One summer, just after The Best Beloved and I had moved to France, we were driving over a rather desolate but shockingly beautiful mountain range, seemingly miles from nowhere, and not a person in sight, when we came upon small, very old chapel in the beehive style.
We went inside and found a small and simple space, flooded with light from the tiny windows behind the Ronanesque altar, which was richly carved. Stone and wood and light. Aaahh…..
I felt a sort of peace descend.Something hushed, and yet glorious.I had an urge to lie down and take a nap, right there on the stone floor, in a shaft of sunlight, and see what I might dream. I didn’t (although I still rather regret that). We stayed for a while, and lit a candle.
Then we left, and I was somewhat unsettled by the experience. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. What had I felt? And why had I felt it there?
The Best Beloved and I talked many times over the years about the little chapel and the way we felt there. It lingered in the air. Wanting to write this essay, I thought I should try and find some photos. Surely there can’t be many little chapel of such great antiquity in that area of France. I went searching on Google, trying to find the the one we’d visited. What I found was a quite famous chapel called Notre Dame d’Avenas with a 7th century (okay, I’m with you there), that is attached to the church in the middle of the village. Wait . . What??
Not our chapel. Our chapel was alone, on a hill, surrounded by nothing but land and sky. That was one of the things that was so remarkable about it. I must have the wrong place, I thought. I looked at the photo and compared the photo of the altar, the carvings of which are quite remarkable, to a photo Ron had taken — sure enough. That’s “our” altar. But how could that be? There was no cathedral when we were there and certainly no village.
It was quite clear in my memory (although I recognize memory is an odd and mutable thing) — we had been alone, in a place far from other people. I recall being surprised there were lit candles in the chapel, since it was so far away from everything.
I tore up to Ron’s office and told him what I’d found. I had him go on-line and look at the site for Avenas. He did. He looked at the photos of the interior, compared his photo of the altar to the one on-line, read about the village, the history. Did some more Googling to make sure we had the right place. He kept muttering that there must be some mistake. That it wasn’t possible. The place we’d been in had no village, was alone, just a little chapel unattached to anything else. Finally, He looked at me, a little pale, and said, “I don’t think I want to talk about it.” The Best Beloved is the most grounded and no-nonsense person I’ve ever met. He is not the sort to go seeking mystical experiences. Something like this made him twitchy.
I could understand that. What do you do, when faced with that which simply isn’t possible? Of course, we have since talked about it, and at length. I have also spoken to priests and a spiritual director (a nun) I found years later, and with an analyst. The conclusion seems to be that we were in a “thin place”. That the question is not where were we, but rather when were we? I have read of other such things happening to quite ordinary, non-new-agey, perfectly feet-on-the-ground sorts, just like The Best Beloved. Elizabeth Goudge, the author of (among many other books) Green Dolphin Street, wrote of one such experience in her memoir The Joy of Snow. Both The Best Beloved and I are at peace with what happened, comfortable with the Mystery of it. It is an experience we had. We don’t know why, except that — speaking for myself here — it gave me a sense of wonder, of something far greater than myself, which I choose to call The Ineffable.
In doing some research on the history of this place I found this (spelling and grammar is as it was in the article): It is said of Notre Dame d’Avenas that: “The Christians wanted to build a church on the ruins of the monastery of Pélage, that the invaders buckwheats [I have no idea what that means – lbd] had destroyed. The tradition reports that the craftsmen and workmen found, each morning, while returning on the building site, their tools and materials dispersed by a mysterious hand. Then the master of work thought that God wanted, for its sanctuary, another site. It decided to launch its hammer in the air towards the small valley, and that where it would fall, the church would be built. The hammer was gone from there to choir with 1200 meters of the Collar, in a bush of hawthorns, close to the crowned pagan fountain, in Avenas…”
It is also said: “Us here is the hawthorn, crowned druids plants, close which several black virgins were found. This plant is also called the tree with the fairies… And our hammer, attribute of Thor, come well by the way… We are in full druidism, conveyed by our good monks.”
Well, the sentence structure leave a little something to be desired, but the message is that clearly there’s been something unusual going on around there for a long, long time — certainly long before Christians started building chapels.
Curious. I certainly felt something in that place.Something holy, and that now makes sense to me, perfect sense. This is not to say I can completely understand it, or explain it. But in times when I feel lost, out of touch, out of balance, I close my eyes and imagine myself back in that little chapel, with the stone and the wood and the light and the wondrous, magical, simple complexity of the mystery. My spiritual director used to ask me, “Will you believe your experience, or not?” I will. I do.