PILGRIMAGE: Arles, France—Letting God Shine Through by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Arles, France—Letting God Shine Through by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

I park my rented car in a lot near the ancient Roman arena in Arles and set off on foot through the narrow, picturesque streets.  This delightful town of gray stone buildings and orange tile roofs was once the starting point for the southernmost of the four great pilgrimage routes through France to Compostela.  It is best known though, for its well-preserved Roman ruins.

Located at the delta where the Rhone empties into the Mediterranean, Arelatae, as the Romans called it, was once the second capital of the Roman world.  The partially restored amphitheater and the coliseum-like arena are both still used for special events today.  Their immense size and sober dignity are a pleasant contrast to the lighthearted spirit of present-day Arles.

It was in a college art class that I first saw pictures of the lovely carved portal that graces the front of the church of Saint Trophime, one of the great treasures of Romanesque architecture.  This morning I’m finally going to be able to just stand there and marvel at it with my own eyes.  Then, right beside the church, there will be the famous cloister garden, the most beautiful one in southern France.

Arriving at last in the wide, stone-paved Place de la République, I immediately turn to my left, toward the church of Saint Trophime.  After a wait of more than thirty years, I am finally able to stand here in person and look up at – four stories of scaffolding!  The famous carved Romanesque doorway is completely hidden behind ugly panels of corrugated steel!  I stand and stare in angry disbelief for a few moments, and then, heavy with disappointment, I shuffle halfheartedly into the church.

Since it’s not yet nine o’clock in the morning, I have it all to myself.  I sit and pray for a while in the quiet glow of the early sun beneath towering twelfth-century vaults topped with rounded Romanesque arches.  My guidebook calls the interior “the high point of Romanesque church architecture.”  I turn the page and look wistfully at a color photograph of the famous portal that I won’t get to see.  It’s a set of pillars arranged like a triumphal arch, symbolizing the entrance of the People of God into the Heavenly Jerusalem.  It includes beautifully carved stone statues of saints and, in the semicircular tympanum above the main doors, the famous scene of “Christ in Judgment.”  I have to admit that even in this flattering photograph the whole thing is blackened and filthy with the soot of centuries.  I imagine how glorious it will look after a good cleaning.

I walk out of the church through the forest of scaffold pipes and plywood panels and back onto the plaza.  A few yards to the left, I step through a gate and into Saint Trophime’s cloister garden.  I sense right away the gentle peacefulness of the place, a sort of timeless hush, as if the pewter-colored stones were absorbing all the sounds of the world.  I follow the arcaded stone walkway that surrounds the square patch of bright green lawn.  On two of the four sides Romanesque columns with squat little sculptures on the capitals support rounded arches.  Along the other two sides the pointed gothic arches display carvings that are more intricate and elegant.  The cloister garden keeps the easy quietness it had when the canons of Saint Trophime, who followed the Rule of Saint Augustine, used this as their place of meditation and prayer.

I sit down on a stone bench and take out a photocopy of a Latin sermon written by Caesarius of Arles, a favorite saint of mine.  I’ve brought it all the way from my monastery back home just so I can sit here and enjoy it in the town where it was written.  Caesarius was bishop here for forty years around the year 500 AD, long before this church or cloister were built.  He had been a monk of the monastery of Lérins on the island of Saint-Honorat near Cannes, but then was sent here to Arles to be its bishop.  He became famous as a preacher, a theologian, and a saint.

I unfold the pages.  As I start to read the sermon, which has traveled so far to come back to its home, a gentle breeze rustles the leaves in some nearby shrubs.  As usual, Caesarius’s Latin is not the richly ornate language of Augustine (which I find too hard to read), but is deliberately simple and homespun, intended to reach the common people.

This sermon turns out to be on one of his favorite subjects: the dangers posed by “little” sins, those trivial faults that are a normal part of daily life.  One reason they’re dangerous, the bishop argues, is that we are in a battle with an enemy; there’s no room for letting down our guard.  People who figure that they’re safe because they don’t have any grave sins are likely to get overconfident.  “It is exactly at this point that they get seriously wounded because they are not expecting the attack.”

“Some of you,” Caesarius continues, “are misled into thinking that just because you never do anything evil, God will surely judge you worthy of everlasting life.”  I think of the elegant carving of Christ in Judgment that is hidden by the workmen’s scaffold.  “Well, let me remind you of Jesus’s parable about the last judgment: the tree gets cut down and thrown into the fire not for bearing bad fruit but for bearing no fruit.”  In other words, if you haven’t been about the business of bearing the fruit of love and forgiveness then you’d better start right now!

Caesarius shows his characteristic impatience with people who are satisfied with just being “pretty good,” who have made a friendly truce with their daily faults and petty vices.  I squirm a bit on the hard bench as he brings up the example of Ananias who was struck dead for holding back just a small part of what he had promised to give to the Lord.  God isn’t interested in having most of what I have – God wants it all.  I remember another sermon, in which the monk-bishop points out to some monks how illogical it is to give up all the pleasures of the world in order to follow Christ in the monastic life, and then, once in the monastery, be only lukewarm or half-hearted about it.  Before being appointed a bishop, Caesarius had been the “cellarer” of the monastery of Lérins, in charge of distributing supplies and daily necessities to the monks.  Some say he was removed from that job because he was too strict in dealing with his brethren.  After reading his sermons, I can believe it.

Blackbirds dart and swoop in tight circles, playing an irreverent game of tag above the dusty orange tiles of the church roof.

Caesarius’s relentless demands for holiness, however, spring from this fundamental optimistic belief: we are made in the image of God.  The image is often tarnished or caked with layers of “parvas negligentias quotidianas,” daily little faults.  After years of neglect, it can get to be so covered over as to be unrecognizable.  I think of the blackened portal of Saint Trophime nearby.  Removing those layers and letting our true self shine through takes constant care and the regular practice of prayer, penance, and almsgiving.  I may be satisfied with leaving a little dirt on the image, but my bishop friend clearly is not.  He would remind me that I can do much better – after all, I am the image of God.

When I finish reading I fold up the pages of the sermon and tuck them back into my knapsack.  Reluctantly, I stand up and stretch, squinting into the warm summer sun.  I say a quiet good-bye to the gray stone arches, the lush green grass, and the tranquil silence and then step quietly out of the cloister garden.

Back again in the busy Place de la République, I pass in front of the scaffold hiding the church; I hear the voices of the workers who are painstakingly removing centuries of dirt.  After several more months all of the images on the façade will be restored to their original beauty, thanks to the thorough cleaning.  Yes, I think to myself, Caesarius would definitely approve.


The Rule of Benedict urges us “to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.”  What are some things that are covering over the image of God in you?  How might certain Lenten practices help remove them?  Pray that you may live in such a way that others can see the image of God in you.

Sacred Scripture (Colossians 3:9-10)

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 49, “The Observance of Lent,” vv. 2-4)

We urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.  This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.

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