Thursday 17 November 2016

Houses of the Holy

Between 2006 and 2009 I studied for a Master's degree in Modern European History at the University of Manchester. I struggled a lot, if I'm honest, with the taught elements of the course. The baleful influence of Michel Foucault was all-pervasive, and the M.A seemed more concerned with Sociology, Critical Theory, Gender Theory, and all manner of post-1968 isms than with actual History. I was, however, treated like the adult I was and given carte blanche to develop my own historical interests, which resulted in my dissertation on spiritual, cultural and intellectual life in Vichy France. What has stayed with me most from my thesis is a topic which took up only half a page at the time but has blossomed and borne imaginative fruit within me since - the image of a house in particular, a house of redemption and hope, discovered, as if by magic, in the midst of hills and trees in the hidden, mystical heart of a conquered and divided country.


Pierre Dunoyer de Segonzac (1906-1968) was a French tank commander, so dismayed by the defeat of 1940 that he took matters into his own hands and established a school for a new generation of French leaders in an ancient chateau at Uriage in the foothills of the French Alps. De Segonzac, a monarchist by temperament, recruited a team of facilitators with a variety of political and religious beliefs but one shared faith in the absolute value of the human person and an awareness of how the facile slogans of Fascism and Communism were divesting the human person of his or her native depth and grandeur, reducing that precious, unrepeatable personhood to a one-dimensional caricature. Plus est en nous was the Uriage motto. 'More is in us'.

De Segonzac blamed Europe's slide into totalitarianism on liberal democracy and its impoverished understanding of what human persons need to live a fulfilled and complete life. The liberal order, in its materialistic assumptions, is unable to think in terms of faith, family or national solidarity. All these are marginalised or sidelined, leaving a vacuum which extreme ideologies are only too glad to fill.

The Uriage adventure began in December 1940 under the aegis of the Vichy regime, but as time ticked on De Segonzac became increasingly disillusioned with the growing German influence on Marshal Petain's government. In December 1942, shortly after Hitler's invasion of the Unoccupied Zone, he vacated the chateau with his team, dispersing into the forests and hills to join the burgeoning Resistance.

There is a story - I'm not sure now whether I read it in my studies or if it's the product of my imagination - that on the last night De Segonzac stood before his staff in the Great Hall in front of a roaring fire with a knife in one hand and the Tricolore in the other. He cut the flag - solemnly and sacramentally - into seven pieces, handing each colleague a fragment and vowing that after the war they would meet again in Paris and make it whole once more.

I don't know if they did or even, as I say, if I made the whole episode up, but Uriage has haunted my imagination ever since. There is one image especially which often recurs - a little like the lamppost of C.S. Lewis's dreams, perhaps - that of a young person - sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy - fleeing their home city, wandering lost in the countryside, searching for hope and inspiration, then, when all hope seems lost, stumbling by night on the house, rising out of the mist like the Grail Castle, moonlight glinting on the walls and lamps ablaze in its windows.

It is exactly this kind of house that C.S. Lewis portrays in That Hideous Strength (published in 1945, so also a child of the Second World War), with the community of St. Anne's on the Hill. It is a humble house and a small community, pitted against a mighty and inexorable foe - the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (NICE), installed in palatial surroundings at nearby Belbury. A battle unfolds in provincial England between archetypal Good and Evil. The men and women of St. Anne's are not nor never will be feted or even mentioned in the press. It is a secret battle, and this is a secret community, representing the hidden England, Arthurian England, the land of the Pendragon, Arthur's successor, the head of the household and head of the true, if for now concealed realm behind the nation of surface reality.

One thinks as well of the monasteries and remote religious settlements set up in Britain and Ireland during the fifth and sixth centuries as Imperial Rome collapsed into a patchwork of rough territories and embryonic kingdoms. Hermits like St. Kevin of Glendalough retreated to the furthest, most windswept, rain-beaten extremities of the British Isles to escape the world's chaos and live a life of silence, solitude and prayer. They didn't anticipate that people would follow them to these outposts. They didn't foresee the extent to which Britons would see such integrity in what they were doing, such depth of meaning and purpose, such models and exemplars of what human flourishing, both individual and communal, could be. They had no conception of how their tiny religious houses would play a greater role in preserving the best of the past and laying the foundations of the civilisation to come than all the armies and chieftains senselessly criss-crossing post-Roman Europe.

These are the houses which feed the imagination and plant the seeds of hope in a coming restoration of the Good, the Beautiful and the True. I see in my mind's eye a teenager - a girl or a boy - stumbling sometime in the future, after our current age has run its course, on a small stone church hidden in the woods. Inside it is dark, save for the candles and the blazing iconostasis, where, next to angels and saints, is the icon of a house. Moonlight glimmers on its walls, smoke puffs from the chimney and the rooms are aglow with lamps. Figures can be glimpsed through the windows, kneeling, reading, writing, talking or looking out onto the starry night. And above the icon, in big bold letters of gold, our teenager reads four short French words: Plus est en nous.

1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - Good stuff! I found Segonzac's obituary online in The Independent, which was written by that great scholar MA Screech, whose work I had already encountered. Clearly, a remarkable examplar (despite being French - although with the sense to live and teach in your home-town of Manchester, England!)