"I have seldom looked on the end-end of a church with more complete sympathy." (Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage)
This were Stevenson's words in 1878, penned while gazing upon the sprawling cathedral with ragged edges in Noyon, France. It's not imminently clear if he meant that it was somewhat pathetic because of the ruins, or if he found great beauty there, but both are entirely possible.
When we embarked on a train to visit this town with our friends David and Karin two days ago, we found many occasions to have our "sympathies" stirred. The most obvious was our initial reason for the trip: this was the birthplace of John Calvin (ne Jean Cauvin), whose 500th birthday many protestants are celebrating this year. There is a museum devoted to Calvin and the 16th century reforms in a fine reconstruction of his house, a mere two streets over from the aforemationed catehdral.
His was an unlikely beginning for a rebel against the Catholic system. Noyon was an ecclesiastical and political nerve center, with the crownings of Charlemagne and Hugh Capet taking place here in the Middle Ages (the fountain at right has a plaque that celebrates these grand events). In Calvin's time, there were ten churches total, so many that the town was known as "la bien sonnee" (the ringing city). From an early age, Calvin's father worked at the main cathedral, Notre-Dame. His parents intended little Johnny for the priesthood, his mother also being a devout follower of St. Anne. Of course, all of this careful religious training would fall apart when the young man was in his twenties studying law in Paris, and began to read Luther.
The museum is dedicated to not only Calvin himself, but also the history of the Protestant Reformation in France. Of course, this ideology was quickly labeled as heretical, and all known profess-ors were chased out of town or burned at the stake. Personally, I was very touched by the portable pulpit, which was one of many used by preachers in secret locations in the forest over the course of the 16-18th centuries. We learned that one particularly grueling era during these centuries was called the "desert", since they were essentially in exile because of their beliefs.
Meanwhile, the silent, imposing giant at the center of Noyon still stood brooding.
"As it flanges out in three wide terraces and settles down broadly on the earth, it looks like the poop of some great old battle-ship. Hollow-backed buttresses carry vases, which figure for the stern lanterns. There is a roll in the ground, and the towers just appear above the pitch of the roof, as though the good ship were bowing lazily over an Atlantic swell." (Stevenson, An Inland Voyage)
My sympathies for this church were at first aroused when I saw the pockmarks and rubble from two world wars. "Old battleship" indeed. But as I gave it more thought, I saw a much greater sadness. That is, this gargantuan Gothic creation - for all of its wonderful, soaring buttresses and plays of light - is also a monument to the spiritual blindness of man's religious systems when the glory of God is trifled with and the free gift of salvation is offered as a marketable item.
Perhaps I'm getting a little too preachy, but I am mulling over these things mainly for my own benefit, since we are are all susceptible to making little of God rather than much. France has never really undergone the transformation that comes when God's glory is put first, since Calvin was more or less transplanted to Switzerland. Though it is true that non-Catholics in France are now allowed to worship in freedom, it is often with careful governmental surveillance.
The 16th-century library attached to the cathedral is still intact in its original form. It is rumored that the works of Calvin were placed under a section called "heretics." By some miracle, this church library survived the onslaught of German troops - twice - and four centuries of wear and tear. They only open the place to the public twice of year because of its fragility. Or perhaps they're afraid that people will discover the "heretics," blowing the dust off of some of the weightier tomes...
I hope they do.