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Friday, September 23, 2011

Our lady, and the onions of Chartres

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Our Lady, and the onions of Chartres


Her mismatched spires grow like flamboyant Gothic stalks of wheat and corn out of the fecund plain of Beauce. In medieval days the bounty from these fields was stacked on the cathedral steps, which served as the town bazaar. On the south porch, onions, potatoes and turnips were sold from baskets and wagons under three arches where Jamb’s saints and martyrs in stone supervised. For centuries pilgrims have crawled to Mary’s treasured dress inside—the Sancta Camisia— the sepia’d muslin garment the virgin mother wore over her labor-convulsing body when her boy was born, frail now as onion skin, behind glass and guarded by seraphim. Where has she gone, that woman? I want to feel her warm belly through the dress, the baby kicking. I want to hear her croon to him when his little paw jerks in the air and she nudges her nipple into his trembling mouth.

I am standing under the red and blue pools of brilliant clerestory windows beholding how the brown and buff stone of the labyrinth floor curves and hooks. In the stunning Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière (our lady of the beautiful window) Mary wears a dress of lapis lazuli (the pigment patrons bought for painters more valuable than gold, to give her honor). She is impossibly high, with censers swinging over her crown. The straight, plain wooden chairs have been removed from the floor this one day in a month, so I can walk the labyrinth, slowly. I invite her spirit to rest upon me. It is the year of epiphany, the zenith of my soul’s quest, yet as a result of my measured steps no flames fall from the windows or maternal roots of mystical spirituality curl around my pilgrim feet. The virgin does not bare her glassy breast and offer sacred blue milk. The womb of the church is empty, dark, silent.

We go out and cross the cold street into a cozy brasserie for rustic onion soup, the tables close and crowded under centuries of beams. I excuse myself to find the toilet up a winding stair and half-way up come to a room with its door ajar and window open. Light from the late afternoon sun reflects off the stone building across the street, pouring in on nothing but sacks and sacks of onions wall to wall and piled, spilling upon each other like stones in a quarry, like the fallen stones of Jerusalem. I stare what seems a good while at the nimbuses of holiness surrounding each little onion head and their burlap wraps. How sleepily alive they seem. I go up to the toilet and come back down, pausing one last time at the onion nap room. Back at the table the soup has arrived. I stir the hot salty broth, twirling the white rings, playing like a dervish in a schoolyard with my spoon. I consume, and am consumed by, the labyrinth of the onion.

Listen to Hans Christian play a cello improvisation, from his album
Sancta Camisia, recorded in Chartres Cathedral:






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Photos: Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière and labyrinth from wiki commons; Sancta Camisia Metis Linens; onion photo mine. 
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42 comments:

Stratoz said...

I have walked many a labyrinth. Thanks for sharing the beauty of a classic.

George said...

Here in Chapel Hill, NC, I have limited time this morning, Ruth, but I want to tell you how much I loved this piece. I am there, bathed in the shafts of light breaking through the windows of the cathedral; I am am walking the labyrinth, knowing that every step of every person is a unique experience; I am across the street with a steaming bowl of onion soup, listening to you tell me about your pilgrimage.

Ruth said...

You're welcome, Stratoz, and thanks to you, too. I like walking small ones with my fingers.

Ruth said...

Hello there, George! Isn't it wonderful how many locales we can be present in, when connected by friendship? This alone is a mysterious labyrinth, with spiritual rewards. Thanks so much for visiting while you are away from home. Have a great weekend.

ds said...

Only the cello could do this holy place justice; it is such a solemn instrument (can you tell I love the music--am on my second listen).
Only your words also. I did not know the story of the cathedral at Chartres; my next trip to France (if there ever is one) will include a pilgimage. Although I already feel I have been there with you.
Onion as labyrinth a magical truth.
Thank you.

The Bug said...

I love this piece. Labyrinthine is a good way to describe my relationship to God and church.

missing moments said...

A beautiful post today ... your music sets such somber lovely mood

Maureen said...

Reading your post while the sounds of the cello fill the background along with the rain outside my window is a complete experience.

Your description of coming upon the "onion nap room" is marvelous.

I have been to Chartes and walked the labyrinth. It is an unforgettable experience, whether or not in the presence of others doing the same.

Brendan said...

Chartres is such a colossal monument to so many things ... Work on it began in a century when faith must surely have been slipping fast, because hundreds of like cathedrals were built at the same time, offering the populace a Finger to Heaven, in case they forgot, which they must have ... And that Virgin, Queen of Heaven, was also the Christianized Goddess, Epona probably for those Gallic woods, her milky translucence as much mare's milk as mother's. I knew there was a labyrinth at Chartres, but I didn't know it was the same design as the one of Dedalos' invention, a figure that was sketched endlessly in ancient times, just about everywhere, on pottery shards, under bridges ... And who knew that if you cut open an onion, you'd get the same peek. Rilke's "Rose Window" was about Chartres, wasn't it? Heart of God, he called it .... Delightful post, Ruth. - Brendan

hedgewitch said...

I often try really hard to put myself back into the mind of someone who lived many ages gone--I could feel them in your poem, and see them looking at the window in disbelief that anything on this earth could be so lovely-we're denied those pleasures now in our jaded age, the galvanizing strike in our souls of sheer beauty. Your poem does it justice and more--and the labyrinths of onions are indeed fascinating, as well as the topiary sort they love in formal european gardens--the hunger for order, for finding/placing order amid so much chaos. Fine writing, Ruth, and a beautiful cello piece as well. Thank you.

who said...

I think onions are beautiful. The center of an onion reminds me of the tippy top of church windows, where the arches meet. When light shines on it or through it,the colored glass looks wet, shiny and silky appearance. They both remind me of my favorite part of a woman's anatomy.

Such much so, that the memory I am reminded of is almost like porn and the labyrinth, majorly is the path I would take to travel, touching all over leaving less untouched than even the minor regions as I explored.

I wish I could see and feel every woman's mind sometimes. Just because it's my favorite part of the female anatomy.

Oliag said...

I can't describe how this touched me Ruth...I have visited Chartres and walked the labyrinth and soaked in the stained glass images in awe...but I don't have the mind of a poet...I love the connections you make and the way you expressed them. How wonderful it would be to travel with someone like you! How wonderful it was to revisit Chartres through this poem!

Barb said...

Another story within a story, within a story. As i read, I walk the labyrinth with you - from the church to the soup.

Ruth said...

ds, I bought the whole Sancta Camisia album by Hans Christian on iTunes, because like you, the cello speaks for me like no other instrument. These recordings inside Chartres are especially resonant and rich.

I'm glad you will go to Chartres if you go back to France. I've been twice, and once the chairs covered the labyrinth. I didn't know till later that we were lucky the chairs were moved in 2004. Truly the cathedral is astonishing, and the town is sweet.

Thank you.

Ruth said...

Dana, lovely. The first few times, the turns surprise you, but you still flow with it . . . you have to take it slowly for it to feel right.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Reena.

Ruth said...

Maureen, yes, when walking the labyrinth, I felt everyone else and even the room, fade into the background, I was so focused. What if we walked the world this way every day? Refocusing, slowing, taking it in. Thanks for your kind comment.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Brendan. Yes, I think Rilke's "Rose Window" was about the one at Chartres (as his recent "Portal" poem in three parts at AYWR was, apparently, which prompted this meditation). I saw many labyrinth carvings in Ireland, at Four Knocks in the tomb on stone, at Newgrange with its triple spiral. Now you've got me wondering about their origins. Maybe it was onions! Well, the circle is a great representation of eternity, which my dad pointed out in every wedding ceremony in his homily about the ring.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Hedge. What you describe, of the ancient people gazing at the window in disbelief, describes me at Chartres too. There is no way to comprehend that anything so intensely beautiful and intricate could be rendered in 1200, and be lifted and secured so high, and stay as they have all these centuries.

Ruth said...

Dusti, you are brilliant. :-)

That was a mysterious labyrinth you took in your comment, with a beautiful revelation at the end. I love it.

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Oliag. Well you know how much I would like to travel with someone like you, with a taste for good food, so maybe we should book a trip together soon! :D

Seriously though, I so appreciate your kind words, and I'm glad you've walked the cathedral floor and stood under those windows too.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Barb. Isn't it incredible how we are each a story within a story within a story . . . ∞ ?

Jeanie said...

The Labyrinth of the Onion -- indeed. That such a simple root can be so complex -- in its shape, its flavor, even its fragrance. This is a beautiful piece of writing with equally lovely photos behind it. I've never done a labyrinth. You make me want to very much!

Pat said...

The music, the pictures, the story; all beautiful and all touched my heart. Thank you for sharing them.

shoreacres said...

The beauty of the labyrinth is that its power for the willing pilgrim - to focus, to restore, to reveal - is independent of its setting.

When I made my youthful flight from Paris, I fled to Chartres, and your words capture perfectly the beautiful mystery of the cathedral and the earthiness of the city. But when I walked a labyrinth for the first time, it was in Houston, at the University of St. Thomas, and it is modeled after the one at Chartres. You can see a photo of it here.

I wonder if part of the appeal for so many today is that there is only one way in and one way out - it's not a maze, as so much of life seems to be.

Vagabonde said...

Beautiful window – I love the blue color. I have been to Chartres several times when we had visitors from out of the country, and I have been to the cathedrals of Reims, Bayeux, Marseille, Orléans, Lisieux, Meaux, and more that I can’t recall. Now I can’t quite remember which cathedral was which – I know, this is bad, but I am not up with all our cathedrals – they all beautiful stained glass windows. As for onions, I loved my mother’s onion soup and I need to make it more often. Here in Georgia we have Vidalia onions which are sweet – not good for soupe à l’oignon though. Not a poetic comment for such a pretty post I am afraid.

erin said...

i love the circle of your tale, as though you have led me home.

truly? truly you would want to touch her tummy? i couldn't bear it. could not bear her human. it would be too much. to bear any woman's human like this, for me, would be too much. i see new bravery in you i hadn't seen before. i see new reserve in me i hadn't seen before. how interesting!

each onion in burlap as though a babe clothed. such sacred life, all life.

xo
erin

Grandmother said...

I walked the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and found it to be, against my expectations, transformative. Next time I'm in France, I will seek out Chartres. And the music? Haunting.

Louise Gallagher said...

I am transported.

By your words.

The beauty of Mary's window.

The peel of an onion.

The echo of a cello.

I am transported.

And I am enriched, content, replenished.

Thank you!

Montag said...

Henry Adams himself would read this with great pleasure.

Marcie said...

The labyrinth of the simple onion. How beautiful!!!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Jeanie. Did you know Sparrow Hospital has the first hospital-based labyrinth? It's in the Healing Garden. Inge and I went when she was in cancer treatment.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pat, I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Ruth said...

Linda, I was surprised to learn that the labyrinth at Chartres is only cleared once a month. So maybe you arrived on one of the chair-covered days.

The one at the U of St. Thomas is in a beautiful setting, thanks for sharing.

I like what you've added here, that the power is available independently of its setting, and that you walk in, and forward, never back where you have already walked.

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, you remind me of myself on study abroad in 1974, for eight weeks in ten countries, visiting countless cathedrals, and yes, they do blend together.

I didn't know that soupe à l’oignon required a certain type of onion. Yellow and hot?

Believe me, just the French names in your comment, and your spirit of historic adventure, provide enough poetic fragrance for me.

Ruth said...

erin, is it because my daughter is going to bear her first baby? Is it this that makes me feel that maternity is in every molecule of air I breathe? Mary is everywoman. She's my daughter!

Why do I feel this?

I think I must be getting old. In a good way, I think.

Ruth said...

Mary, you make me think that my own disappointment might have been about too-high expectations.

I envy you that you could drive to Chartres . . .

Ruth said...

Louise, you are wonderful, to enter this piece the way you did. Thank you for surrendering to it. It is such a gift to me.

Ruth said...

Montag, my friend the reader. Listen, I'm already reading too many books simultaneously. Now you've gone and made me want to read The Education of Henry Adams . . .

Cool.

Ruth said...

Marcie, it's easy for me to want to go back to Paris and its environs. But there is so much here under my nose to absorb.

Ginnie said...

The juxtaposition of these two labyrinths, Ruth, is stunning. I know how much the blue of the Chartres Cathedral has captivated you over the years. The labyrinth, too, which I have walked. I'm guessing you'll always think of both whenever you cut an onion again!

amy@ Souldipper said...

I had a deep intake of breath when I read, "I want to feel her warm belly through the dress, the baby kicking."

The gift you give me is that intimacy. You move so easily into each world - even the onion's. :)