Oh the Places You’ll Go: Chartres, Notre-Dame and Charlotte

Reflections from Dr. Howell

For many travelers, the cathedral at Chartres is the greatest of them all. Simon Jenkins calls it “the celebrity capital of the Gothic age.” You see it at a great distance, so you can feel like a medieval pilgrim making your way across the meadows. Lisa and I brought our young children there, and as we stepped off the train, we glimpsed the cathedral’s soaring spires, just a third of a mile from the station.

But… (there’s always a “but” when travelling): we’d been led to believe the car rental place was at the train station. Yet when I inquired, it turned out to be two miles away. Three little weary kids, luggage for five of us: what to do? I got everyone to sit while I jogged to the car rental and returned to pick us up and get to our hotel. Travel always has these stressful moments – but then the recollection of the stress fades, and you remember the glory of the place.

Chartres is impossible not to enjoy – although as we “enjoy” it, I wonder about medieval pilgrims who came there, not as sightseers armed with cameras, but in pursuit of healing from their troubles. Chartres boasted a grand relic: the robe Mary wore when Gabriel announced she would bear God’s son. Surely Mary could work a miracle or two for you?

The west façade is clearly the “front,” but the north and south transept would do just fine as the “front” of any other church. The buttresses here are the first I ever spent a lot of time with. What a feat of engineering: to realize the weight of high walls, especially with gaps for windows to emit light, could only be sustained by these winged supports, beautiful themselves. In my mind I drift to Notre-Dame in Paris, where the buttresses (as Simon Jenkins perceives them) look like massive oars sticking out of the great ship of the church – especially picturesque as Notre-Dame is situated on the Īle de la Cité! And then Winston Churchill’s remark, admitting he wasn’t a great churchgoer, but claiming to be “like those buttresses that support the church, but from the outside.”

I love the statues of Old Testament heroes and French royalty carved above and around the portals, just stunning. A framed photo of Abraham and his son Isaac over the door hangs outside my office. Abraham, Moses, Samuel and David not only fulfill an Old Testament-ish function of showing us the way to the climax of God’s history with us in Christ; they are among our Communion of Saints, waiting like ushers at the door to greet us and to remind us what we are about to do in worship isn’t some new-fangled innovation, but is as old as time, trustworthy and enduring.

The beauty of the exterior is easily exceeded by the glory of the interior. The stained glass creates colorful light amid the darkness, so that the walls genuinely glow. So much serenity. Robert Barron suggested that “the cathedral was an icon of the sacred, a bearer of the mystery of God – an avenue to another world” That avenue, the road you take, is surprisingly in the very floor of Chartres, although most people walk right past – right over it! – without noticing.

Back in the 13th century, a labyrinth was cast in limestone into the floor of Chartres cathedral – and it’s a big labyrinth, 40 feet in diameter. The word “labyrinth” (outside church) means a complicated, irregular network of passages, a maze, where it’s hard to find your way out. I shiver even to think of the hedge maze at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining

In Christianity, and even before Christianity, a labyrinth is a meandering path on a floor or the ground that people take toward a center, a spiritual practice of walking, deliberately, slowly, meditating, praying, and meditating some more. My friend Kathy Mansfield calls it “an embodied prayer,” a physical, full-bodied meditation, the gradual movement symbolizing our journey toward our true center, God. “The deepest part of the soul likes to go slow, since it seeks to savor rather than to accomplish; it wants to rest in and contemplate the good rather than to hurry off to another place” (Robert Barron). In medieval times, people who wished they could make the arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem but simply could not due to wars or personal circumstances found in the labyrinth a thoughtful substitute.

Did you know we have a beautiful labyrinth in Francis Chapel in our church in Charlotte? It’s actually a modified version of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, but smaller, with 7 circuits versus Chartres’s 11. It’s a soul-expanding spiritual practice, walking the labyrinth. And how moving is it that when we trace our steps along our labyrinth here, we are united with Christians both now and in the Middle Ages in Chartres – and so many other places around the world!