I recently returned from leading a pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral. For one week my colleague and I and women pilgrims from the U.S. and Canada, were immersed in the sacred history, architecture, story, and beauty of the ancient earthly reliquary, the living shrine, dedicated to Notre-Dame de Chartres (Our Lady of Chartres).
This was my fifth pilgrimage to Chartres. It is a place that lives in my heart and feels encoded in my DNA. My passion for this most sacred place inspired me to include it as a pivotal setting in my historical/spiritual novel, Ink and Honey. Chartres Cathedral calls to me in my dreams. She inspires my creative heart and personal spiritual practices, in the same way she inspired the heroine of my story, Goscelin, the Scribe.
The current cathedral emerged from the ashes of a previous ancient church that was built upon the ruins of a place of worship first recognized and inhabited by the Druids. There is a lineage of history and herstory embedded into the stones of Chartres Cathedral. Her stained glass windows tell the stories of creation, the stars and planets, Christ’s life, his Mother’s life, and the Biblical scriptural stories. It has been said, “Chartres Cathedral is a living book.” The stained glass windows are the pages of the book, intended at the time of their creation to educate the illiterate country folk (pagans) and the pilgrims who found their way to the Royal Portal, the west entrance of the great church.
Like many medieval churches and cathedrals, Chartres holds a relic, the Sancta Camisia (Mary’s Veil). The relic is central to the cosmology and theology of Chartres Cathedral. Believed to be a portion of the tunic that Mary wore at the time of Christ’s birth, the sacred relic was delivered as a gift to the cathedral by Charles the Bald in 876. For centuries faithful pilgrims have made their way to Chartres to pay homage to Mary… the beloved confidante, the epitome of holy merciful wisdom and sacred understanding, and the Mother of Christ. This is a cathedral that has always been about birthing…the birth of new life through the Spirit.
The labyrinth at Chartres is also a call to the pilgrim’s heart. Walking the ancient labyrinth, a stone pattern on the floor of the nave of the cathedral, is a transformational experience. For the medieval pilgrim it represented The New Jerusalem. The prayerful energy of all those who have stepped onto the path leading to the center and out again still lives in the stones.
Chartres Cathedral has always been a place of sacred mystery, a dark sanctuary steeped in the soot and smoke of candles that have burned with the prayers of those called to the holy site for nearly a millennium. However, as we move further into the 21st Century the Cathedral, like all things, is evolving and changing. Personally, I was spiritually and intellectually unprepared for the changes I witnessed during my most recent pilgrimage.
The chancel of the cathedral, the area around the high altar, has been completely scoured, painted, and restored. What was once darkly covered by a veil of mystery and antiquity, is now naked, pristine, and shiny clean. Most people find the restoration refreshing and beautiful. However, this pilgrim experienced deep grief as I witnessed that many of the ancient stone pillars previously energetically charged with stories, prayers, and petitions are now plastered over. The mystery held within and on the surfaces of the mottled, chiseled, and worn monoliths has been erased. No doubt the energy is still there, buried beneath layers of plaster, but the visible sacredness of what the pillars held has been sanitized.
The most disturbing change I discovered was the “restoration” of the 15th century Virgin on the Pillar. A previous Black Madonna, a sacred icon of adoration and dark mystery, is now painted in a “doll-like” fashion. The Black Madonna is lost and hidden from view by the perfection of a freshly painted Mary and her child draped in new clothing. Why?
From what I was able to discern from my inquiry during my time at Chartres this is what I learned. Apparently in the 19th century the original dark walnut carved statue (the Black Madonna) was painted in the fashion of the day. Soon afterwards it was painted over to darken it in entirety once again. Recently, those in charge of restoration for the cathedral made the decision to “restore” the Black Madonna to her 19th century painted style. For now, the Black Madonna has disappeared under layers of paint. Some find her beautiful. Perhaps by today’s standards of botoxed, sanitized, face-lifted, nipped and tucked unattainable perfectionistic stylized and idealized feminine beauty she is. However, as in most areas of life today…her mystery and true original nature has been obscured and hidden from view. When meditating upon her there is no longer a need to question. Everything is obvious. There is nothing to draw one in. No thing remains for the sacred imagination to grasp hold of.
Questions arise, questions I have no answer for:
What rituals of intention are called for when those empowered to preserve and protect sacred iconography begin to go about their work?
What is the underlying cause for the incessant need of our Western culture to alter and rearrange the energetic patterns, the sacredness, the very fiber of a place or object that has been venerated throughout time by prayer, tears, miracles, and faith?
Where is the sacred made visible in our lives today?
Why is there a pervasive obsession with the perfectionistic appearance of people, places, and things rather than reverence and awe of the mysterious and organic, evolutionary, unfolding revelation of life’s journey and the work of time?
My prayer is this…. May our culture reawaken to recognize the beauty awaiting discovery within the darkness and the shadows. May we be inspired to seek what is hidden beneath the first glance that implies imperfection. May we re-member what it feels like to experience a sense of non-immediacy. In this age of endless and instantaneous information may we once again be entreated to pause in silence, to long for the Mystery, to dwell in a state of unknowing. May we rediscover the magnificence within the blemished and broken, to dwell within the questions, to allow the imagination untethered freedom to traverse the realm of Spirit…ever in search for the answers, ever questing towards the Holy within us. Amen