When nostalgia gets in the way of grace

I have loved the city of Caen, in Normandy, since I first came here years ago for a summer school at its university. The university was founded by John of Lancaster in 1432, though the modern campus dates from the 1960s and is architecturally pretty brutal. Two-thirds of the city, the university included, was destroyed in a bombardment as Allied battle groups sought to break out from the Normandy beach-heads and met fierce resistance. The areas that survived intact give an impression of the charm and beauty of the city before.

There are substantial ruins of a colossal castle and two beautiful extant Romanesque abbey churches, the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames, at different ends of the old city. They house the tombs of their founders, William the Conquerer and his Queen Matilda respectively. Both were desecrated during the French Revolution and the monastic buildings were seized for government offices.

The abbey churches are still places of worship and as straight and proud as when they were built. The smaller Abbaye aux Dames is virtually unaltered externally. Seeing it was, for me, a kind of homecoming. We had in the Norfolk village where I spent some time as a youth, the ruins of a Cluniac priory built by the Norman invaders at more or less the same time as the Abbaye aux Dames was built.

Seeing the Abbaye aux Dames was like seeing Castle Acre Priory church as it would have been. I used to go down to the ruins at full moon to see the broken outlines touched by the moonlight, and softened and bathed in a lustre which somehow made the destruction less painful. In that light it was possible to see shapes and silhouettes not visible by day, giving the impression of a living thing which changed shape and even regenerated. I would entertain the fond imagination that one night I might come down and find the place entirely whole again and a ghostly choir of monks at their devotions in a candlelit church. I never did, of course, but seeing the abbey in Caen was a powerful experience of recognition – and, I would say, of spiritual healing.

In some analogous but opposite way to how St Francis heard a call to “rebuild my church” and related this to what he could see, rather than something more abstract, I think that in longing for the restoration and completion of a holy place I was actually longing for the completion of the temple that was my own body. An image of what the priory was when it was newly built was a powerful reminder of what baptism had given me, what sin had damaged and what grace could restore. I think that a lot of spirituality about “accepting yourself as you are” can be a little like Ruskin’s reflections on the sublime.

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