France – La Chaise Dieu

A faded sky dappled with white clouds, among which wanders an autumn sun, who seems scarcely to have made up his mind, as yet, whether he is not a mere reflection of that moon which still is shining in the west. Up, up we climb among the woods, where blue pines gleam from out the October mist, and each silver birch is spangled with diamonds and emeralds. Here we find the mountain ash growing, as it was intended to grow, wild and unnoticed, its glowing berries the only touch of warmth in this high region. And everywhere beneath, the trees are exquisite little cushions of moss, on which, at night no doubt, fairies come to sit and gossip, with tiny limousines over their flower garments, for it is cold up here in the mountains.

Moment by moment the view opens, the valley far below carpeted with verdure, the distance shimmering with the iridescent colours of a sea shell. On the very loftiest point of all we find La Chaise Dieu, or Casa Dei, as Saint Robert named the great monastery he built in these mountains of Auvergne.

He had been Canon Treasurer of the Monastery of Saint Julien of Brioude, but found the rule too lax for his very sensitive conscience. So, together with two monks, old family retainers who had followed him into religion, he came and settled himself in this wild mountainous district. It was the eleventh century, that epoch when to found a religious house was looked upon as the most glorious of human attainments.

And indeed who shall say what this part of France owes to the influence of the great Benedictine Monastery of La Chaise Dieu? The abbey has almost disappeared. Were the three monks to revisit the mountain, they would be almost as uncomfortable as they were on their first coming, when they had to live in the ruins of an ancient and abandoned chapel—but what can equal the magnificence of the church itself? Shall we stop on the vast fan-shaped stairway leading up to it, and look at the glorious fourteenth-century facade, with the statue of the good Saint Robert, standing modestly outside the door; while La Robertine, the only survivor of all that rich peal for which La Chaise Dieu was noted, sounds the Angelus? Entering the nave, whose ,sombre beauty suggests some great royal vault, we will make our way to the chapel beneath the rood loft, where the dead body of Saint Robert, after being washed in wine and sewn up in the skin of a stag, was buried on Nth April 1067. Here it was that the miracles occurred, till at last the crowd of pilgrims became so vast, that the ” noise and tumult of the sick coming to ask for health, and of those who went away healed, was such that it was only with the greatest difficulty one could hear oneself speak.” These disturbances, at length, became unbearable; the elders of the monastery, fearing for the devotion of the monks, begged Saint Robert to ” cease his wonder-working, and trouble divine service no longer! ” And there is the wondrous. choir, where, in his tomb of black marble, Pope Clement VI. was laid to rest. The monument must originally have been magnificent, surmounted by its carved canopy, round which were grouped the statues of all priests with whom the Pope had been associated during life. But much was swept away at the time of the Revolution. Some even say that the skull of the Pope was disinterred, and used as a drinking vessel by the Republican soldiers. To-day his statue lies alone, still and venerable on the black slab. And around hang the wonderful tapestries, which for hundreds of years have covered the walls. There is a strange painting, too, of the uncanny Dance of Death; and magnificent carved stalls and organ loft. And on the south side of the chancel, beside the very altar on which Saint Robert’s wooden cup used to stand—the cup taken as a charm to the Crusade by Raymond, Count of Toulouse—is the battlemented door, leading to the fortress of the abbots of La Chaise Dieu. They called it La Tour Clementine, after Pope Clement VI., though it was built by the Abbot Andre de Chanac. In time of war, the abbot and his monks could there take refuge, and even sustain a long siege, for they had their granaries, their well, their corn mill, their ovens, and every other necessary. It is, in fact, Le Chateau de la Chaise Dieu, and as it bears the name of the builder of much of that great Chateau des Papes d’Avignon, which we hope soon to visit, we must stop and notice how this tower, and indeed the whole building, resembles the Palace of the Popes.

But my readers must see La Chaise Dieu for themselves. I can never satisfactorily picture it in words. As we make our way toward the cloisters we keep stopping. What is this great flat stone with a hole at the end? The sacristan tells us that it was on this slab the dead monks of the abbey were laid, to receive the final washing. How many great Churchmen have been exposed here? Perhaps even Saint Robert himself, and more than probably Queen Edith of England, who, after the death of her monkish husband, Edward the Confessor, came all the way to La Chaise Dieu to be healed by Saint Robert of a leprosy with which she was afflicted. Whether the treatment did not agree with her, I cannot say. At all events, though professing to be perfectly cured, she certainly died shortly after, and now lies buried in the choir, where you may see her tomb. Darras, in his ” Histoire de l’Eglise,” gives a picture of this Queen, which may interest my English readers:

” I have often seen the pious Queen Edith when I went to visit my father, who was employed in the Palace. When she recognised me coming out from school, she would question me about the lessons I had learned, the Latin verses I had composed, and above all, as to the logical thesis, for she was very learned. Then she would take. pleasure in engaging me in some abstruse argument, and finally, laughing at my confusion, give me three or four crowns to console me.”

In this abbey, too, during the time of his exile, dwelt Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. It is alleged that it was he who brought the famous tapestries from Canterbury to this place. It was probably here that he received the message from Henry I. recalling him to England, after the death of William Rufus. There is a curious story, by the bye, told of Saint Anselm while at La Chaise Dieu. A storm arose one day, and the barns of the monastery were struck by lightning, so that a fire broke out.

” All the monks,” says Darras, ” had hastened to lend their assistance. I remained alone with Saint Anselm, who seemed as though unable to break off his meditations. After sometime, however, he looked up and asked whether the fire had gone out. ` Far from that,’ said I, ` it is more violent than ever, even threatening to consume the abbey.’ ` In that case,’ replied he, ` we must certainly protect ourselves; ‘ and he added, with a smile, this quotation from the Latin poet: ` Tunc tua res agitur, paries cunt proximus ardet ‘ (when one’s neighbour’s house is on fire, one must think of one’s own). And, rising, he went to the place where the fire was raging, stretched out his right hand and made the -sign of the cross, when immediately the flames died down, as though stilled by some supernatural power.”

As we reach the door, we pause to picture the last great scene which took place at La Chaise Dieu in 1786. Prince Louis de Rohan has been appointed abbot, and is on his way to La Chaise Dieu to take possession. But his reputation has preceded him, together with the story of the diamond necklace; and on his arrival he finds the abbey doors barred against him. We can picture the rage of the haughty prince. But in vain he stormed and threatened—he found himself helpless before the stern morality of these Benedictine monks, and had to retire to the little house his people hastily built for him to the north of the facade.

When we left the church, it was already so late that we had to hurry over lunch, and start off once more through the forest. All along the road were teams of splendid oxen, drawing tree trunks; every time we met them we had to slow down, while the driver mesmerised the great beasts, laying his wand on the wooden bar fixed across their horns, when slowly they slouched away to our left, and made room for us to pass.

At Saint-Paulien we found a curious old church with memories of Saint George, the Apostle of Velay. And so, as the afternoon was deepening to evening, we came upon the home of that brigand race, which, for many centuries, levied blackmail on the pilgrims going to Le Puy. For a while the trees hid the grim fortress. Then suddenly they ceased, and we looked out over an immense rolling plateau, which, toward the horizon, broke into the great mountains of Velay. And in the midst, close at hand, as though thrown up in a jet from the infernal regions, or wherever the old bandits originally came from, the ,huge black rock, with the square solitary tower, which is all that is left of Le Chateau de Polignac. Behind, I saw sprouting up other jets of rock—Espely, with its castle; the rock of Corneille, with the great Virgin of France; le Rocher d’Aiguille, capped by the strange chapel to Saint Michel; and Mont-Anis, bearing the great Cathedral of Notre Dame du Puy. For a moment we paused to gaze at the matchless view, then, with every brake on the alert, began sinking and gliding down into the valley. And as we descended, the rocks grew steeper and steeper, till, on crossing the bridge, we found them towering above us in the evening sky, as amazing as some landscape seen through the eyes of Baron Munchausen.