The church is not a museum
I recently had the chance to take an after Christmas trip to France, a place that I have long admired for its Catholic culture and intellectual heritage. Although most of my time was spent among the museums, gardens and boulevards of Paris, a priority destination for me was the city of Lisieux, where the very famous Saint Thérèse had spent most of her childhood, lived as a Carmelite before dying. in 1897 in her twenties, and is buried today.
I have had a devotion to Thérèse for several years and I feel that I have come to know her personally through prayerful reading of her spiritual writings and by asking her to pray for me. So naturally, it was a great thrill to be in the physical places where the “Little Flower” had lived her life and put into practice her “Little Way”: Les Buissonnets, her childhood home, the site of so many. important events for her. young life as described in his “Story of a Soul”; Saint-Pierre de Lisieux Cathedral, where Thérèse and her family went to mass and where she went to confession for the first time; and even the enormous and ornate basilica built in her honor on a hill overlooking the city, where a large relic of her is on display and the remains of her parents (Saints Louis and Zellie Martin) are buried.
But at the Carmel of Lisieux, the convent where Thérèse had lived, I was certainly disappointed. On the one hand, the chapel where Thérèse is said to have participated in mass and where most of her remains are buried today has been considerably modernized, looking nothing like what she had during her lifetime. Another disappointment: you can’t even access the cloister where she lived to see these pivotal places in her life as a Carmelite sister, such as her cell, the infirmary where she died, or the laundry room where she charmingly wrote her words. splashing. face with dirty water by another sister and enduring it all with joy, an example of her “Little Way” in action.
In a sense, I felt like I was deprived of access to an important historical and spiritual place. I had spent hours walking through the Louvre in Paris looking at incredible works of art and artefacts from the Persian, Egyptian and Greek empires, so why couldn’t I walk into the places where this saint who means so much to me had lived a life of holiness?
It turns out that the Carmel of Lisieux has nothing to do with the Louvre. It is not a space for the exhibition of inert artefacts, but a living and active Carmelite community. As the convent says on its website, “The Carmel of Lisieux is not a museum, but the place of life, silence, prayer of a community, which explains why the interior cannot be visited” (although a virtual tour of the important places of La vie de Thérèse is available on the Carmel website).
The fact that pilgrims cannot enter the place where Saint Teresa lived as a cloistered nun is in fact a good thing, an affirmation that the life she lived over 100 years ago is still alive today. ‘hui. After all, only a dead thing can be exhibited; a living being is active, and cannot be confined to a case. Even the fact that the chapel has been modified (but perhaps according to questionable aesthetic and liturgical preferences!) Is also a sign that life in Carmel of Lisieux did not stop at the last breath of Thérèse.
These factors are also an affirmation that, in the end, what was most significant about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was not Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, but the Holy Spirit that she allowed to act so powerfully in her. She allowed the Lord to enter her life in the highest degree, and through this act of littleness, Jesus was able to reach so many people. The same Lord is alive and active today, in the Carmel of Lisieux, and in his whole Church.
Of course, there is a particular danger in a place like France, the “eldest daughter” of the Church but also a deeply secular place today, that the Church becomes something like a museum, a piece of story that is no longer especially relevant other than giving people a sense of historical identity and grounding. And for many French people, that’s all the Church is. I think that for most Parisians, the Sainte Chapelle church does indeed play the same role as the Medieval History Museum in Cluny.
In the Twin Cities, Catholicism is certainly not as old as it is in France, but I imagine various Catholic churches may appear to be little more than relics of the past, in places like northeast Minneapolis or even our beloved Saint-Paul en Saint-Paul cathedral, to lay passers-by.
But strangely enough, I think even as practicing Catholics there is a danger of having some sort of “museum” relationship with our faith and its physical attributes. The Tradition of our Church – what has been handed down to us by the Apostles and then protected and nurtured by the Church since then – is not primarily a matter of “nostalgia”, of doing things as they were done ago. over 60 years so that we have a “stronger” Catholic identity and a greater sense of historical grounding, adrift as we are in the uprooting of postmodern American life.
Tradition, liturgical or otherwise, consists above all in meeting and being animated by the same Spirit who worked in the life of our Catholic ancestors. As Yves Congar, a 20th century French theologian who wrote the important “Tradition and Traditions,” said, “Tradition (is not) simply transmission followed by passive mechanical reception; it is a question of making present in a human conscience a saving truth. He adds that Tradition is “the continued presence of the past in the present”, not as the Louvre presents ancient history to us today, but as “the continued presence of those events which provoke the religious relationship of ‘a man with God. . “
In other words, Tradition does not root us so much in the past as it brings us today these living events of the past – most notably the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If a nostalgic recovery of elements of the liturgical and cultural heritage of the Church is not directed towards this real encounter, it risks locking us into the museum. But if our reception of Tradition is based primarily on a desire to meet the living God, then all the beneficial secondary elements – a strong identity, a sense of historical grounding – will come with it.
To conclude, I will briefly share another highlight of my trip to France: my visit to Chartres Cathedral. This 800-year-old Gothic masterpiece houses some of the most impressive stained glass windows in the world. Many writers and artists have spoken of how their lives were transformed upon encountering the beauty of Chartres. It was mind-blowing to see it all alongside other visitors, many of whom I imagine were perhaps not even religious. But the most important and the most invigorating part of my visit to Chartres? To discover that an old somewhat disheveled French priest, who was not even wearing the clerical habit, was available to hear my confession, and to have my sins absolved by Jesus Christ.
Liedl writes from the Twin Cities.
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