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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

Sunday in Vézelay

It's Sunday in our hill-top village.

We awaken to the sound of shutters rattling in a keen north wind. When the wind is up it howls cruelly around this hill. Locals say the isolated hill-top attracts 'weather'. We are near the top so imagine we feel it more up here. The sky is like gun-metal, the street deserted. Only the early leaf on the beech tree across the road belies the impression that Vézelay is still in the grip of winter.

By mid-morning a stream of people heads up the hill towards the Romanesque Basilica. As in Durham, because we live so near it we are often the last to arrive. Some drive from further afield, their four by fours bearing number-plates from the Cher, the Aube and even Paris, evidence that people are prepared to travel far to come to services in this great pilgrim church. In front of the church are several fire appliances and officers standing about talking, so probably a practice rather than an emergency. A car-park attendant tries to keep order. Some pilgrims are setting off down the hill to Compostela.

Often there are wayfarers sitting by the main door of the narthex begging for alms, but not today, the cold probably. The narthex is dark, thronged with people: It is like a grand station waiting room, one of the functions of a Galilee porch. The nave is light and airy by comparison. Almost everyone heads straight for the front of the nave, quite unlike the C of E. The church which is very long is about a third full; not a bad attendance for Low Sunday. We do not see many villagers there. Some, like the elderly devout Madame who used to live across the road and died in the heat-wave or canicule of 2003 would sniff at the elaborate liturgy and music of the Basilica and go instead to one of the village churches where mass would be over in half an hour. The church is as cold as a tomb. I long for scarf and gloves: I have not brought the right clothing for Easter worship in this glorious but icy place.

The brothers and sisters of Jérusalem have been here since the 1990s. Their liturgy is celebrated in the Basilica three times a day. The sisters sit on the south side if the quire, the brothers on the north. The liturgy of both offices and eucharist is entirely sung to contemporary music of an eclectic mix of styles but is said to be inspired by Orthodox chant. The organist plays voluntaries on the little Cavaillé-Coll organ.

Liturgically, things are done with a studied Gallic informality (some might call it casualness). Today the president is one of the ordained brothers; another concelebrates, an English ex-Anglican priest who crossed the Tiber many years ago and took vows to live in France with the community. The lessons are read in French and then another language, today Dutch and Spanish. The president gives a homily about Thomas and speaks about how faith reaches out to touch the pierced hands and feet and side of the risen Christ. Everyone is paying close attention, even the teenage scouts just behind us. A lay person reads the bidding prayers. Children accompany the offertory procession and place candles round the the foot of the altar. At communion there are no stewards telling us when and where to go. After communion, some leave straight away. Meanwhile tourists ('they' - 'we' are worshippers or pilgrims) wander irritatingly up and down the aisles taking photographs while we pray. Afterwards no-one except us stays to listen to the final voluntary, so the organist stops playing her well-practised Bach fugue half-way through.

When we emerge the village is thronged with people. Sunday afternoon attracts visitors even in winter. Tourist sites are exempt the strict French Sunday trading laws so everything is open. The cafes and restaurants do well on Sundays, whether it's frites at the top of the hill or a Michelin star at the bottom. We wander down the street. Claude next door paints large surrealist-style canvases and is always up for conversation in his broken English and our broken French. Further down a bee-keeper sells different kinds of honey; she does this single-handed following her husband's bad accident two years ago. She tells us that he is beginning to walk again which is welcome news. Where the roads meet there is a tabac with fair-weather tables outside. Opposite is our favourite gallery that sells works by a 20th century painter and sculptor who worked in this region, Francois Brochet. We have two paintings of his in Durham. Our friend Elaine who works there helps us run this house for visitors. She is a lively Scotswoman whom we've known since we first started coming here. She is a fund of good advice on everything local. She tells us that in this economic crisis visitors are not buying as they used to. Everyone says the same: there are plenty of tourists but they are not spending. As we are not.

After an amicable catch-up on village affairs we head uphill again. I go back into the church to study and photograph the extraordinary array of Romanesque carvings for which it is famous. After an hour the cold has got the better of me. It is time to light a fire and have a cup of tea.

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