The Common Good

The Stones Are Singing

Photo by Bertrand Rieger/Getty Images.
detail of a column from the inside portal of Saint-Madeleine basilica in Vézelay. Photo by Bertrand Rieger/Getty Images.
  • “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34) 
  • “She has done a beautiful thing to me. … Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:10, 13)
  • “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40)

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Albert Camus once said that your life is “the slow trek to recover the two or three simple images in whose presence [your] heart first moved.”

Sebastian Moore recovered one of those images after he had wandered into church at vespers on the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

In his book, The Inner Loneliness, Moore describes that moment of awakening. It came one evening after lots of pasta, a lot of spaghetti, and a lot of wine. “As I entered the church, I heard the familiar words [in Latin] ‘One of the soldiers opened his side with a spear, and immediately there came forth blood and water.’ And I had what can only describe as a sense of fullness of truth. Somehow, everything that was to be said about life and its renewing was in those words. Somehow my life, my destiny, was in those words.”

The image that moved his heart became one to which he returns daily, as do I. For the piercing of the side of the helpless man hanging on the cross happened not just then and there at Golgotha; it happens here and there and everywhere when we torture our own souls or the souls of others because we, or they, have failed to measure up to what we expected. Strangely, it is in the piercing that brings blood that we are cleansed by the living water that pours from his side.

Do you see your life in the words and in the image of the spearing of his side, in the blood, but also the water that heals, restores and renews, flowing from his pierced side?

A second image came to me this week on a photography blog of religious architecture by Dennis Aubrey.

“There are sights impossible to forget,” writes a blogger I’ve been following -- a photographer. His name is Dennis Aubrey. He takes magnificent photographs of great church architecture and accompanies his images with equally spell-binding words describing his experience sitting in those sacred spaces.

Dennis Aubrey tells the story of walking into a basilica. It’s the Basilica of the Magdalene – dedicated to Mary Magdalene, who is thought to be the woman in the Gospel stories who poured out the expensive ointment on Jesus and then wiped his feet with her hair. The scene for the photograph and the writing that describes his experience is the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, France.

”There are sights impossible to forget,” he writes, “the first glimpse of your child, or the look on the face of a your beloved at a moment of perfect happiness. My first sight of Vézelay was such a moment of perfection for me, a small medieval town clustered on a steep hill with a single narrow road winding its way to the top of the rise where stands the Basilica of Mary Magdalene."

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A bit of history from Dennis Aubrey: “On Easter Sunday 1146, on the great open hillside to the north of the basilica, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade to an enormous multitude gathered to hear him — King Louis VII, princes and peasants, clergy and laity. A few years later, two kings, Phillipe Augustus of France and Richard the Lion-hearted of England, assembled their forces here to begin the Third Crusade.

“Vézelay was also the site of a violent century-long social and political struggle among several parties — the monks and abbots of the abbey of Vézelay, the great abbots of Cluny, the Count of Nevers, and the merchants of Vézelay. The disputes over control of the fees and the rights of the various parties escalated to such heights that in 1106 the Abbot Artaud of Vézelay was murdered by townspeople. Three popes and two French kings tried to mediate a settlement, but the forces of history were in opposition, not just the rights of the nobility, the Church, or an emerging mercantile class.

“Eventually the power of the abbey waned, the legitimacy of the relics of Mary Magdalene was disputed by monks in Provence, and a pope eventually denied their authenticity. The pilgrims stopped visiting and the economy suffered. With the Renaissance, things human replaced things divine, and Vézelay sank into oblivion, a silent monument to the glories of the Romanesque revival in France.”

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“To appreciate Vézelay is to watch sunlight move like a living thing across walls of stone, then suddenly create a vision of indescribable, aching beauty," Aubrey wrote. "It is to watch shadows deepen around a priest sitting solitary in a side chapel waiting patiently for a penitent to come for confession. It is to hear the songs of nuns echo off the vaulted ceiling and ring like bells in the human soul. David sang in the Psalms, ‘You, O Lord, will be my light; by you, my God, the dark will be made bright for me,’ and in Vézelay this is palpable.

“So many days PJ and I have brought camera equipment into the church and have seen and captured images that make me wonder if it is even us taking the pictures. It is enough to sit and watch and wait, and suddenly the shot appears, as if summoned by the Magdalene herself. It has never failed to occur, and I don’t imagine that it ever will. In September 2008, at the end of two full days of shooting in the church, I sat on the stone wall leading down to the crypt where Mary’s relics have been kept for so long, venerated by so many. The originals were destroyed in the paroxysm of the French Revolution, but new ones have been placed in this crypt and are visited to this day. I was quiet and trying to remain inconspicuous because the priest was in the side chapel of Saint Teresa of Ávila hearing confession. Every once in a while, a young man or an elderly woman would come and sit next to him on a small wooden stool. With heads huddled together they would murmur quiet words of repentance and forgiveness. At the end, a sign of blessing and then footsteps echoed on the flagstones. It seemed to me, sitting near, the church was silent and reverent, fulfilling its very purpose even if it was only a single person seeking the expiation of sins.

“In this silence, a new thought entered my consciousness, something never expressed before. With this thought came a tumult of emotions, a release of waves of images and thoughts and feelings. I suddenly understood the need for God; even if I did not acknowledge that need for myself, I knew with certainty that it existed. It was a terrifying moment, unsettling and disturbing. I struggled to lock this transient understanding firmly in my mind so as not to forget, so that it did not turn into a mere anecdote. After some time a sound entered my consciousness, emanating from the pillars, the walls, arches, from the blocks of granite themselves. I don’t know how long I sat there, rapt, listening, as the flow coursed through me in a flood that grew in intensity. And all the while, this faint sound of music.

“Eventually, I became aware of being watched, of not being alone in my thoughts. I turned to see a strong young priest standing next to me, with a small and knowing smile.

’Elle chante, Pere,’ I said, ‘elle chante aujourd ’hui‘(‘She sings, Father, she sings today.’) His smile broadened, he nodded, and he went off down the aisle, leaving me with my thoughts. And on this day, Magdalene was singing, her very stones ringing with song.”

On this day - on the way to his death –  when they told him to silence his disciples, Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones will sing out” – and they still do!

+To watch the author to deliver this piece in its origina form as a sermon titled, "The Stones are Singing," CLICK HERE. +

Gordon C. Stewart is a social commentator, whose commentaries air on Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered and appear in print on MPR’s Public Insight Journalism, www.MinnPost.com, The Chaska Herald, The Chanhassen Villager, The Star Tribune and The Presbyterian Outlook. He is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn., and former Executive Director of theh Legal Rights Center, Inc., in Minneapolis. You can read more of Gordon's work on his blog, Views from the Edge.

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