Tag Archives: France

Crying for Paris

Paris MapThe horrific attacks in Paris this week brought home once again the precarious nature of our freedoms. 

And so we cry for France and the rest of Europe, so vulnerable with porous borders, weak military, costly social welfare, and alarming inclusivity. 

As the daughter of England, America looks to France, and all of Europe, with anguish and tears. America was birthed by the English, explored by the French, settled by the Spanish, and later enriched by Germans, Italians, Irish, East Indians, Africans, Asians and many others. America has gloried in inclusivity, insisting this great experiment in democracy will after all succeed. Yet, in the last fifty years it is showing signs of serious failure. 

Since her birth, America has welcomed all who escaped to her sanctuary of sacred space, of liberty and life and the peaceful pursuit of happiness. All who came desired safety and a chance to live a better life in which to raise their children. Some sought life itself. This stream of grateful immigrants continues, legal and illegal, crossing borders, running around and over borders, desperate to get in. 

As America grew in strength and wealth, she defended England and the countries of Europe, as any good son or daughter would defend their family from harm. She became a force for good, sometimes through might, sometimes through love of all humanity, usually well intentioned. 

But as Europe aged she grew complacent about defense, counting on America’s strength. Americans looked across the seas to Europe’s villages and history, her cobbled streets, her quaint ways, her saints, her cathedrals, her vineyards and her civilized way of life. We were wealthy and could afford a military that could defend the free world, protect our Western Civilization. Europe rested, relaxing borders. With American might, Europe could afford generous social welfare programs. She could house, feed, nurse, and school all who crossed into her lands, even those who broke her laws. Giving and giving, Europe self-righteously distributed her benevolence. Americans, those coarse fellows across the sea, could provide troops as necessary. 

But no longer. A little like Robin Hood, America robbed from her defense to protect her domestic welfare. She too wanted to feel self-righteous, to “care” as Europe cared. To pay for these programs, programs that buy votes, the CIA was cut and we were attacked on 9-11-01 in New York. To pay for these programs, the military budget was cut and policies of disengagement and “dialog” with our enemies were preferred over shows of strength. 

Islamic State took notice. And so, the barbarians are no longer at the gates. They are here. Living among us, networking their creeds of jihad. National boundaries no long keep the bad guys out. They keep them in. 

It has been predicted by many that Europe as we know or knew it is over. Demographics prophesy that France will be a Muslim state within the next decade, and a sharia state soon after. Put simply, free French are not having children; sharia French are. The same could be said for England. 

In America we are teaching our surviving children to hate our culture, its history, its freedoms. They will not be a generation interested in protecting us. 

In America we rob our children of religious faith and leave them to wander in a nihilistic desert. They will fill this void and find meaning in a Facebook network of suicide warriors. 

In America we slaughter our unborn and euthanize our aged, blinded in our selfishness, not seeing that we are assisting in America’s own suicide. 

But in spite of all the wars and rumors of wars, all the fear on city streets, all the anguish in the once glorious city of light, we hope and do not despair. Those who can see are seeing for others. Those who can teach our children the truth are teaching them the truth. Those who can pray are praying. 

We prayed for Paris this morning in our little chapel in Berkeley. And I prayed that the eyes of the West have been briefly opened, hopefully long enough to change course, to destroy this cancerous evil spreading through the free world. We need a strong America again, one clear-eyed and courageous, yet humble enough to sacrifice for others. We need to wave the flag and revive old-fashioned patriotism.

We need an America that will defend the streets of Paris, once again showing the world and its tyrants that we will ensure peace through strength.

Chateau de la Puisaye, France

Chateau de la Puisaye.compLast week, on the occasion of my niece’s wedding nearby, we stayed at Chateau de la Puisaye, a Napoleon III house set in a large park a mile outside of Verneuil-sur-Avre on the southern Normandy border. Diana and Bruno Costes (she British, he French) have turned the chateau into a country “bed-and-breakfast,” offering five traditionally furnished bedrooms in the main house, a guest cottage, and a studio over the old stables. Our son and his family (children aged nine and eleven) joined us.

One of our rooms on the second floor (Europeans say the first floor), looked out the back onto green grass, a box hedge, and a large kitchen garden, hence called the Chambre du Potager. Decorated in antiques, the light and airy room had a closed fireplace and three tall windows, high ceilings, and a large bath. White wainscoted panels were papered in pink and green floral with complimentary borders and matching draperies. The room is charming, recalling Jane Austen, with polished hardwood floors and oriental carpets. Two more bedrooms faced the front drive and park with tall windows as well, nicely appointed, and two more on the third floor.

Always intrigued by history and the mystery of time, I wondered who had lived here over the centuries. Diana said an elderly lady was the last owner. She mentioned that a tunnel, perhaps no longer evident, once hid Resistance fighters in World War II. Our articulate hostess was certain the house held many secrets and hidden passages, nooks and crannies yet to be discovered. The house had seen so much, both joy and sorrow, I thought, love and hate, birth and death. Foreign armies encamped, reigning terror upon the countryside.

For we were, after all, in Normandy, unhappy witness to centuries of war. Northwest, the landing beaches of World War II stretch alongside the English Channel,  where so many young soldiers were gunned down by the enemy on overlooking cliffs. Today they rest beneath rows of white crosses in a field of green, and I often thought of these young men and the world they protected with their lives, our world. How deceiving peacetime could be, especially in our lovely chateau surrounded by leafy park and night silence and sun and shadow, in rooms of genteel comfort and civilized conversation. How deceiving it all was, not wanting to believe we lived in a rare moment of peace that bridged the times of war. How long would it be before fighting revisited this lovely pastureland of chateaus and sheep and medieval stone?

Of course this area of southern Normandy has seen other wars over the centuries, for Normandy was British for many years, a coveted prize with its ports and pastures. Fortified villages surrounded by deep moats saw much bloodshed in the Hundred Years War that pitted English against French and raged intermittently from 1337 to 1453. Verneuil-sur-Avre was formed from three such villages, with streets that trace the old walls, each community clustering around its church and market.

Much to the delight of my grandchildren, chateau sheep grazed in a distant field, and the children were invited to help herd them to another pasture. Two elderly ponies, a horse, and a donkey grazed in another paddock. Three dogs meandered in and out of the chateau, nuzzling the children and other friendly hands, and two cats could be spotted if one watched carefully. There was a heated swimming pool, put in this last year, anchored at one end by a picturesque stone gatehouse.

The gravel drive curved up to the white façade of the chateau as if curtsying, and mature plane trees shaded broad lawns and white wrought-iron chairs and tables and wooden lounges. We had unseasonable rain and cool temps this last week, but in better weather guests could sip cocktails on the lawn before dinner. I for one enjoyed the drawing rooms.

The entry led to stairs spiraling up to the bedrooms. Guests met in the paneled drawing room to the right of the entry for an aperitif before dinner.  (My grandson played a little Beethoven on the grand piano.) Velvet upholstered chairs and a settee grouped around a working fireplace probably ablaze in winter. The adjoining library housed walls of books with another working fireplace.

In the dining room to the left of the entry, Diana served hot breakfasts with fresh breads and jams, and even dinner (with notice), featuring local foods and French country wines. She was most gracious in preparing several dinners for us over the week we stayed, all delicious.

I particularly appreciated (naturally) the many books that greeted us, and I left my own novels to add to the chateau’s collection. There were hundreds of books in English and French and other languages, out-of-print books, bestsellers, classics, history, crime, romance, art, cooking, landscape. Books were stacked on tables and mantels and overflowed from shelves. They lined the rooms with history, their own history and those stories living inside the leaves, reflecting centuries of writers and readers, but also reflecting a more sophisticated syntax and thought pattern.

I came across a young-adult story with black-and-white illustrations on shiny pages. The printing style reminded me of books I once borrowed and devoured from our local Orinda library when I was young. The title page stated the book was a war printing, using circumscribed ink and paper, for it was dated 1944, London. It appeared to be about a girl’s school with a simple and direct and sweet style. I thought how different today’s young adult novels are, with their dark and often violent themes, their sexually charged language, their despairing and anguished tones. What have we sowed in the hearts and minds of our children and what kind of a culture will we – and they – reap one day? Perhaps we already are reaping what we have sowed.

Tucked among old books on the landing upstairs I found an Anglican Book of Common Prayer with no publication date, but with a Christmas 1915 inscription from the owner’s grandfather. By Christmas 1915, Britain was in the First World War. London bombing commenced in May of that year. The leather-bound prayer book, its tissue pages well thumbed, was no more than two by three inches, and it contained not only Anglican prayers and liturgies, but hymns as well. It looked to be the old 1662 Prayer Book, similar to our 1928 BCP in America, with rites going back to the seventh century monastic offices and the medieval liturgies of Old Sarum.

Diana’s warmth charmed us, encouraging conversation. She treated us like family. As my nine-year-old granddaughter nodded off to sleep under white embroidered linen, she said with a happy smile and a sweet sigh, “Diana is so nice, I just want to move in and help her in the kitchen.” “I know,” I said, “me too,” and I gently turned out the light and kissed her on the forehead.

The skies are broad in this rolling countryside, and while the rain limited our explorations, the changing skies created dramatic canvases of blues and whites and grays. We walked out to the paddocks and followed the gravel paths and drove the lanes through fields of corn waiting for harvest.

Staying at Chateau de la Puisaye was far more than memorable and far more than restful. It was stepping into history and for a short time living there as though we shared the space with hundreds of ancestors. The two hundred years these rooms witnessed seem to have been more ordered times, in spite of candlelight and bedpans and cold rooms heated by fires in hearths. It was a time when social graces tamed our bestial natures and manners orchestrated our gatherings. Conversation linked minds and hearts, and shared meals wove generations together. Civility, that old art of living with one another, was valued over self-esteem, thoughtfulness over thoughtlessness, patience over impulse. Being dependent upon one another for day-to-day needs required selfless sacrifice. It required love.

One cannot turn back the clock, but it is good to be reminded of what we have lost, so that we might plant similar seeds before the the lost is forgotten completely. We flock to these quiet old houses seeking something we cannot name; we mourn a time of gentle, gentile, gentlemen and gentlewomen. Today transfixed by gadgets and toys and bright screens with buttons, we have nearly forgotten how to think, how to reflect (or even dream), how to link generations with words around a table.

Chateau de la Puisaye reminded me how to live gently. The old house said, do not forget. Thank you, Diana and Bruno Costes, for pulling this past into our present and with such grace.


A French Country Wedding


We witnessed my niece’s wedding this weekend in the French countryside. 

The wedding was held outdoors at Domain des Evis, a fifteenth-century fortified farmhouse set in the rural landscape of the Perche region, not far from Verneuil-sur-Avre on the Normandy border. The few days before, unseasonable torrential rains poured upon the land, nearly flooding the narrow roads, but a Saturday sun worked its way mightily through dark billowing clouds.

We took our places on benches under the suddenly bright sun and watched the bridesmaids step up the aisle, followed by the bride, arm in arm between her father and her brother. It was a curious blend of old and new, and the secular ceremony, while never mentioning God, spoke of love and commitment and how-we-met. Poems were read and vows exchanged, hearts were touched, and eyes were moist with tears. The wedding reflected the beliefs of the bride and groom, as it surely should, for they are poised on the edge of a dying culture in a France tragically beautiful in its diminished faith.

Later, during the dinner, since they had asked me to speak as my niece’s godmother, I mentioned God who, while not invited to the wedding, was ever-present, loving them anyway:

As godmother I made my own vows for my niece at her baptism, and as her godmother I said a few extra prayers each evening, asking God to bless her. The prayers clearly worked, for she has found her prince charming who is now added to my list of intercessions each evening. And now two families have been united…

Weddings are rites of passage. The philosopher Roger Scruton notes that “rites of passage are the vows that bind generation to generation across the chasm of our appetites.” In this rite of passage we call marriage, family and friends of many generations witness the vows of love between a man and a woman. The vows are made in a public ceremony, before a community that gives assent and approval by their presence. When the bride walks up the aisle, alongside a member or members of her family, the journey through the gathered witnesses reflects her journey from one family into another, as well as the creation of a new family. This is the “giving away” of the bride and as archaic as it may sound in today’s world, it represents a giving over to the groom certain responsibilities, that of loving, protecting, and sheltering the future mother of his children.

The wedding ceremony in our Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that matrimony is a holy estate. Indeed, it is considered one of the seven sacraments, for it is sacred. Matrimony produces life, and all of life is holy, sacred. With marriage comes the blessing of children, and those children will step through their own rites of passage…

I thank my niece and her new husband for sharing this sacred day with us. Love and cherish one another, comfort one another, honor one another. Have and hold one another, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health. Be true to one another…

It is curious, I now reflect, that as the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization shrivel, folks cling to these shadowy memories of faith. They hold on to the symbols and ceremonies that speak truth even though they don’t believe in the author of those truths, he who designed our marvel-ous natures, he who created us to love. For without belief in the source of love, the symbols and ceremonies will wither and disappear. How many generations will it take for nihilism to eclipse Christianity? And how many generations will it take for the religions of death to fill the void left behind?

We are entering a new Dark Age, for we take for granted the inheritance bequeathed by Judaism and Christianity, the values that birthed our culture of freedom. It is this heritage of liberty protected by law, rights birthed by responsibility, marriage and family ordained by sacraments, governance authorized by democracy, that has defined the Western world and has given hope to peoples living in poverty and tyranny. It is this Judeo-Christian culture of the West, planted and watered for millennia, that is envied the world over by refugees, regardless of their own beliefs. Immigrants flood our borders for they understand what and who we are. We all know the Western world is not perfect, for it is shaped by humans, but it is our best and brightest hope for the future and for peace.

So on Saturday we heard good words in this elegant and sweetly beautiful marriage ceremony beneath stone towers and alongside dry moats of medieval stone. We saw love blossom, taking root in the garden of marriage whether the lovers believed in the sacrament or not. Their love was watered by the words and the vows and the faux-rituals. One day they will hopefully bear children so that another generation will water the roots of our culture, if they can remember this day and others like it. Perhaps, in the future, they shall recognize the God who loves them so, reflected in the leaves.

I’m glad I was able to attend the wedding of my sister’s daughter, who I held in my arms the first week of her life. I’m glad I was present to see our two families intertwined, one French and one American. My prayer list is longer, and I rejoice in this binding of generations.

Armistice Day

The leaves have turned in our valley. Splotches of russets, golds, burgundies burst from yards and hillsides, lining lanes, dotting the landscape. On a day like today, when the dome of blue seems to shelter our land and the sun is still warm in spite of the crisp air, it nearly seems magical. Days are shorter as darkness falls early, making the time between the later sunrise and the earlier sunset more precious.

So when we drove to church through this autumn world of oranges and yellows and reds, the piercing sun upon the leaves outlining each one in my memory, I was thankful. 

I had a quiet week, forced quiet, once my back went out after reaching for something at an odd angle, once I hobbled home from the chiropractor, once I arranged my ice packs and wound tight my elastic brace. I sat gingerly in an armchair before a blazing fire and read Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve. Also in my stack was Girls on the Edge (Leonard Sax), and Paul Among the People (Sarah Ruden), among others. The first two books were for research purposes, homework for my next novel. From time to time I scanned my Kindle’s collection of poems and prose by Christina Rossetti, for I wish to include her work in my work as well. Sarah Ruden reminds us in her book on St. Paul to read Holy Scripture in the context of the cultural setting, something not often done, especially in the feminist world. 

I cancelled appointments and lived with my pain, hour to hour, pain which subsided gradually. I was given renewed admiration for those who live with pain day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. I was also forced to bracket a few days and create a mini-retreat. It made me more dependent on God. 

We are fragile creatures in a fragile world, yet live as though both (creatures and world) were stable and strong and predictable. Perhaps this delusion is a form of self-protection, for how else could we arrange our human affairs? I believe this overabundance of confidence is also a reflection of the real world to come – God’s eternity – a vision, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, that colors our imagination and longing and deep desire for beauty, truth, goodness, love. 

And so, in church today I was glad to recall Armistice Day which we celebrate officially tomorrow, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the truce was signed on the eleventh hour that ended the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” the “great war.” I was glad to give thanks for the brave men and women who fought then and who defend our country today, who protect its fragility, who shore up the shores of our land. I gave thanks for peace in our time, relative peace, having lived through Vietnam and listened to the tales of my chaplain father who served in the South Pacific in World War II. Those other wars weren’t supposed to happen after the “war to end all wars,” but happen they did. And wars continue to scar the land, the people, the world. 

My father couldn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, but we have large glossy black-and-white photos of his ship, the Phoenix, and he described once the terror of the kamikaze raids, the planes diving into the sea on either side the ship. I have his Bible, signed by General MacArthur, tucked away in my glassed-in portion of my bookcases. 

War continues, for the seed is planted deep in our hearts. Our preacher today spoke of the necessity of prayer to end wars, that only through prayer can hearts be changed, can nations’ hearts be changed, can laws that govern our land be true and just, laws passed by such renewed hearts. So today I prayed especially for humility and penitence and then, perhaps when my own heart is scrubbed clean of all ill feeling, all grudges, all resentments, all, all, all… only then can my heart be filled with wisdom to choose, only then can it be filled with God, only then can I pray for my country and its leaders, and only then pray for the world’s leaders. 

I am so thankful for the men and women who protect our beautiful country and our fragile people, our delicate democracy. I am thankful too for St. Martin of Tours who shares this feast day, November 11. Did the generals who set the date for the armistice choose St. Martin’s on purpose? I think so. They would have had a choice, and in 1918 they would have known this day was St. Martin’s Day, one of the more widely known and celebrated saints days in Europe, one said to be even trans-European. 

Martin (316-397) was a Roman soldier, a Christian, who gave half his cloak to a poor beggar who had none. He then had a dream in which Christ appeared to him saying that when he gave the cloak to the beggar he gave it to Christ himself. When Martin left military service, he took holy orders. He established a Benedictine monastery, traveled the land preaching, and became Bishop of Tours, France. 

His cloak was soon a relic housed by a cappella, a covering for the cape, and from this came our word chapel. Such a cloak came to be worn by clergy in the military, those who ministered on the battlefield and at sea, and these clergy came to be known as chaplains. Our own priest wears a cope when he celebrates the Holy Mass. My father, being a chaplain, was in this sense a descendant of St. Martin. 

The sun is setting now, the dome of blue no longer cloaking our world with its bright beauty. The darkness approaches. But we have memory and we have the saints and we have the brave men and women who protect us today. God provides these shelters, these human chapels, and I am thankful, thankful to be covered by the cloak of his incarnate love.