did so enthusiastically, and thus, the kids and I had dinner in a crepe restaurant with a perfectly charming retired French school teacher. I can’t imagine doing that in Atlanta, but I’ve seen it happen here more than once: the other night in a tiny and crowded restaurant in Germany, people were asked to share tables and they did so without hesitation. Multi-lingual conversations were all over the place! But that night, my children got an extra French lesson, just for good measure, and we had a wonderful evening doing so. Our dinner companion, Therese, had made the trip to Vezelay on her own. She’d wanted to visit for a long time, and had finally made it, and was thrilled to have some company after having spent the earlier parts of the weekend on her own. As it turns out, she taught 3rd grade- I just happen to have a 3rd grader- so it was nice to be able to relax a little around someone who most likely would not be shocked by anything my son might pull.
And then, back out into the cold and rainy autumn for our drive back home- I found myself not wanting to leave Therese’s company so when she asked us to walk her to her hotel so that she wouldn’t be frightened, we did so. We said our goodbyes (sigh- my new friend!) and off we went, down the mountainside and around the twisted and curving roads, back to the place that we are calling home for the fall.