Cathedral Et Chartres

by Steve


So much distance is meant by it:
just as with the backdrop of a scene
the world is meant; and as through that scene
the hero strides, cloaked in his action’s mantle: —

so the darkness of this doorway strides acting
onto the tragic theater of its depths,
as boundlessly and seething as God the Father
and just as He transforming wondrously

into a Son, who is distributed here
among many small, almost unspeaking roles,
all taken from misery’s repertoire.

For it’s only (this we know) from
the blind, the cast-out, and the mad
that, like a great actor, the Saviour emerges.

Excerpt from The Portal, Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Edward Snow


I have never been to Chartres or its cathedral. It feels a very long way away now.

I am not sure if I would consider myself a particularly spiritual person, but in recent years I have found myself drawn to churches.

I can see how they are a refuge, as they always have been. They are place for contemplation and quiet. A place to figure things out. And maybe to even speak to whatever higher power we may or may not hold in our hearts.

There are very few truly “public” spaces. The sense of a common, shared space is rapidly shrinking. Churches (with some notable exceptions) are one of the few places you can enter and spend time in with little or no expectation that you need to spend money there first. A rare place where you are allowed to just be.

A sense of being part of something bigger, in many different ways. Something spiritual, of course, something about community, something about the sheer size of a church (I think both large and small churches have an effect on us), but above all something in the memory of a place.

There is that connection with the past. To quite literally follow hundreds of years of other people. The steps worn down by the multitudes. The wood beams who have stretched over and protected generations. The stained glass mediating the light on so many faces.

I try to visit Chartres on a “virtual tour”. It doesn’t really work, at first it is a little glitchy. Even when the experience is smooth, it is too smooth, I’m not there, I’m in an idealised version of there.

I wonder about those people who have visited these places hundreds of years before me. I then think of those people populating the hundreds of years ahead of me. In some way they will know what it was like right now, and in future years, if anyone archives those virtual tours. They will perhaps be able to choose a year and experience the place as if they had travelled back to then. It won’t be quite right, but it will be something. It might draw those years, those people, together.

But even then, I imagine they will find out far more just being in the space. Everything in a state of change. Everything still the same.

Image from Cornell University Library, via Flickr