MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM ET FASCINANS
near Milly, Normandy, France; Mont St Michel, Britany, France; & St Malo, Brittany, France
The light was refracted into every hue of the rainbow, allowing it to dance through the cathedral in a choreographed symphony. I could have stared at that window all day. Photographs do not quite capture the experience of the interplay of light. While the little smart phone tried to take it all in, some things do not fit inside an image. While, I had seen a thousand different stained glass windows so far in my trip across Europe, this particular one stood out. Having to rebuild this cathedral in St Malo, France after the war, they weren’t constrained in their portrayal of the divine. Rather than relying on icons and pictures, they had used a myriad colours in an attempt at portraying the divine.
The normal stained glass window uses allegorical, figurative and literal pictures to tell stories. Even the magnificent St Maria Cathedral in Leon, Spain (the so called “Sistine Chapel” of stained glass windows in Spain) does so. There are umpteen old, white, men who are used to portray stories of god in these reflections of the divine. In Leon, levels are used to designate lower earthly things like harvests and nature at the base and then towards the top, images of saints and the divine appear. While the cathedral in Leon is indeed stunning, the St Malo window bypasses this by making a different statement. It’s as though the person who created this window understood that the divine cannot be reduced to a series of cartoons. As Elizabeth Johnson points out, the divine image is something completely beyond our understanding. In this approach, the divine is an utter mystery, rather than a nice neat box for our brains to understand. As Augustine put it: “If you can understand [God], it’s not God.” In some small way, the St Malo window helped me to see the divine quite differently.
This excursion was all part of a week-long retreat with the Northumbria community in France. We were retracing the steps of the Celtic Saints, probably typified by St Colambanus. While Colambanus was probably not the easiest character to get along with, he certainly shook up the status quo. Spending two weeks with this “new monastic” community on the border of Brittany and Normandy in France was an entirely unexpected bonus of this trip. I wasn’t exactly sure of what to expect, having read little and having limited connection prior to the people living there. Reflections and thoughts of the time so far:
- The group consisted of seven people I was to find out, of which my wife and I were the youngest by half. This comes with certain dynamics, although I am finding that the age gap becomes less important. In the scheme of ideas and discussion it seems that merit matters more than a number. I met some wonderful people who in their honesty helped me in my journey to understand the world in a deeper way. Talking with people always helps broaden our understanding if we are willing to listen. Drawing on the ancient tradition of the faith of the Celtic saints has been a wonderful way of digging into the heart of life and the divine.
- Engaging in the history of the Celtic Saints has made me realise the multitude of expressions of early Christianity. Ireland in the 4th century was a place where faith was vibrant and the expression of this was to share with others. What resulted, was scores of monks setting out to the continent as peregrinati or itinerant and wandering Christians. They would establish communities and connect with local people sharing their faith in expressions of monastic life which while misunderstood now is really quite beautiful. It’s difficult to summarise a week of learning and reflecting in a few sentences. Suffice to say that “thin places” are real and that I experienced the most stunning mass with the nuns and monks of Mont St Michel.
- For another thing, some claim that the Celtic Saints were the “first Europeans.” As they travelled and brought worship of the divine rather than warfare, they started to transcend tribal boundaries. Community-minded in their approach, the Celtic Saints wanted to connect with their locality. In doing so, they drew novitiates and a laity from all across Europe to seek out a simpler life of contemplation and action. Participating in a small modern version of such a community this week has helped me to see the importance of this. Our world is becoming ever more fragmented and divided along scores of fault lines, ranging from the political, economic, social and cultural. In this milieu, people on the margin are often neglected and left behind. I have much to learn from these saints and “good men and women of old” who journeyed life with quite a different emphasis.
Otto Rudolf talks about the utter mystery of a God who comes near to us, drawing us into ever further fascination with the divine. Rudolf uses the fancy Latin phrase to describe this: “mysterium transcendum et fascinans.” Upon seeing the stained glass rose window at St Malo, I drew the following pictures in response. Trying to show that God is an utter mystery is difficult at the best of times! As Elizabeth Johnson points out though, even giving names to God reduces the mystery. It’s as though, we need a thousand names to approach some approximation of God and even then, it’s not enough. And yet, the invitation is always open to engage in such discussion. So, I for one appreciated the stained glass attempt to show this mystery and the beauty of a relationship that goes ever deeper. Like that old Roman said, we only now see the divine through a darkened glass. While more complex, I much prefer an infinite mystery of the divine rather than being able to tick off some theological confession and being able to throw god in a box.