Day 24 of Walking Out of the World. The kindness of people who offer pilgrims and strangers hospitality on the Way of Saint James, and a last look back towards Chartres across the plain of Beauce reminds me of the moment of conversion.
Before I left Bonneval, my hosts Pierre and Monique took me on an excursion up from the town to Pré-Saint-Évroult, a little village church on the plain of Beauce – “the Breadbasket of France” – as there was an early Mass, unusually for a village. A day’s walk from Chartres, the spires were still in sight, but only just. Monique said that would be the last chance to say goodbye to Chartres. Such is the emotional pull of the place that these kind folk who regularly welcomed pilgrims going south to Compostela knew how much we all turned and looked back to see if the spires were still in view.
These hosts were the first of two couples that had offered to accommodate me when Jacques Chevallet in Chartres had stamped pilgrim credencials at the campsite. The next hosts were in Vendome, but I would not get there until the following day. Today’s target was Cloyes. The weather was going to be wet again, my hosts told me. “We’re so glad we put you up,” said Monique. “Your story of the mandorla was very inspiring. Pray for us in Compostela and hug Saint James!”
If pilgrimage is about anything, it is about transition: the pilgrim is in transition – concretely walking through time and space – so, what better moment to take a look at earlier life changes and to discern where life may lead us next? After I said goodbye to my hosts and left Bonneval over the river Loir, the rain began again even before I had left the outskirts of the town. Most of the morning took me along pleasant forest paths beside the river Loir and it is good to walk in the trees when it is raining. You do not keep much drier but you have the sensation of a canopy over your head, so it is comforting but without any real protection.
My mind turned to a final reflection on Chartres, now gone from sight on this pilgrimage, having occupied my thoughts for several days. The recalling of my conversion happened over supper with my hosts. A country stew and a bottle of burgundy from Cluny, which reminded me of Cluny abbey – demolished in the ravages of revolution and vandalism – once the biggest abbey in Christendom. Centre for the early mediaeval Benedictine reform movement. The stones were mostly pulled down but the famed illuminated manuscripts migrated all over Europe. My hosts were brought up as Catholics and they enjoyed it as we talked about that mediaeval centre of learning, and then Monique said, “If you weren’t always Catholic, what changed things for you?”
I had never told anyone before about the mandorla. It seemed perhaps something silly, easily explained away in terms of chance or psychological preconditioning, and so on. I was unlikely to ever see my hosts again. I mentioned the summer cycling trips to Chartres years ago and the study of gothic art. The marvellous stained glass windows and statues – a full programme of religious art – are unique because the rebuilding after a fire in the 13th century was very rapid, so all the programme of images was done in a short period of intense activity of work on the cathedral. The end result was a completely coherent visual story. From the beginning until the end of time. And the end of time has Christ sitting in glory and in judgment over humanity. He is depicted in a mandorla.
A mandorla is an almond-shaped ‘aureola’ – in other words a frame that surrounds an iconographic figure, a holy person – like a halo, but not just surrounding the head. The mandorla encircles the whole person. The word comes from the Italian for almond and it describes the shape. The meaning is clear: it ascribes to the person within it extraordinary holiness, divinity or a sinless person. Mandorlas are most often depicted in the context of Christ’s Ascension, appearing on the throne of glory, or the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, being taken up into heaven. I knew this because I had been giving attention to the subject in the books I was reading and I had been trying – unsuccesfully – to paint a watercolour of the Christ in majesty in a tympanum at Chartres. The mandorla was a tricky shape to get right. I had bought another text book on religious art, this time with more emphasis on the Romanesque than the Gothic. The mandorla’s proportions were mathematically based on the Golden Section and Fibonnaci series.
After three years of visits to Chartres, I was cycling away at the end of another week and heading home towards Dieppe. I paused on the plain of Beauce to look back at the cathedral. For the first time the thought had struck me during this past visit that the programme of stained glass and sculpture was a coherent system of ideas – one seamless tapestry of thought – because it was actually God-given. It reflected a perfectly coherent theology, which must also be God-given. This was a big step for me and it caught me by surprise. Nobody had evangelised me, only 13th century craftsmen. The stone masons and the stained glass makers had preached the Word to me.
It was a cloudy day with thick blue-grey cloud over the plain of Beauce, the sort of day that will produce a thunderstorm in the afternoon. I thought I heard distant thunder, but listening more attentively it was the sound of jet aircraft overhead. The French air force flies training sorties over these plains. They were hidden in dark grey cloud, thick as lead. I stood there looking back at the cathedral, maybe the last glimpse I would get before disappearing into the meandering Eure valley again.
Then I just said it. Out loud. “Give me a sign Lord.”
I felt instantly silly for saying it, even though I was in the middle of the plain of wheatfields, alone. It was only a few seconds, maybe half a minute at most, and the cloud above me parted – a short distance between me and the distant cathedral – revealing a large patch of blue sky in a perfect mandorla shape. Then one of the jet aircraft, which had been hidden in the cloud until that moment crossed the length of the mandorla shape, leaving a white condensation trail, bisecting the blue sky exactly down the middle with a perfectly straight line. The second jet then flew across the mandala at ninety degrees, crossing the first con trail at around the place that intuitively you would judge to be the Golden Section. It was a perfect sign of the Cross.
Within a minute, the gap in the cloud had closed again and the mandala of blue sky with its Cross had disappeared. Up to that point all of my metaphysical enquiries had been focused on knowledge, maybe searching for some secret wisdom. Even the study of the thirteenth century religious art had been a carefully controlled exercise in cultural narrative: the Old and New Testaments were for me collections of ideas that had once inspired pre-Enlightenment human beings. It was important we should to study their symbols, as you would look at the cave art of Altamira and I had been one of the last visitors there in the 1960s before it was closed to the public. I was sure I could study cave paintings without becoming a cave man, so I had imagined I could study stained-glass and sculpture without consequences. I had not thought for a minute that I should ever engage and believe it.
My response to the event in the sky that day was immediate and genuine. I did not go down on my knees and weep before my God in response to his wonderful sign. I did not start speaking in tongues. I did not have the urge to find a priest and confess my sins. I simply laughed.
It was laughter of recognition, maybe self-deprecation too, feeling foolish for asking for a sign, when such a simple sign was so easy to give! The thermals over the plain of Beauce are used by gliding clubs because pilots can soar for hours up there on vertical currents. On this day the currents of air had simply parted to make a random shape and two aircraft had flown across that shape. Nothing more than that.
The idea that the Lord of the Universe should take the trouble to create a little piece of sky theatre for me, when there were more important things to do was absurd. Wouldn’t it be better to give the wonderful sign of ending poverty and feed millions of starving poor in undeveloped nations? I laughed because I saw that I was a primitive. But God was there. God was saying, “OK my son, you want signs do you? Well here’s a sign. Yes I can do that, but what does that prove for you? You’re already analysing the weather conditions and the atmosphere to explain it away… So I’ve wasted my time already!”
I reached Chateaudun went into the abbey. A vast space with nobody else in there except me, and from speakers hidden up in the great stone building there came the sound of a Russian Orthodox choir. I sat down on the stone floor which felt warm, coming in from the cold rain outside.
In that moment of laughter, He had changed me. I now saw God as a Person – not an idea – and there was no going back.
Over the years since then, I’ve heard a number of people tell their stories of how they came to faith. I have never quite understood the way people talk – with their great wide smiles and sparkling eyes – about suddenly recognizing “Jesus as Lord!” He didn’t come to me like that. Did I miss something important? Am I not a proper Christian? I just saw a funny event in the sky on a cloudy day. And felt silly for asking for a sign. And from then on He was a real Person. That’s all.
Since the above is very special for me, I don’t want to change a word of it. But I just looked at my diary and the church in Chateaudun is not an abbey:
“In the eglise de la Madeleine there was no furniture and the enormous space was like a cathedral. For a brief moment between the clouds and heavy rain, the sun came out and flooded the church, and in this vast empty space there was the sound of a Russian Orthodox choir singing Vespers. It was a wonderful experience. Unluckily, I was just too late to catch a photo of the fleeting sunlight and the place turned dark again.”