Amid the tumultuous news of a papal resignation, here is a reminder of the permanent things: Peter Hitchens’s luminous meditation on a pilgrimage to the Chartres Cathedral. Excerpts:
The Cathedral at Chartres is not just one of the greatest monuments to human thought and skill and faith in France, or in Europe, but in the world. Yet it is not really announced as such. It is surrounded, in winter at least, by a quiet, modest and not specially prosperous town. Not far from it, in rather drab surroundings, stands the haunting, almost desolate, freezing cold church of St Pierre which in any other place would be famous for its astonishing stained glass, but because of its nearby competitor, is comparatively neglected. It was so empty and seemingly forgotten when I visited it that it brought to mind the M.R. James ghost story ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’, set in and around the echoing, shadowy, mysterious church of St Bertrand des Comminges (a real place close to the Pyrenees). Fortunately for me, I did not find in Chartres what Monty James’s hero found in St Bertrand.
What I did find ( for I had been there before long ago, callow and rushed, and had not really taken it in) was so much concentrated thought, wisdom and glory that I had to take rests between visits because my eyes and brain became too full to take in any more.
What Chartres represents is a map and model of the cosmos (something similar can be said about Jan Van Eyck’s otherwise inexplicably fascinating triptych ‘The Mystic Lamb’ in the cathedral at Ghent) enabling anyone with eyes to see to find an explanation of the spirit which motivates the universe, which arranges the stars and the comets in their orbits and courses, and which also causes our consciences to burn within us, and our eyes and ears to recognise truth and beauty when we see them. It is not literal, and not for the literal-minded. But then again, nor are poetry or music. And it is almost a cliché to say that Chartres is poetry and music, frozen into stone and glass.
As I studied this great possession of our civilisation, I was reading (for I have been asked to review it) yet another anti-God book penned by a clever man of our age. I felt that this building was and always would be a sufficient answer to his case. Man gropes, in all ages, for an understanding of where and what he is, and what he should be and do. It seems to me that he will find, in Chartres, a more useful guide than he will find in the Charter of Human Rights, or in the other unimaginative, cold , dry attempts to construct justice and liberty without understanding where these ideas come from in the first place.
Or, as George Weigel once put it, the Cube or the Cathedral?
UPDATE: A reader draws our attention to this two-and-a-half minute meditation on Chartres by Orson Welles: