The first time I was in France I spent three weeks in Paris before taking that one-hour train ride to Chartres. The famed Cathedral sat at the edge of my plate like the perfect strawberry one might put aside to savor as the final bite of a good meal.
My mother tells a story from lean childhood times when she sat at the family dinner table and saved a piece of pork chop at the edge of her plate. When everyone’s meat was gone, she bragged to her brothers and sisters that she still had some pork chop left. My grandfather reached his fork down the table, speared the morsel, and popped into his mouth. “It’s okay to save a bite,” he told her, “but it’s not okay to brag about it.”
I remembered that story as I saved the trip to Chartres. I worried some. What if there was a train strike? What if I got sick? Broke a leg? What if I had come all this distance and got an hour away and didn’t get there? And yet I had to wait, had to prepare myself for this reconnection.
When I finally got to Chartres I couldn’t get enough. The soft colors of stone as background for the brilliant jewels of glass that tell the stories that make it okay to set aside a bit of treasure, but not to brag about it.
It was a cool showery two days. I saw the cathedral in all her moods, from shadowy grays to radiant blues and red and yellows, and when I left I wanted more: more time, more sunlight, more knowledge about what I was experiencing.
“Beware,” the l0th century scholars of Chartres had warned, “for love alone without knowledge remains unfocused, aimless, undirected. The consequence is pointless. . . .”
Now on this second trip to France, Chartres is at the center and I circle around her as a pilgrim in the labyrinth, honoring the way, knowing I will come home to her. Lover journeys to the beloved and all else is prologue. I circle, gathering up wisdom, experiencing other sacred spaces: Amiens, Rouen, Mont St. Michel, Anger, Bordeaux, Bourges and seven times that many cathedrals, churches, and abbeys along the way. Could Chartres be more wonderful than these? More beautiful? Could her sculptures surpass those at St. Sauvin? Are her windows finer than those at Bourges? Is she really the queen of the cathedrals?
And so on the 25th day of pilgrimage in France we arrive at Chartres and the answer is “yes, yes, yes.” She is that queen. Chartres has been built to honor the Virgin, to honor the feminine of God, to honor acceptance, forgiveness, unconditional love. It has been built not only as a shrine to honor Mary, but as a place for Mary to live.
I do what pilgrims do at Chartres: go to Mass in the crypt and in the nave, listen to choirs, to the organ, light candles, study the windows, buy postcards, take pictures, come back morning, noon, and night to catch her varied moods.
Chartres brings us always back to ourselves. Architecture, craftsmanship and love come together in a structure whose moods and asymmetry form a magnificent symbol of stability and poise and whose form and line, glass and stone, work their enchantment upon us by bringing us back again and again to our own interior landscape, our basic structure, our personal symbols.
The cathedrals we know, regardless of what else is going on for us spiritually, can still speak to a deep center in each of us. We all have, if you wish to consider it as such, an inner cathedral, a bit of sacred architecture within. When we live from that inner sacred space, we fashion better images out there.
Donna Hardy 1991