by Ruth Lively
In the Minervois region in southern France, an ancient Romanesque chapel sits by its lonely self in the midst of a grove of pine trees. The formal name of the chapel is St-Germain-de-la-Serre, but locally it is called simply Saint-Germain. The word serre refers to a topographical feature, and can be translated as ridge or chain of hills. The building is sited in the foothills of the sprawling Black Mountain, so it is well-named. Anglicized, the name might be St-Germain-of-the-Hills, which has a pretty sound to it.
Saint-Germain was built in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was once a village parish church, but the community it served has completely vanished. Inside is an earthen floor, and a small stone slab table that stands in the apse, where an altar would stand. Although no longer used as a place of worship, it is a wonderful place to worship — to pray, to meditate, to give thanks, and to sing. I can attest that it is a lovely space in which to hear Dona Nobis Pacem sung in rounds, or to sing Be Thou My Vision in two-part harmony.
Nowadays, Saint-Germain is used occasionally as a place for small concerts. Several years ago, it was electrified, and now is kept locked, but local residents can borrow the key from the mayor’s office in the nearby village of Cesseras, 2 kilometers away, and tour the chapel on their own.
Visiting Saint-Germain is off-limits to me now. But I find myself going there in my mind. If I sit still and concentrate, I can conjure the pungent, aromatic odors of the local landscape. I feel the wind and hear it soughing through the pine branches. I turn the big iron key in the lock – it grates a little – and I feel the heaviness of the thick wooden door as it swings open. Stepping inside, I inhale the dry earth smell of the floor, and that particular odor of old stones. This is a place of peace, of tranquility, of quiet.
Saint-Germain has stood a thousand years, and by grace it may stand a thousand more. I think about the generations of people who worshiped here, who married, baptized their young, and buried their dead from this holy place. Doing so helps me understand that I am part of an unbroken line of followers of Christ.