-- John Keble, 19th century English poet, in his hymn “Sun of My Soul, Thou Saviour Dear”
On this date, 750 years ago, King Louis IX of France presided over the dedication of the magnificent Gothic cathedral at Chartres, famed for its splendor and magnificent stained glass. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres has captured the hearts of pilgrims and artists for the better part of a millenium. As with most medieval cathedrals, Chartres’ construction evolved over generations, leaving the identities of most of its architects and builders lost to the mists of time--a mystery all the more compelling for its beauty. For this reason, I will use this occasion to celebrate the virtue of Abiding.
The word “abide” has a plethora of meanings: To persist. To survive. To obey. To make a temporary home. To await--or simply, to wait. Thus, a taste of Abiding brings us a bouquet of flavors from such virtues as Patience, Endurance, Dedication, the Selflessness of submission, and just the merest hint of Eternity. What this all has to do with Chartres, I’ll explain below.
Chartres attracted pilgrims regularly for almost four hundred years before its dedication, due to a relic stationed at the church in 876 C.E. by the Holy Roman Emperor: The Sancta Camisia, a cloak supposedly worn by the Virgin Mary. By getting close to the old garment, visitors felt closer to the Mother of God. At least four previous church buildings had burned down before the modern cathedral began work, shortly after the last fire of 1194 C.E.
Intriguingly, the names of the builders of the magnificent structure remain unknown to modern-day scholars, who refer to the presumed main architect by the nickname “Scarlet.” Particular design details allow experts to discern the presence of at least two other designers, labelled “Bronze” and “Olive.” At any given time, each master builder directed nine teams of workers. They achieved the bulk of the building in a scant 30 years.
While I’ve studied its design in school, I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Chartres in person, but it has a well-known awesome effect on visitors. One of them posted a casual view from inside the transcept, looking up at its lofty ceilings:
Modern-day artists and writers frequently comment about the striking contrast between the Majesty of its historic design, and the utter Namelessness of Chartres’ legions of designers and workers. Filmmaker Orson Welles, for instance, inspired by Chartres, made this comment:
Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life ... we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing.
And this, my fellow travelers, brings us to the message of Chartres. Welles walked right up to the edge of it, got close to the old garment, but did not quite take the leap of Faith it required. For it is not in its glass and stone that the Abiding of Chartres (ahem) abides. Chartres stands forth as a mortal commentary on Creativity and Appreciation-of-Beauty, emanations of the root virtues of Wisdom and Transcendence. Its workers submitted themselves to the creative act, certainly knowing that their dazzling edifice would make but a paltry echo of the heaven into which they hoped one day to enter. They subsumed themselves in the creative act. They abided the egolessness of Creativity.
We, too, know the magic of Chartre’s nameless makers. If you have ever simply picked up a crayon and colored a picture, or even watched a child do so, then you have known the Rapture and Surrender of the creative act. In the moment of creation, we shed the ego like the skin of a snake, and join something greater. The refrain you can almost hear the builders of Chartres sing out to us through the dusty decades: Why scale the unforgiving vertical cliffs of materiality, when you can soar through the skies of Eternity? It is in their selfless Surrender to the creative fire that they, and we, transcend. The gorgeous cathedral they left us, is like the eggshell left behind by the hatching of an eagle. It is like a dusty cloak left behind by the Mother of Divinity.
Through many centuries, while its gifted makers surrendered to the timeless depths, Chartres abides. And they abide in Chartres. It abides its time. And it abides us.
May we see the gates of Abiding, and perhaps make a home there.