One of the blessings of the saints’ feasts is how they turn our hearts to the faithfulness of God. Today we commemorate St Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 604. Gregory’s great desire in life was to be a monk; to still alone in stillness and contemplate the greatness of God. Instead, he was called from the monastic life to be bishop of Rome. The fruit of St Gregory’s contemplation is visible in his written works, from Bible commentaries to a life of St Benedict. But it is perhaps most visible in . . . ourselves. In 597, St Gregory sent the abbot of his Roman monastery with twelve companions to convert the pagan, barbarian English people. This was the beginning of the conversion of the English people, thanks to the grace of God in the life of a man who would rather have been faithful in some other way.
I, a descendant of those English barbarians, had the opportunity to encounter what may have been St Gregory’s shepherd’s crook (art historians say it isn’t). In thankfulness to God for this man’s faithfulness, I kissed it alongside the monks who live in his old monastery today.
God will be faithful to our own spiritual lives, as he was to Gregory, even if our only challenge is making it to Easter without chocolate.
The story goes that in 988, the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople told their Prince that when witnessing worship in Hagia Sophia, they knew not whether they were on heaven or on earth. If they had waited until the mid-thirteenth century and visited Paris instead, I think perhaps the Kievan Rus could have become Roman Catholic rather than Eastern Orthodox.
I say this as one who has participated in a modern re-creation of mediaeval liturgy (reflections on that here), and I imagine that when such a liturgy was celebrated in La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the lines between nature and supernature, earth and heaven, would blur amidst the dazzling walls made of glass, the gold, the incense, and the Gregorian Chant. The setting, of course, essential.
La Sainte Chapelle is located within the precincts of the old royal Palais de la Cité, situated on Ile-de-la-Cite, the large island in the middle of the Seine whereon you find Notre-Dame de Paris, herself a most remarkable woman almost 100 years older than Ste-Chapelle. Today, this palace has been modified and expanded around Ste-Chapelle as the Palais de Justice. But you can still visit the Radiant Gothic (rayonnant) holy chapel, no longer used for liturgical celebrations.
Ste-Chapelle was built by King St Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) between 1241 and 1248. Conceptually, it is inspired by the fantastic Romanesque palatine chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen (792-805). However, stylistically, it is a Gothic reliquary chapel, built in two storeys; the upper chapel was dedicated to the Holy Cross, the lower to the Virgin. Within the various subdivisions of Gothic architecture, Ste-Chapelle is a fine example of a Radiant Gothic church, whose rose windows have the style of rays spreading out from the centre (hence rayonnant).
Apparently, some people find the 19th-century attempts to classify Gothic architecture by its window tracings a bit misguided; one can certainly see stirrings of flamboyant in the window above.
The walls are almost entirely windows. Or, at least, they look it.
There is more stone than it appears, including exterior buttresses. There is also a large quantity of metalwork holding the fabric of Ste-Chapelle together, much of it invisible because it is worked into the images of the windows themselves. Gothic architecture, as I have discussed before, seeks to maximise light in part because of the (Pseudo-)Dionyisian ideal of God as the Uncreated Light. In Ste-Chapelle, the amount of blue, red, and purple used to execute the various biblical and historical scenes portrayed in the windows gives an overarching sense of majesty and glory.
And why not? As I said above, Ste-Chapelle was built as a reliquary chapel. For which relics, you may ask? The Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, acquired by St Louis as both an act of piety and of polity. You can see the top of the reliquary itself in the above photo, bathed in light from the apsidal windows.
Ste-Chapelle is one of the most remarkable architectural spaces I’ve eve visited. Because the north side is, I believe, flanked by a building (currently the windows are undergoing restoration), it is not as bright as I’d hoped. But it is still beautiful and noteworthy, a large, magnificent interior space drawing the eye upward and the soul outward to the Triune God.
In Book 9.6 of the Chronicle (or Ecclesiastical History) of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, a Justinianic Syriac Monophysite, we read this story:
After [the Persian Emperor] Kavadh, his son Khusro reigned. His mother, during the life of her husband Kavadh, was possessed by a demon, and all the magi, sorcerers, and enchanters who were called by her husband Kavadh, who very much loved her, did not profit her at all, but truth be told, they added demons upon demons to her. She was sent in the fourth [indiction year] in the days of the dux Liberarius to the blessed Moses who had a monastery above Dara, some two parasangs from the region. He was famous, and she was with him a few days and was purified, and returned to her land, having taken from this holy Moses of the monastery called Tarmel the blessing of the bones of Cyriacus the martyr so that she could take refuge in it for her protection, so that the [evil] spirit would not return upon her; and she built for him in a secret [place] a house of prayer in her land in order to honour [him], and he was venerated there. When she remembered the grace that had happened to her through this blessed Moses of Tarmel, she aided the country of the Romans with a purpose and reason that are described below. (Trans Robert R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn in the TTH trans, ed. Geoffrey Greatrex)
According to n. 95, p. 328, Christian literature abounds with stories of Persian monarchs being cured by saints, and according to the Armenian version of Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, Khusro’s mother was actually baptised.
This story reminds me of a biblical parallel (and no doubt on purpose), the story of Na’aman in 2 Kings 5. Na’aman was a Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. Like the Persian Queen Mother in Pseudo-Zachariah, he went to the man of God, in this case the Prophet Elisha (successor to Elijah). To make a long story short, Na’aman was cured by washing in the River Jordan and returned healthy and hale to his people. He vowed that he would worship YHWH in secret — whenever his master bowed to the god Rimmon, he would bow as well, but secretly incline his heart to the God of Elisha. Khusro’s mother also worshipped in secret according to Pseudo-Zachariah, building a shrine to St. Cyriacus (apparently a popular martyr’s name).
Yet unlike Na’aman, the Persian Queen does not convert. She does not offer prayers to Christ our God. Instead, she takes back with her some sort of relic — I imagine the “oil of the saints’, oil that has made contact with a relic and is used for the purposes of healing the sick and casting out demons. The tomb of St. Euthymius in the Judean Desert has a hole through which to pour the oil, and it comes out a little drain at the bottom for you to gather it; such oil recurs frequently throughout the Life of Daniel the Stylite(saint of the week here), and Cyril of Scythopolis often speaks of the “oil of the holy Cross”, which is probably a similar idea.
Her reverence is for the holy man and the saint who cured her, not, to use the popular Byzantine turn of phrase, “Christ our God.” This is too bad, really. The Church should certainly be seeking to heal those who are sick, be it with demonic possession or physical ailments, but what about the ultimate, deepest sickness, the fallenness of the human soul? Should not Moses have introduced this Persian aristocrat to Christ the Physician? Perhaps he tried, and she would have none of it.
Alas, then, that this woman was cured of a temporal sickness but refused the medicine of the eternal sickness, taking away superstition rather than true religion! No doubt the history of the Church is full of such stories.