Ruins to ruins

While French cathedrals are empty and silent, French Muslims are alive and vibrant. 
Kevin Ryan | 7 December 2009
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Many years ago, on a trip to Europe, my wife and I took visited a recent excavation site of a Roman villa. In our tour group an elderly couple tried bravely to climb the rocky, uneven steps and keep up with the rest of us. Out of their hearing, a wag nodded back to them and whispered, “Ah, yes. Ruins to ruins.”

As the decades have gone by that once hysterically funny comment has become increasingly unfunny. However, it has not lessened our itch to drag ourselves from hearth and home off to inspect unseen parts of the world. Recently, I had a severe case of what my wife has named RHS, for Restless Husband Syndrome, and we took ourselves off to France.

The travel of married couples, like all things marital, is a matter of compromise. Our compromise is that I get to eat, drink and people-watch from sidewalk cafés to my heart and stomach’s content and she, a culture-vulture of the first order,
gets to drag me to “important places of interest”. Along the way, it seems we together inspect the insides of many and varied stores. (One upon a time, before the dollar surrendered to the euro, we actually shopped, but that is now just a memory.) The most obvious result of this marital compromise is that we see the insides of many churches and I go on a diet when we return. My waistline aside, what was so striking was how empty the churches in France are.

Whether in Paris or the small towns and cities of Provence in southern France, the situation was the same. The churches were either locked up or open for the picture taking tourists. But even the open churches seemed to have but a handful of tourists. On the two Sundays we visited churches there were Masses. The small congregations of the elderly and young children were huddled around the altars and dwarfed by the towering columns. While the churches, large and small, seemed to be in physically reasonable condition, what kept running through my mind was Shakespeare’s line, “Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang”.

The exception was the great Parisian cathedral, Notre Dame with its flying buttresses and jutting gargoyles. Notre Dame was filled with energetic and babbling tourists, wandering around and ignoring the many signs forbidding flash cameras. Here and there, though, was a quiet figure trying amid the flow of gawkers to commune with the Creator. Among the more restrained visitors were a surprising large number of hijab-wearing Muslim females. They alone among the wanderers seemed to be aware that they were in a holy place.

These days the words “awe” and “awesome” are somewhat debased. However, they regularly sprang to mind as we would enter small towns only to encounter at its center a towering church, a place of worship the townspeople of four or five hundred years ago had built “for the honor and glory of God”. Typically, the church was the work of four of five generations of townsfolk. How they constructed these soaring columns and gigantic domed ceilings staggered my small store of engineering knowledge.

What really challenged understanding is the magnitude and intensity of the faith that inspired and drove the work to completion. Of course, a town’s or city’s churches were in those pre-electronic days the heart and mind of the community, the hub of both civic and spiritual life. Nevertheless, the indifference with which these great Christian monuments are being treated is heartbreaking. To be amid a few dozen worshipers in a magnificent, soaring ceilinged place of worship on a Sunday morning is finally to grasp what “post-Christian” means.

This sense of change and historical shift was dramatically brought home in Avignon, a completely walled Provence city, which in the 14th Century was the home of six popes. After touring the castle-like papal residences and the city’s splendid cathedral, we dragged ourselves to dinner. As we were leaving the restaurant, we heard the noise of car horns and asked the owner if he knew the reason. With a rather blank look, he informed us that moments ago Algiers had beaten Egypt for the right to represent Africa in next year’s Soccer World Cup.

As we walked out to the sidewalk, the streets literally exploded with roaring cars and trucks packed with young Algerians screaming at the top of their lungs at one another and at the watching bystanders. Horns were blaring at ear-splitting volume. Rockets and firecrackers flew from car windows. From at least every other car there was a huge Algerian flag or an Islamic banner with a green crescent and star. There were so many cars that quickly the traffic jammed and the young French Algerians ran from car to car shouting at one another in sheer joy.

The automobile caravans brought to mind the spontaneous celebrations I witnessed in my suburban New York village at the end of World War II (yes, I am that old!), but it was a sedate event compared with this outpouring of intensity and energy. Clearly, these young French young men and women have deep and alive Algerian roots. While the celebration was loud and long, going on for a good four hours, it was, by and large, joyous. The gendarme sat in their cars, observing, but ready. And as the honking motorcade roared past the older citizens, passively observing from cafés and a street side restaurants, these newer French seemed to be sending a message. “We are here. And here to stay. It is no longer your Christian France. Get used to it”.

Not long ago, a sociologist opined on the future of Europe with this image: “In just a few generations, Europe will be a quaint theme park for the Chinese”. He was commenting on the population facts that so many EU nations have replacement rates of 1.2 to 1.5 children per household when 2.1 is the minimal to maintain the demographic status quo. We witnessed the counter trend that night on the streets of Avignon, a trend that is increasing seen throughout Europe. It is the new, overwhelming Muslim arrivals from North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey who are laying claim to Europe. They are young, believe in family and are ready to re-populate Europe. And they are building mosques. It is doubtful that they will maintain the vacant cathedrals and empty village churches.

Sadly, more ruins.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu .
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