And he showed me a pure river of water of life.
In the course of the Second Millennium the French nation passed through a great many crises and difficulties, all of which left their dark imprints on the national soul.
For example, we can think of the tragic massacres which took place in the south-west of France between the early twelfth and early fourteenth centuries when the anti-Cathar French Inquisition with its terrible massacres took place: 'Kill them all, God will recognize his own', as the Papal legate, Arnaud Amaury, proclaimed on 22 July 1209. These massacres did much to discredit the new Crusading religion of reformed Catholicism that had taken root there only at the end of the eleventh century. No wonder then that this area was later tempted by Protestantism, then more recently fell to anti-clerical socialism, and today to unbridled consumer materialism.
Then there was the Hundred Years War when the descendants of the Frankicised Norman rulers of England and Normandy fought to take control of the whole of France but were defeated through the mystical heroine Joan of Arc. This left a suspicion and mistrust of the English still present in France. Nowadays, true, much of that ill-feeling is directed by a petulant, Gaullist jealousy at the 'Anglo-Saxon' United States and its Mcdonaldising New World Order.
Then there were the 16th and 17th centuries when France became a bloodied battleground between Catholic and Protestant. France was on the verge of becoming Protestant, but the Catholic Church massacred its way out of Protestant ism, preparing the way for the revolutionary hatred of Catholicism to come.
Indeed, no crisis was ever more difficult or more bloody than that engendered by the turning-point of the Revolution of 1789. This ended the long reign of the Capetian dynasty which had begun in 987 and the feudalism it had brought with itself. The ensuing twenty-five years of genocide and European War which followed the Revolution ended only at Waterloo in 1815.
The French Revolution of 1789 took place exactly 100 years after the English 'Glorious' Revolution of 1689. Then power in England had shifted away from the King and the aristocrats to the rising merchant classes. These Puritan capitalists, who appointed the Dutch William of Orange King against the aristocratic landed classes, made ready for the British Industrial Revolution. In France, this did not take place: France is not an island. There the Kings and the aristocracy had only become more powerful still. The fateful ideology of 'Absolutism', the idea of the divine right of Kings to rule, was born. The French Kings all but deified themselves as 'Sun-Kings, giving themselves a 'divine right' to tyrannize their peoples, without reference to morality and spirituality. They ruled a centralized State, built on the cunning of Machiavellian Cardinals. This was the way for them to hold together so many disparate peoples and regions in the union of France. Only this can explain the violence of the French Revolution.
The winners of the Revolution were not the beheaded King and aristocrats or the rural masses of the peasantry. They were the losers. The winners were the new State and its urban middle class and capitalist traders, atheist intellectuals and anti-clerical freemasons, the rising bourgeoisie. Paris, capital of the new Absolutist State, won, the provinces and the countryside lost. As a result of this Capitalist Revolution, its genocide in the Vendee and Napoleon's obscene European bloodbath of two million slaughtered, the French countryside was depopulated. The population of the British Isles, once much smaller than France's, overtook it and France, the most powerful European country of the eighteenth century, was also overtaken. Great Britain became the most powerful European nation of the nineteenth century. It took France the three generations to 1900 to begin to catch up.The only parallel to this situation is that in Russia. In 1917, five generations after the French, Russia, which would have been the most powerful country in the world, was also brought low by Revolution. No wonder then that in the 1980's the Russian writer Solzhenitsyn visited the Vendee in the west of France at the invitation of one of the few men of integrity in contemporary French politics, the patriot Philippe de Villiers. This was in order to commemorate the genocide which had taken place there in the 1790's. This, the greatest genocide to be perpetrated in Europe until the Twentieth Century, occurred when Revolutionary armies, commanded from Paris, massacred their way through the faithful, patriotic peasantry and nobility of the region. Their crime? They had supported Church, Monarchy and People against the blasphemers and atheists of Paris. France, like Russia, has today still not recovered from the dire consequences of her Revolution.
For example, the three recent crises in French history, the triple invasions of her territory by those across the Rhine, despite the English creation of the artificial buffer-State of Belgium, are all such consequences. Taking place in 1870, 1914 and 1940, these German invasions were all provoked by the fruits of the French Revolution. For the unity and power of the Germanic peoples to the east had only been conferred on them by the uniting movement of the new 'Holy Roman Emperor' , Napoleon. The latter, crowned by Pope Pius VII, had created for Germany a first unity through his 'Confederation of the Rhine'. Until then the principalities and dukedoms of the different Germanic peoples had formed a harmless patchwork, giving a richness to German tradition, of which the greatest achievement was the culture of fine music. The true magnificence of Germanic culture, the myriad of States grown from the early Middle Ages, was destroyed by Napoleon. It was he who restored to the Germanic peoples their old Frankish aggressiveness that had been tamed by disunity. It was he who was obsessed with imitating the unifying imperialism of the failed tyrant Charlemagne. Thus the French tyrant led the way to Bismarckian unification and Prussian militarisation. And those in turn led to the two World Wars of the Kaiser and Hitler. Then France became once more but a Frankish colony, with an occupied zone to the north of the Loire and a 'free' puppet zone in the south of the Loire. Although Napoleon is still venerated by some of the French, on the fringes of Europe, the English who saw Napoleon as 'The Devil Incarnate' and the Russians who saw him as 'Antichrist', were not so wrong.
This, however, is now all in the past. Today France is at peace and, although with very high unemployment, is mainly prosperous. But today there is a crisis - it is the crisis of materialism, a spiritual crisis.
French Catholicism was once so powerful that at the beginning of the twelfth century under Louis VI, France was known as 'the elder daughter' of the Catholic Church. Today, Catholicism in France is faced with meltdown. Although it claims the nominal allegiance of some 90 per cent of French people, only about five per cent practise. In French Catholic parishes the average age of the clergy is now 72. Many priests are responsible for as many as 24 rural parishes. Empty churches are put up for sale. However, the Vatican controls the French Catholic episcopate very tightly, appointing only those who will kow-tow to its centralism. As a result, there is a shortage of 'suitable' candidates for the episcopacy. Vatican control is tight, for it fears an outbreak of the traditions of 'Gallicanism'.
Gallicanism goes back to the First Millennium. Some French at least are aware of the rich heritage from that age. They are aware of France's Gallo-Roman and Gallo-Frankish past, her ancient ecclesiastical centres and the universal Church Fathers raised on her territory - St Irenaeus in Lyons, St Hilary in Poitiers, St Cassian in Marseilles, St Vincent in Lerins. These latter were the Fathers who lived and preached before the Catholic Middle Ages and its errors. The errors included those which came about through Rome's acceptance and then exaggeration of the immature writings of Blessed Augustine of Hippo on freewill and the Holy Trinity. The suppression of Gallican independence and France's Patristic Tradition is in fact the suppression of something else. It is the suppression by the Vatican of the authentic historic identities of the peoples of the French territory in favour of post-Schism, centralizing, Vatican uniformity.
This suppression of identities is symbolized by the suppression of the energetic devotion to Christ of the Age of the Saints. At first replaced by the pietism of the Middle Ages, it then developed into the nineteenth-century 'saint-sulpicien' sentimentalist, 'bleeding-heart' pietism surrounding Bernadette, the Cure d'Ars and Teresa of Lisieux. Today this in turn has evolved into the castrated pietism of photos of the Pope or repugnant portraits of St Joseph cuddling the Virgin Mary holding the 'good little Jesus', instead of icons of Christ the Almighty. Catholic 'spirituality' in France today is that of the psychodrama of mortification, with its sickly-sweet chants, so different from the gut-felt sobriety of the Orthodox Faith. Modern Catholic 'spirituality' in France is even capable of making the spiritual heritage of St Silvanus the Athonite into a game of words, a philosophical quiz, an intellectual's pastime, and Orthodox music into babyish songs.
Can we look to some spiritual centre in France for a return to spiritual sanity?
He who thinks of the centre of France, thinks of Paris. Yet although Paris is definitely the centre of this highly centralized country with the absolutist impunity of the Frankish French State, it is only the political, economic and cultural centre. It is only the centre of the idolatry of the infallible, all-justifying 'Republique', and now no longer has any eternal significance. Search as you might, frustratingly, there seems to be no spiritual centre to contemporary France. In other countries, this is not the case.
For instance, today's secular Moscow has the Trinity-St Sergius Monastery outside it, secular Athens has the Holy Mountain, Portugal has its Braga, even London can refer to a Canterbury. But where is the spiritual heart of secular France? We would suggest that in order to find it, France needs to go back 1,000 years to its roots.
Nearly every country in the world seems to have been greatly affected and even shaped by the main river that flows through it. We can see this in ancient times, with the first civilizations gathered around their rivers, in China, in India, in Mesopotamia, ('the land between two rivers') or in Egypt, wherever the first civilizations began. Even today Hindus consider the Ganges to be a holy river, because it gave life to their culture, and the Euphrates and the Tigris, like the Nile, are much revered by the peoples who depend on them for their survival.
In Europe too we can think of how important 'Mother-Volga' is in Russia, the Danube in Eastern and Central Europe, the Rhine in Germany and Holland, or 'Old Father Thames' in the south of England. Many of the cultures and lands of Europe have been shaped in part by the economic but also cultural and spiritual importance of their principal rivers. Thus, as regards the Volga, we may think of churches and monasteries along its banks. As regards the Rhine, we may think of the feudal castles and vineyards along its banks. And as regards the Thames, we may think of it as a royal river, with its royal barges and palaces, Windsor, Hampton Court, Westminster.
When we think of the Rhine and the Thames, the images that we tend to have of them are in fact recent ones. The castles and palaces along the Rhine and the Thames go back only to feudal times. London, for instance, was not the English Capital until the Norman Occupation, when Windsor Castle was built by the bloodied hand of the Invader. In fact there is also an older understanding of the role of these rivers, one which is more ancient, pre-Schism, a view of these rivers as monastic rivers, like the pre-Revolutionary Volga.
Thus the Rhine was once lined with churches and monasteries, its islands inhabited by holy men like St Goar. A thousand years ago the Thames, Father Thames indeed, was also lined with monastic centres. Major monasteries lined the Thames from its mouth to its source, from Eynsham to Oxford, Abingdon to Dorchester, Cholsey to Reading, Cookham to Chertsey, from Westminster to Barking and Tilbury, and between them stood a host of churches. Here there is a story still to be told.As regards French rivers, there is no doubt that we should think firstly of the Loire. When thinking of the Loire today, most probably we would think of vineyards and royal chateaux. But the chateaux of the Loire were built only since the Renaissance, when the Loire between Amboise, Blois and Orleans, was the political capital of France. The Renaissance polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci, died at Amboise in 1519. And the vineyards were planted there for a reason other than drunkeness or effete wine-tasting, for the Loire was also once something else: a more ancient tradition once lined its banks. The chateaux and vineyards of the Loire have become known the world over. There is a multitude of books on the secular history of the Loire -but none on its spiritual history. For the Loire is a river of now forgotten spirituality. It is the spiritual river that France forgot.
The following is the story of a river, the story of the River Loire. It is written in fond remembrance of many a summer's day in the 80s and 90s of the last century, spent wandering along the banks of the Loire, pondering the destinies of the various peoples and provinces of the French nation and their spiritual meaning.
Some 650 miles long, three times longer than the Thames, the Loire has with its many tributaries a basin which itself drains one fifth of France, an area the size of England.
The Loire is the essence, the cradle and the garden of France, the French language and the French way of life. It course, from east to west, joins the order of the Germanic north with the disorder of the Latin south. It unites the two distinct geographical and ethnic components, Francia and Gaul, north and south, the frostbelt and the sunbelt. Like the Nile, the Loire is a river of history, a river of national memory, a river and valley of Kings, a Queen loved by Kings, a royal river of civilization, not only of a material civilization, but also of a spiritual civilization.
The history of the Loire is the history of France. Let us take just one example of a town on its banks - Orleans. In 357, its Cathedral was founded by St Euvert (Evortius), a bishop chosen by a dove. In 451 one of his successors, St Aignan (Anianus), still remembered today, repelled Attila and the Huns. The traditional boats of the Loire at Orleans, to be seen until the beginning of the twentieth century, were still of Viking design. At Orleans the Gallic champion, Joan of Arc, took inspiration from the Loire before going out to fight the Anglo-Norman invaders. Orleans was the coronation-place and dying-place of French Kings. Such was the bustle of Orleans that La Fontaine compared it to Constantinople. And France's deposed royal family is still Orleannais.
Before the formation of Roman Catholicism in France in the Middle Ages, in the Year 1000 the main sites of pilgrimage in France were on the Loire, Tours and Fleury-sur-Loire, now better known as Saint Benoit-sur-Loire.
As regards Tours, in 371 it became the See of St Martin, the fourth-century Apostle of Gaul, the greatest saint of France, the untiring missionary and founder of churches. Still people wend their way to Candes-Saint-Martin, where the precise spot where the great Saint reposed is marked. When St Martin's relics were taken in November 397 from Liguge to the oldest monastery in France, St Martin's monastery (Marmoutiers) outside Tours, all the trees and flowers blossomed and the birds reappeared and began to sing. And so to this day French people call an Indian summer 'St Martin's summer'. The banks of the Loire still abound in churches, foundations of the fourth and fifth centuries. Many of these were indeed founded by St Martin himself or his disciples. Thus Tours became a great city, 'Martinopolis'.
It was here that in the fifth century the Frankish leader Clovis, conquered by his conquest and so baptised, was confirmed in his power by the Emperor Anastasius of Constantinople, and was made a Consul of the Empire. It was here that Clovis called the first General Council of the Church of Gaul, now Christian through the prayers of the remarkable St Clotilde and the bishops of Gaul. And with St Martin, Tours became the pilgrimage centre of all France. Even today over 2,000 villages in France are named after him and 4,000 churches are dedicated to him. And the surname 'Martin' has become the French equivalent of 'Smith'.
As regards Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, here still lie the relics of St Benedict, brought here from Italy at the end of the seventh century. St Benedict, inspired by St Basil the Great, is called the 'Patriarch of Western Monks', for he is the foremost father of Western monasticism. All French monasticism and much of Western Europe's, especially that of England, was once inspired from here. When his relics were returned from safekeeping in Orleans after the Viking raids, they came upstream, with neither sail nor oar, breaking their way through the ice, and the gardens and the woods flowered, thus repeating the miracle of the relics of the great St Martin. By the Year 1000, 300 monks lived here and worked for their salvation and that of those around them. This was a divine umbilical cord not only of France, but of monasteries all over Western Europe. Here in the crypt of the church, still a monastery, lie not only the relics of St Benedict, but also of another forty-three saints of God, with a relic of the True Cross and a portion of the Veil of the Virgin Mary.
A few miles away is the wonderful church of Germigny-des-Pres, dedicated in the year 806, and still standing with part of its mosaics intact. It reminds us that the whole Loire was once a river of abbeys, convents, priories, a watered street of white-walled churches, belled and roof-crossed, standing high and picturesque on the green, wooded banks over the deep blue river and its sand-banks and islands. Those churches were built in the pre-Romanesque manner, the Orthodox style of the West, celebrating Romanity. The Loire was a canal of monasteries, as Venice was never to be. And as regards the vineyards we mentioned earlier, the main cargo of its Viking-style boats was eucharistic: wheat and wine, feeding the cortège of churches along its banks. Although the boatmen themselves particularly venerated St Nicholas, the list of towns and villages along the Loire, named after the saints their churches are dedicated to is a whole litany. From source to mouth, these sainted towns on the Loire include, some of them several times over, the following saints:
St Eulalie, St Etienne, St Vincent. St Reine, St Rambert, St Just, St Cyprien, St Jodard, St Laurent, St Paul, St Priest, St Maurice, St Andre, St Aubin, St Are, St Songy, St Ouen, St Leger, St Baudiere, St Thibault, St Satur, St Agnan, St Firmin, St Brisson, St Gondon, St Pere, St Benoit, St Mesmin, St Pryve, St Ay, St Liphard, St Die, St Denis, St Pierre, St Cyr, St Genoulph, St Michel, St Patrice, St Hilaire, St Lambert, St Martin, St Clement, St Maur, St Remy, St Mathurin, St Saturnin, St Sulpice, St Gemmes, St Jean, St Offange, St Georges, St Germain, St Florent, St Gereon, St Julien, St Luce, St Sebastien, St Herblain, St Brevin.
This is a holy river indeed. It deserves once more to become the spiritual centre of France, the factor of spiritual unity in a land made up of many different regions and different peoples.
The Loire was the Renaissance capital of France. It began to lose its influence only in the seventeenth century with the coming of Absolutism and excessive centralization. Then the giant palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles, bankrupting France and its colonies, were built around Paris. The chateaux of the Loire, amid the 'douceur' or mildness of Anjou, were now believed to be too small and provincial. But just as the spiritual heart of England is not the ugliness and noise, dirt and crime, of the anonymous, cosmopolitan megalopolis of London, so Paris, with all its bonfire of intellectual vanities, worldly glory and hypocritical politicking, is not the spiritual heart of France.
The Loire is not Paris, with the philosophies and theorizing of its intellectual ideologues. It is not Paris with its partisan politics and sects. It is not centralized, Frankish Paris, the seat of palace mayors with their intrigues and corruption, with its false glory treating the other provinces of France as its colonies. Paris is all form and no content, because it has no content. It is artificial, hedonistic, Frankishly aggressive, Paris cannot spiritually regenerate.
The Loire, on the other hand, is the meeting-place of a France composed of different regions and provinces, of unity in diversity, it is the unifying birthplace of the French language and French way of life. More than once in French history, it has been the place of withdrawal, the place of resistance, where wellsprings of new strength and new life have been found in order to go out and combat once again the evils of the day. The Loire has not been ruined by modern industrial and urban 'culture'. It is the place of spiritual glory, a place for spiritual regeneration, a new renaissance for the peoples of France, a place of the real unity that comes only when unity is built around a spiritual principle. Paris may still be a high place of European 'culture', but the Loire with its heritage of the saints of the First Millennium, can once again become a high place of European spirituality - but only if the Faith of the Saints of old and the will to follow them is there.
Holy Martin and Benedict and all the Saints of the Loire, pray to God for all the French lands and their peoples!