It seems I have not posted in over a year, not for any lack of insight or desire to, but rather out of the inertia of wondering ‘why?’.
I recently came across this excerpt of writing I did some years ago from a trip to France I took as a student and it spoke to me in a voice that felt unrecognizable to my own although I knew it to be mine. Reading it felt like a gift from a past self to my present self, a new affirmation of the many iterations I have embodied on the journey of my own becoming. And because of this finding it felt like a sign, re-orienting me towards a path I’d forgotten to see through, like a little light shining in the distance.
For a space meant to evoke faith in those who visit it, the Gothic cathedral in Narbonne is a striking example of a religious space that truly embodies the tensions of doubt in the very desire to have faith at all. While identifying as a reluctant “believer” of Catholicism myself, I’ve often found solace in an old church where it seems as though the building exists, despite the passage of time, because of the faith of the believers that visit it. I can’t help but empathize with all the people who over centuries have sought refuge or answers for the sorrows of their life under the arches of a catholic church. However, a space that halted its grand Gothic construction in the thirteenth century, the unfinished Narbonne cathedral stands as a testament to a great fall of faith. Not built beyond the transept, not-so-coincidentally the most powerful spiritual aspect of a catholic cathedral, speaks more to a revelation of doubt, than the fear that the cathedral would collide with the medieval city walls that constituted the permanent arrest of its construction.
The building remains one of the tallest cathedrals in France though its aimless flying buttresses prove it to look more like the ribs of a carcass than the seams of a cathedral. Never have I experienced a space that felt more haunted, perhaps for the faith that it was robbed eight centuries ago. Religious objects were left gathering dust as though the highest value that could be placed on this quasi-cathedral was that of storage for discarded and forgotten religious props. The space felt like a gigantic tomb resembling, the ones in Père Lachaise (on a much larger scale) as though the body of something living had once inhabited the space but had overtime decayed to dust. The stained glass, like the building itself were also left incomplete; leaving a dissonant, unresolved narrative to the life of Christ. The amount of unfiltered light streaming in from the cracks between boards of the empty windows bleached the cathedral with a bright and unforgiving glare. “Where is the hope for the devotion-less?” I asked myself over and over in my mind. How does one find affirmation of life when the resolution of human suffering is left out, or in catholic terms, when resurrection is forgotten in the story of Christ? If one can’t believe in hope, what is there left to believe in?
I wondered what it would be like to attend catholic mass in this cathedral that was missing what made it, by religious standards–sacred but by any other human standard was terrifying and divine. How beautiful would it be to see the skewed pews of the Narbonne cathedral filled with the faithful? To see the devoted flooding the structure despite the self ruin and decay, disregarding the vacancy of visual religious affirmation, but who would come with hope and pray in the reality that god is not something we can see but a presence that lives within the very people who seek him. A space with the potential for faith and the true attempt to seek it, brings me more hope than any garishly dressed cathedral with religious reputations of faith.
What was perhaps so haunting about the unfinished cathedral in Narbonne was its permanent incompletion; all attempts for finishing the structure were halted and never attempted again, creating rather than a testament to religion, a ghostly tomb holding within its walls, eight centuries of omniscient-stillness in the face of great doubts.