Walking, and praying, in the hills of Provence

Low Life

31 Mar 2016

While I was in Provence, my hostess and I went out one day for a walk in the hills. We walked for three hours and didn’t encounter another soul, and apart from a couple of blue-tits, nor did we see any wildlife. At one point we came to an old stone monastery chapel perched on a ledge with aerial views of forested hills and mountains stretching away to the horizon and not a sign of the 21st century visible. Architecturally, the chapel exterior was simplicity itself, suggesting a holy order of utmost austerity. My hostess had been here before, she said. In fact she makes a point of coming up here and visiting the chapel if ever she feels low or troubled. She wasn’t particularly religious, she said, but she invariably senses something in the atmosphere of the chapel’s interior that never fails to move her, sometimes to tears, and she always leaves with a changed mind. The heavy wooden door was not locked. I lifted the latch and we passed inside.

Closing the door behind us snuffed out the light. For a second or two I thought we were in pitch darkness and hesitated to move forward. But as my eyes made the adjustment, I took in pews and railings separating them from an inner sanctum. On the far side of the railings was a solid, plain wooden table. A large wooden cross was suspended above the table on black wires. The bare walls were windowless. A small, concealed window somewhere high up and off to the left allowed in just enough weakened daylight to see by. Candlesticks on the table supported thick candles with tall, unwavering flames. The chapel interior covered the same area as a tennis court, roughly. We groped our way into a right-hand front-row pew.

She sat. I knelt on the wooden kneeling rail and rested my forearms on the back of the pew in front. For the last two hours we had been walking in the open air and nattering cheerfully as we walked. But this sudden, rich, centuries-old silence and the darkness seemed to isolate us from one another, and once the entertainment value of these theatrical new surroundings had worn off, I found the atmosphere intimidating. I was wondering whether I ought to ask her what time the bar opened, or something similar, when I became conscious that my hostess was snorting back loose mucus and fidgeting about in a distressed manner, and seconds later I felt her rise and stumble past me, and heard the door open and shut.

Even thinking about making a joke now seemed a bit crass. I closed my eyes and tried to pray for my mother, who is undergoing a last-ditch, risky surgical operation in a few weeks’ time. I prayed first dutifully then passionately. Then I heard the click of a door latch in the inner sanctum, and an ancient nun, spectral in a long, snow-white habit and this extraordinary, butterfly-shaped headgear arrangement, came shuffling in behind a Zimmer frame. She moved the Zimmer forward an inch at a time and followed it with a fast shuffle. Her progress was agonisingly slow, her determination great. As a spectacle, it was captivating, even enthralling. The rattles and squeaks of the Zimmer frame and her shuffling footsteps were amplified by the stone walls and floor as though via a sensitive microphone and expensive digital sound system. She appeared to be heading towards the table — a distance of about eight yards — but her resolve was more than sufficient to carry her on to Jerusalem or Rome.

Yes, she was definitely aiming for the table. But what was she going to do when she got there? Blow out the candles? Would she have enough strength? Finally the amplified phantasm arrived at the table. Without pausing, she reached inside her habit, produced a soft cloth and briskly and rather prosaically dusted the surface. When she had finished, she replaced the cloth inside her habit and, gripping the table edge with arthritic hands, sank very gradually and painfully down on to her old knees. Gravity took over for the last inch or two and the excruciating noise of bone on stone echoed from floor to ceiling. And there she remained, directly facing me, an ancient French nun, silent and still and magnificent, in contemplation or prayer. If she was conscious of my presence at all, her atmosphere, I felt, signalled total acceptance of me and of the world as it was arranged at that moment.

I closed my eyes again and prayed with her. I prayed first dutifully then passionately that West Ham would take Manchester United to the cleaners in the FA Cup fifth round replay in a fortnight’s time under lights at Upton Park, and that I would be vouchsafed a ticket. Then I rose and went outside to find and console my hostess.


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