Of Faith and Hair

Posted by in Blog on Apr 19, 2013

Mary and I have just come back from France, where we spent a fair amount of time in the cathedral of Chartres. I had, in fact, visited it a long time ago, and been aware of nothing much beyond old stones and statues outside and darkness inside, lit here and there by a few votive candles flickering in the draughty air.

This time was profoundly different. For one thing, the cleaning up of the inside has resulted in areas within the cathedral of brightness and light, and the work done on removing the grime of centuries from the stained glass windows – work as yet unfinished – reveals them in all their vividness of colour and simplicity of storytelling, though it helps to have an idea which story is being told in which window! The three doorways, north, south and west, are rich with carving and statuary that gives a hint of the tenor of mind of the scholars of the School of Chartres, and what they held dear. The great, thirty tonne baroque marble statue in the East of the cathedral, showing the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is a marvellous work of art, though sadly, and somewhat grotesquely, out of place in that determinedly Gothic setting. But seeing the cathedral, or at least significant parts of it as it was meant to be seen, with the lightness within aspiring to the state of transparency, was transcendent.

What impressed me more than anything, however, was something that I’ve seen here and there all my life, but suddenly woke up to in a new way. At the Madonna of the Pillar, the so-called Black Madonna, there a few people praying with a dedication and earnestness that made me aware of the fact: This is the expression of humility and devotion to something greater than oneself. At the same time I realised the stupidity, the futility and the abuse to the soul that arises from sneering and scoffing at such expressions of faith. If you can’t respect it, it is a symptom of something sleeping or missing in you, not in the one on his or her knees. I respect humanism, and respect the social involvement that many humanists show out of a profound sense of moral duty and justice. What I saw here was something different: the ability to recognize the sacred and to hold it in reverence.

I had another sense of revelation at the exhibition on hair at the Musee de Quai de Branly. This place is worth a visit for the building alone. What used to be the museum in the east of the city, showing artefacts from Africa and Oceania has moved to Quai de Branly and expanded its remit considerably.

In the exhibition about hair, there were all sorts of manifestations of what we do with our hair for various reasons, and the sense was of an atmosphere of light-heartedness and celebration. But then, turning a corner, we saw a grainy old black and white film of a girl having her head shaved in the public square in the town of Chartres, because she had had a liaison with a German soldier. The effects on this woman were devastating. She never recovered in all the twenty odd remaining years of her life, and she died a lonely alcoholic. But what became clear in the film was that this woman was taking on the sins of the entire country that had submitted, no matter how unwillingly, and at no matter what sacrifices, to the brutal occupying force. For the country to be healed psychically – if it ever was, at least for that generation – it was necessary for this woman never to be healed; to suffer unto death. She had to take her shame and degradation to the grave. Everyone in that town square had been a little bit as guilty as she had been. Perhaps – who can tell?- there were others in that crowd more to blame than she. But she was the one who had to expiate the sins of the people. No doubt there were other, similar tales to be told all over France, and quite a few had to bear this burden; had to be sacrificed to restore the moral health of the country, while gaining no moral or spiritual advantage from the sacrifice. The restoration of the country’s honour couldn’t be left to the men and women of the Resistance, or those who died at the outset of the invasion. Not everyone has the courage or ability for that kind of heroism. And so the heads of the guilty were shaved and the ostracism set in for good. Or perhaps I should say “good”. There but for the grace of God…