05 October 2007

Chez Nous

(Graciously published by Patum Peperium)

In the heart of Dijon stands a church dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. Within this church, just to the left of the High Altar, is a little chapel separated by an iron grille. Candles burn at every hour of the night here. A golden box in the wall, sheltered behind plate glass, holds the relics of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Dijonnaise Carmelite saint Hans Urs Von Balthasar has called one of the most important theologians of our time, and who Pope John Paul II has called “a brilliant witness to the joy of being 'rooted and grounded in love.’” (I’ve written about her more extensively here.)

L’Eglise St. Michel itself is magnificent. It started out in the 9th century as a funeral chapel dedicated to the archangel, and was situated in a cemetery. By the 11th century, the building had grown sufficiently to be turned into a parish church. It fell into ruin in later times, however, and on the day just after the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, 1497, the townsfolk met to decide whether or not the church should be rebuilt. Fortunately for the Cote D’Or, all agreed to start reconstruction, and the result is a rather spectacular confluence of Gothic interior and Renaissance façade. Today on entering the church, one is greeted by the sound of Gregorian chant floating down from the ribbed vaults, and can find no less than sixteen chapels (one of them dedicated to St. Joan of Arc).

But more than any of this structural glory, more than any of this magnificence of brick and mortar, the animating principle behind the church, the source of its (and of all) beauty, the very heart that lends life to the wood and stone, lies in a Tabernacle in the center of the sanctuary: Jesus Christ, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. To enter through those great oak doors and see at the far end of the aisle the red candle glowing on the High Altar is like no other feeling on earth. (I am reminded of the most sublime passage of Brideshead Revisited, the very last paragraph, when Ryder returns to Brideshead and peeks within the chapel to find the tabernacle lamp once more glowing rosily.) And to know that this Christ, though one be in a foreign land amidst strange surroundings, is the very same One worshipped and received at home brings an unparalleled comfort.

We arrived in Dijon homeless. After several unsuccessful starts, we began dealing with real estate agents in person, and secured a handful of appointments. (Nota bene: No one in Dijon speaks English, so American travelers, so prone to assuming otherwise, beware.) The address of the first apartment should have given us sufficient notice that it would be unacceptable: it was just off the Place de la Republique. On our visit, we found it smelled, was dirty, and far too small. The second apartment was cleaner, more spacious, and in an upscale part of town. We decided to take it—only to be told back at the agency that our guarantors (my dear parents) had to be residents of France in order for us to rent the place.

You should know that by this time, we were very near the end of our tether. We had absolutely no idea where we would live for the next nine months, we had been staying in a not inexpensive hotel for a week and had no desire to break the bank staying another, and we had just been told that our co-signers must live in France—which was as good as telling us to go back home. I had been visiting the shrine of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity each day and lighting candles, specifically committing our search to her care—not to mention the fact that I had been requesting St. Joseph’s help, the Blessed Mother’s, and the Poor Souls’ for the past three months. So far, rien, rien, and rien. Suffice it to say, nerves were raw, and tempers flared.

After some choice “French” on my husband’s part, we decided to shell out a $200 fee for an apartment locator service. Third time’s a charm, as they say.

The owner of the apartment we eventually secured is honest, friendly, and goes out of her way to speak English so that my husband can understand all our dealings (ok, so one person in the city speaks English). The apartment itself is large, luminous, quiet, and in a charming little ville just five minutes south of the city center. There is a park nearby with a trail that winds along the L’Ouche and leads up to the spectacular Parc Colombière, complete with a 19th century carousel. Two little boulangeries sit literally around the corner from us, where we get our baguettes warm in the mornings and our tartelettes cold in the afternoons. The supermarket is within walking distance, where one is hard pressed to find any wine (even among the cheap $2 bottles) that is not Appelation d’Origine Controlée (it is the capital of Burgundy, you recall).

Without a doubt the most exciting bit, the one that gave me chills as I heard it, and the part that showed how clearly Blessed Elizabeth’s hand was involved in our choice, is the fact that our very building is built on the grounds of an old Carmelite convent. The white stone house right behind us (I have a clear view of it from our bedroom window) is said to have once housed the nuns, and a nearby subdivision is built on their old orchard. In fact, the bus terminus is called Carmélites. The nicest blessing of all, the bit that brings it all together, and the one I had in my heart been hoping for the most, is the fact that a parish can be found via a five-minute walk from our apartment: L’Eglise St. Pierre, where Our Lord resides in His little golden cell and keeps watch over the city, and over me.

Blessed Elizabeth did not fail us. Neither, as my weak faith had difficulty grasping, did God. The next day, I returned to L’Eglise St. Michel and lit a candle—this time not of petition, but of thanksgiving.

Addendum: After conversing with the current Carmel in Flavignerot, it seems the building behind my apartment was more likely one owned and used by the Carmelites (possibly rented out to others), but not actually their convent, which remained in Dijon. They owned several properties in Longvic, including the 17th century orchard a few blocks from our place, all of which were seized by the government during the Revolution.