Simon Cotton introduces three of his favourite buildings to help us reflect on our faith
La Cathedrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand de Comminges, France
Buildings are not just wood and stone. We interact with them. Let me tell you about two saints, and a friend. Back in 1984 I was a regular worshipper at the parish of Saint Jude’s, in Peterborough (about 75 miles north of London); later that year I became a churchwarden. I was one of a party of four that drove away from Peterborough on January 1st and headed down France on a sponsored pilgrimage to Lourdes – there and back in a week. We spent a night at the Southwestern town of Saint Gaudens, and there the hotelier assured us that we really must see a wonderful cathedral about 10 miles away. And so I discovered Saint Bertrand. As you near it, you are struck by its setting, set on a low hill, with a backdrop of the Pyrenees (and a companion Romanesque church of Saint Just). Two thousand years ago, Caligula exiled Herod and Herodias (and Salome?) to Lugdunum Convenarum, a recently-excavated settlement situated below the hill. The Visigoths destroyed the settlement and it was left to the 11th c. Bishop Bertrand de l’Isle to found the cathedral. During his life, Bertrand was venerated as a saint, healer, exorcist and miracleworker; he was canonized around 1218. Today’s cathedral is mainly the work of two of his successors; Bertrand de Got (bishop 1295–99; later Pope Clement V), who initiated the Gothic reconstruction of the choir, and Jean de Mauléon (bishop 1523–51) patron of the woodwork of the choir. Over a century ago, M.R. James set Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook here; it was the first of his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
There is not much to Saint Bertrand apart from the cathedral, a few shops, the odd hotel. You enter the cathedral through the west door of the tower, underneath a Romanesque tympanum of the Adoration of the Magi, and pass into the short parochial nave, with the awesome organ of 1550 overhead. Facing you is the stunning 16th c. marquetry work of the exterior of the liturgical choir; you are stuck by the panel depicting Saint Bertrand, flanked by the two plague saints, Roch and Sebastian. On your right is a mummified crocodile, the dragon slain in legend by St Bertrand; to your left is a statue of St Benedict Joseph Labré (1748–83), who tested his vocation with the Trappists, Carthusians and Cistercians, and was rejected by them all. He decided to become a permanent pilgrim – on the pilgrimage to St James at Compostella he heard a human moan and found a man lying half-killed by robbers. Benedict stopped, bathed and dressed the man’s wounds – and was then briefly detained as a suspect in the nearest town gaol, at Saint Bertrand. Eventually Benedict settled in Rome, spending his time with the poor. Living rough, he spent nearly all his time in the churches, praying. He had hardly anything to eat but would often give away what food he had to other beggars. Benedict lived nine years like this, then during Holy Week 1783 he collapsed at Mass and died. In 1881 Benedict was canonized. Saint Benedict Joseph Labré is the patron saint of tramps and the homeless.
You pass alongside the north side of the choir and reach the painted 15th c. shrine of St Bertrand, actively venerated here today. To access the interior of the choir, you go through the Romanesque south cloisters, enter the south doorway and reach the choir, with 66 richly carved Renaissance choirstalls in two tiers, complete with misericordes. The rear 38 stalls also have large carved figures – pagan worthies, Old Testament figures, New Testament saints. Above the high altar hangs a silver dove pyx for the reservation of the Holy Sacrament.
Saint Bertrand is absolutely stunning. You will understand why I have been back many times since, several times to Sunday Mass. The visit I recall best took place on August 25th 2004. Two years earlier I was staying with the monks of le Bec Hellouin in Normandy when I met Maria, a very devout Catholic. A Parisian, she was getting over ovarian cancer, which she had survived thanks to a semisynthetic drug called taxotère. We stayed in touch by e-mail and letter. When the cancer returned a few months later, Maria went on the intercession list of my home parish, by then in the East Midlands. Taxotère did the job again and the cancer went into remission. Maria wrote to us: – “Je vous prie d’en informer vos amis de la paroisse d’Uppingham, toutes vos prières sont un grand soutien.” She thought it wonderful that all these people who had never met her would pray for her. Sadly, the cancer returned once more, a few months later. She was not well enough to come to Bec in August 2004, so I visited an obviously very sick Maria in her home near Paris. We had lunch and talked for three hours, then I had to leave to continue my holiday. Maria knew that my idea of a good holiday was visiting some of the great mediaeval churches and cathedrals in France, and I promised her that every day I’d say a prayer for her and light a candle at some holy shrine.
Exactly one week later, I spent nearly three hours in the finest cathedral in the whole of the South West of France. I prayed at the shrine of St Bertrand, healer and exorcist, and lit a candle for Maria, then I walked into the cloisters, from where I could look at the Pyrenees. Down in the valley below, a sheep moved; I heard its bell ring. It was only much later that I found out that Maria was dying in Paris that day.
Every day I still pray for the repose of the eternal soul of Maria de los Angeles Santiago. If as Christians we believe in the resurrection of the body and eternal life, then death does not put an end to prayer.