Although church bells ring out on the hour (twice) in this remote French village of Lasbastide Esparbairenque on the Montagne Noir there are actually no chapels open for mass on a Sunday, or any other day, and no priests. I am staying at a creative retreat called La Muse which is an arm’s reach away from a quaint twelfth century church, but the door is bolted and the ancient clay bell is still. The one we hear ringing through the valley day and night is on a timer.
Imagine, then, my surprise when I saw a notice in the village (no traffic and no shops) for a Gospel Swing concert at the church of St Térèse on the hill. I walked up in the glorious evening sunshine, through the sweet chestnut grove, the path soft underfoot, its flowers strewn in an inflorescence of catkins.
It was dark inside, the thick walls providing respite from the heat. How strange that I a northern Protestant should be cosseted away in a Catholic chapel on the Glorious Twelfth. The walls were busy, cluttered even with icons and pictures and to one side there was an alcove with a huge stone baptismal font, the water basin covered with one of those white crocheted nets your granny sets over the milk jug. The ceilings and walls were a riot of colour, as if children had been given free reign with paintbrushes. A rainbow arched high above me meeting the glass chandeliers which plummeted from the ceiling. And candles everywhere, standing tall and to attention, like the soldier on the wall in a suit of armour, just back from the crusades. Why is it that all the statues and figures in the carvings are carrying something? A lamb, a sword, a staff, an infant, a cross.
These are the symbols stolen from me by the Reformation. My mission hall mentality is starved of imagery and imagination. Yet this week I am walking in the ‘forest glades’ and ‘lofty mountain grandeur’ of the old hymn. The hummingbird hawk moth gathers nectar from the butterfly bush outside my window. I find solitude by the river; I draw water and solace from La Source. My soul is restored. I did, however, recognise the hard wooden pews with the brass stamp of ownership. I wondered if the Famille Pagés minded me sitting in their seat.
The concert was late starting. Behind me I caught a sweet whiff of apéritif from the English tourists. The choir when it emerged was robed – scarlet and gold satin. A blind pianist felt his way skilfully up and down the keys, and we were off. The choir mistress was exuberant, as choir mistresses are, parading up and down the stone paved aisle, taking the solo or the descant and encouraging her small band of singers to hearty hallelujahs. Her rendition of Ave Maria brought me out in goose bumps as the exquisite notes reverberated round the stone walls. The concert delighted and amused me, especially when the choir mistress and pianist donned huge afro wigs before singing a number from Sister Act. For the most part they sang in English, familiar tunes if unfamiliar pronunciation.
It was about half way through when I noticed him. He was standing just behind the sopranos. As they raised their hands in praise, so did he. He didn’t seem to know all the words but he was wearing a similar robe and he smiled beatifically when they sang his name. Life-size and carrying nothing, Jesus stood with arms wide in welcome – for the swingers, for the tourists and for the lone Irish woman in the third row who was happy to see him there.