– the title of the great seven-volume novel by Marcel Proust (1871–1922): well, that is indeed much of what we do here in France. Indeed, next week we will be on the French/Belgian border, at a place called Bailleul – to consider not only lost time, but also to grieve over the lost life of my uncle who died a hundred years ago in the killing fields, mud and poppies of the Somme. But I will have more say about that when we have been there again, for the first time in some fifty years.
There is something about France that is almost impossible to describe, especially for those who do not know her. Profoundly Catholic, notwithstanding some contemporary appearances to the contrary, she is called “the eldest daughter of the Church”. There is wistfulness, mystery and romance very close to the surface of life in la France profonde.
For me, two very different fictional works capture for fleeting moments the elusive quality of it.
The first (in terms of the order in which I encountered them) is the 1954 play by Jean Anouilh called, in French, Léocadia – but, for me more revealingly, in English as Time Remembered. It is about a prince trapped in his memories, who gradually – reluctantly, almost – falls in love with Amanda, a pretty young Parisian milliner.
(Amanda was played, in the BBC TV production, by an actress named Topsy Jane. She went on to a part in the movie The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Always on the verge of stardom, her memory has faded, illness having forced her from the footlights. She died just three years ago.)
And then there is the great, hauntingly beautiful novel – the only novel, written by Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes,
published when he was just 27 years of age in 1913. Less than two months into the Great War he died in battle in September 1914. In the novel, fifteen-year-old François Seurel,son a the village school master, narrates the story of his relationship with seventeen-year-old Augustin Meaulnes as Meaulnes searches for his lost love. Impulsive, reckless and heroic, Meaulnes embodies the romantic ideal, the search for the unobtainable, and the mysterious world between childhood and adulthood. The setting of the story is as mysterious and elusive as it is idyllic.
To turn now from fiction to fact, we keep at our house here two items that our truly souvenirs des temps passés.
The first is a decorated black tile on which are painted the words: Je veille sur ma parole pour l’accomplir.
It was made for us in the early 1970s by Soeur (Sister) Paul du Christ, of the Order of Preachers. Over the years we have stayed on a number of occasions at the Monastere de Prouille, the cradle of the Domincan Order, a place of indescribable beauty and tranquility in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was here, at the nearby village of Fanjeaux that Dominic, having crossed from Spain into France, became parish priest – and so face-to-face with the Albigensian heresy, the Cathars.
He founded the Order of Preachers to combat it, and began by opening the house at Prouille in 1206 or 1207 for women converted from the heresy – and that community has existed there continuously for more than 800 years (apart from a brief evacuation at the time of the French Revolution). It was a place of desperately-needed respite and renewal for us, and we were wonderfully welcomed and cared-for – even though still Anglicans! – by the Sisters who permitted me to celebrate the Anglican Eucharist at the monastery’s altar. In particular, we had long conversations about our exile, as Anglo-Catholics, from Full Communion in the Catholic Church, with Sister Paul du Christ and with Sister Marie de L’Assomption. They have both since gone to their rest and their mortal remains, which we have visisted, lie in the monastery cemetery – and they are still commemorated by name in our Year’s Mind. I truly believe that they prayed us, if may so put it, into the Catholic Church – and that is exactly what Sister Paul du Christ hoped for when she painted the tile with those words: Je veille sur ma parole pour l’accomplir — “I watch over my word to accomplish it.”
Finally, we keep here in France a silver chalice – a replica of the Hertford Chalice of 1647, one (number 411) of thirteen hundred made in London by Garrards, silversmiths by Royal Warrant, and the oldest continously functioning jewellers in the world. The chalice was presented to me by the parishioners of St George’s, Stevenage, in 1973 to mark the 10th anniversary of my pastorate there – so very long ago, temps perdu, lost but not forgotten. We have a long train journey on Sunday, so I will offer a vigil Mass here at our dining table on Saturday evening. This chalice will be used.