A Farewell

XXV December
Anno Domini MCCLX
Meus frater Ricardus,

Forgive the state of this note, but my mind is still dazed with the wonders.  I must tell you of them and the merchant Jehan, who has promised to deliver this letter, is leaving this day and I don’t know when next I shall find someone going to England.

It is some months since last I heard from you so I cannot be certain which letters of mine you have received and which not.

Briefly then, in my last letter I described to you the dedication ceremony for our new cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres.  It was a glorious day, befitting both the splendor of our city and the holiness of our relics.

The greatest of these, of course, is the Holy Tunic of the Virgin.  I believe I have told you how it was miraculously saved when our old basilica burned to the ground.  How all despaired at the loss of the church but still more at the relics,  especially the Tunic, our especial tie to the Mother of God herself.  How after several days the rubble was removed from the iron crypt door and, behold, out emerged our canons carrying the holy relics.

I believe, too, that I told you how at this evident miracle of God, our whole town was inspired.  How all were determined to build a new cathedral in the latest style.  How the Holy Relics were carried all over France to raise money for the effort.  How the king himself, Philippe Augustus, made a munificent contribution.  How even England’s Richard Coeur de Lion, although at war with Philippe, personally met the emissaries and allowed them to travel throughout England seeking donations.

I also told you how when I first beheld the half-built edifice, I doubted the sanity of the master builder.  My friend, the canon, who works with the master builder,  assures me the nave vault is no less than 120 feet above the floor.  But when I first saw them, the incomplete walls, soaring to the heavens, did not look like walls at all, but like a giant stone fence made of slender columns with great open spaces between them.  They seemed far too fragile to support the weight of a roof.

Inside there seemed to be much missing to support the roof, while outside, where nothing should be, there were strange half walls and half arches.  (My friend the canon calls them “buttresses” and says they help the delicate stone stiles support the weight of the roof.)  The spaces in between the stiles were to be filled with nothing stronger than colored glass.

Even now, when any can see it standing on the plain from twenty miles away, I cannot believe it.  I call the buttresses the “Hands of God, ” for I am convinced that nothing less than His direct intervention could keep this defiance of the laws of Nature erect.

All these things I have told you before.  Now I must tell you that our new bishop is young and greatly devoted to the worship of Our Lady.  He has said that December 25, the day of Our Lord’s birth, must be a day of special celebration.  The older priests grumbled that January 6th, the day of His baptism, had always been the day of greater worship.  Still, as our Holy Tunic is the garment Mary wore while giving birth to Our Lord, I think the bishop may have the right of it.

Their grumbling was joined by that of the townspeople when the bishop announced that all of Chartres would gather in the cathedral at Matins for a special High Mass in honor of the day.  The people all said the bishop was an irreverent fool to hold such a celebration in the dark of night.

When the day came, it did not seem that God to favored the bishop. As the sun set, a storm gathering to the East.  The moon was full, but so thick were the clouds that it might have been newborn.

When the Matins bells rang at midnight, the night was so dark I had to get down on my knees to find my sandals.  The procession to the cathedral was Purgatory.  The icy wind was so strong, blowing straight from the West, that we had to lean forward to walk against it.  It drove the rain into our faces where it stung like sharp needles.

Inside the church, it was worse.  Not the storm, for that could hardly be heard, but the darkness!  My brother, 120 feet of darkness has a weight that can be felt.  It seemed to swallow up the light from the great candles around the high altar.  Voices, too, seemed to be muffled it, so that I had to strain to hear the bishop say the Mass.

The bishop had had fresh straw spread on the floor, but this night the cold stone seemed to suck the heat right through it and out of my knees.  Soon I was shivering.  Another time I would have been embarrassed to show weakness, but this night the darkness was so thick I felt myself alone in the choir.

I blush to say it, but I do not believe I was alone in thinking this was God’s way of punishing the young bishop for his presumption.

Then, at the Consecration, just as the bishop raised high the Body and Blood of Our Lord,  it happened.  My pen gropes to find the words to tell it.

Simply put, lightning began.  But, O my brother, how poor things words are.  It was not merely lightning.  God rained down a veritable torrent of bolts, one after the other, so that there hardly seemed a break in them.

Outside, all was noise.  Inside, all was transformation.  The darkness was replaced by such colors as the eye had never beheld.  I, who had been alone, suddenly found myself surrounded by my brothers’ awestruck faces washed in the most brilliant blues and reds.  The very walls of grey stone seemed changed into rainbows.  Each statue, each carving, each pillar seemed to come alive with dancing colors.

But above us!  O my brother, if only you could have been there to share our joy!  Those slender shafts of stone seemed to disappear.  The tall clerestory windows seem to flow together into great walls of colors all dedicated to God’s Glory.    I looked up and up, all the way up to the high vaulting.  All, all, was filled with Color and Light and God’s Power.

I do not know how long this vision of Paradise lasted.  I only know that it ceased as suddenly as it began.  The bishop finished his Mass and turned to go home.  Outside, the rain had turned to snow.

It was evident to even the hardest heart that God approved of the new Christ’s Mass.  First God had granted us a vision of Paradise.  And now there was Chartres, like the Baby Jesu himself, greeted the morning wrapped up by God in a cloth of the purest white.

— Ab tuum avium frater Gulielmus


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