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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

At home in France

Vézelay is awakening out of its winter sleep. It is cold, but the shops and restaurants are opening and the visitors are starting to arrive.

We are in the medieval hill-top village in Burgundy. The great Basilica crowns the hill; you can see it from miles away. From the top, old buildings tumble down the hillside towards the valley, never quite reaching it. Vineyards (Chardonnay) spread across the hill's south flank. The limestone responds wonderfully to the light. When the sun is low the whole village is lit up with a warm golden glow: you could imagine you were walking the streets of the celestial city. From afar the effect is extraordinary.

In the middle ages Vézelay was called La Colline Éternelle. You feel it is a very ancient place. What made it famous was the pilgrimage both to it and from it. Pilgrims came here to venerate the relics of Mary Magdalen, so this was a good place for penitent sinners to come. It still is. But in the middle ages it was also one of the four gathering places in France for the long pilgrimage to Compostela in north-west Spain. So there are reminders everywhere of St James and his coquille or scallop-shell. A line of brass shells is set in the main street for pilgrims to follow (only 1000 miles to go....). At this time of year there are a lot of pilgrims here, setting out on the long march so as to arrive in Santiago on the Feast Day of St James, 25 July. Some are religious, some not, but they have had their pilgrim passport or Compostela officially stamped, and they wear or carry the coquille.

The Basilica is one of the great Romanesque churches of Europe. It was begun at the same time as Durham Cathedral. It has an enormous narthex where pilgrims and worshippers would gather. Above the ceremonial entrance to the nave, the huge tympanum of Christ sending out his disciples at Pentecost (so different from the more usual last judgment) is a masterpiece of Romanesque carving. Sadly it is obscured by scaffolding at present, because of fears that the wall may be shifting. The long nave is light and graceful and has over 100 sculpted capitals depicting scenes from the Bible, classical myth and early Christian history. At the summer solstice a radiant sunlit pathway leads up the central alley to the high altar. The quire is early Gothic, a luminous climax to the building. Underneath is the ancient crypt where Mary's relics are. It sits directly on the bedrock of the hill, a dark, numinous and moving place.

About three quarters of a million visitors come here each year. That has a massive impact on a village with a population of only a few hundred. Cultural and religious tourism are big business: there are retreats & 'centres' that cater for lovers of heritage and followers of different spiritualities, galleries where painters and sculptors try (with varying degrees of success) to reflect the spirit of this intriguing place, book shops that give generous amounts of space not only to Christianity and Romanesque architecture but also to esoteric literature about ley lines, numerology, sacred geometry and the Tarot: there are 'energies' here. The Jérusalem Community of brothers and sisters sing the offices three times a day in the Basilica and with others in the village, encourage the pilgrimage, offer interpretation of the building and run retreats and study events.

But underneath, this is an ordinary village. The villagers are native rural Burgundians who both benefit from and are somewhat suspicious of tourism. Some seem to hide away from April to October only to emerge from their houses when the visitors have gone and the village is quiet again. Then it is a silent, peaceful place. The galleries and restaurants are shuttered: only the boulangerie and the tiny Co-op are open for business. It is bitingly cold. Wood smoke hangs in the calm clear air. Villagers hold brief conversations in the empty streets. Firesides beckon. A bell calls the community to prayer.

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