From: Pilgrim Road
To get to the city of Poitiers from the train station, I climb a long staircase that zigzags up the cliff behind which the town is presumably hiding. Out of breath at the top of the stairs, I find myself gaping up at the marvelous twelfth-century church of Saint Hilaire le Grand. It’s named after Saint Hilary, bishop of Poitiers in the mid-300s, who wrote with deep insight about the mystery of the Holy Trinity and who successfully fended off the Arians by showing that Jesus was truly divine as well as truly human.
A fifteen-minute walk through some thoroughly nondescript old streets brings me across town to a tiny but very venerable building that lies partially buried in the center of a busy traffic circle. This is the baptistery of Saint John, the oldest Christian structure in all of France, dating from about AD 290.
During my walk, I can’t help thinking of a day in September of 1356 when the good citizens lined the tops of the town walls to watch the Battle of Poitiers. The vastly outnumbered English army crushed the French forces and headed for the coast, dragging with them as their prisoner the French king, Jean II, who was to fetch a hefty ransom.
I now find myself standing in the plaza in front of the city’s jewel, the church of Notre-Dame la Grande. Across its twelfth-century façade, fourteen carved saints stand solemnly in their niches, forever frozen in neat rows on either side of the central window. The paint that once enlivened the stone figures with bright colors has long since worn off, and the twelve apostles’ features have weathered into a certain gray sameness that gives the whole group a pleasant unity.
Beneath this collection of saints, a strip of smaller carvings of Bible stories stretches all the way across the façade. Toward its right-hand end I can make out scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary after whom the church is named. One of these catches my eye. What is she doing? Could it be? Yes! Here, in full view of staid, historic Poitiers, surrounded by the twelve apostles and two other saints, Mary of Nazareth is giving her baby a bath!
Saint Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, had doggedly defended the doctrine that Jesus was God, yet here the Divine Word stands hidden to his little waist in a big bathtub with his mother holding him up by the arms. Actually the image of God getting shampoo in his eyes doesn’t shock me. After all, we Christians meditate daily on far worse things than that happening to Jesus. No, what unsettles me is the idea of Mary getting splashed.
I’ve visited many of the great museums of the Western world, and I’ve thumbed through books of Christian art for decades, so I think I know how this is supposed to work. Mary is to be found praying in her room, or kneeling in awed adoration beside the manger. She weeps in silent dignity at the foot of the cross or sits in marble coldness holding her dead son on her lap. She rides on the clouds of Heaven or is crowned by Christ in glory. At her most undignified, she’s sometimes caught riding a donkey. But I’ve never seen a picture of Mary getting the washcloth thrown in her face or grabbing for the bottle of baby oil just as the Christ child is about to toss it into the tub.
As I watch, Mary lets go of one of the divine wrists to push a few stray hairs back under her veil; the baby takes quick advantage to reach down with his fat little hand and slap at the water. His mother, naturally, gets splashed full in the face – a treatment familiar to millions of mothers before and since. With a look of startled surprise, she stares down at her soaked dress. Clucking her tongue in mild exasperation she tries to grab the slippery arm before more damage is done. I notice for the first time how much the squirming little boy looks like his mother, especially around the mouth and eyes. Her futile attempts to capture the offending arm quickly become a playful contest between mother and baby, and their laughter carries across the church plaza. Delighted with the new game, he slaps a fistful of bath water up at the dignified Saint Peter who is standing nearby holding two big keys. By this time all the saints in their colorful robes are looking down at the scene and laughing. Peter is roaring with delight as he dries off the keys to the Kingdom.
Suddenly the façade is gray, lifeless stone again. What have I just seen? It must have been some devilish delusion. Surely Mary, whom the litany calls, “Tower of Ivory,” and, “Ark of the Covenant,” Mary, the queen of Heaven, never put on an apron, rolled back those flowing white sleeves, and gave her baby a bath!
This simple little scene in Poitiers is a powerful reminder of a basic Christian principle, and one central to Benedict’s vision: the bath is sacred because God is present there. We should expect to bump into God in just such ordinary places. A God who can fit into a baby’s bathtub can surely fit into a kitchen, a classroom, an office, or a shopping mall.
My train leaves in half an hour, and it’s a long walk back to the station. Reluctantly I turn and head across the plaza. Just before rounding the corner I sneak a last quick glance over my shoulder. There are the apostles, standing stony and stiff again. There is the blessed mother in the lowest row, off to the right, still giving the Son of God his bath. But I swear her dress looks wet.
Part of the conversion experience is an increased awareness of the divine presence all around us. Take a few minutes to sit quietly in your kitchen, your bedroom, or your work place. Do you feel the presence of God there? Don’t try to force the experience, but just relax and ask the Lord to speak to you in that place.
Do you really believe that when you’re bathing the baby or filling out your income tax forms you are answering your unique call to holiness? During this holy season ask the Lord to help you experience your state of life as your personal and unique path to holiness; ask for the grace to see Jesus as he walks with you on each step of the journey.
Sacred Scripture (Matthew 13:54-57)
And coming to his own country Jesus taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him.
Rule of Benedict (Chapter 31, “Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarers,” v. 10)
The cellarer will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.