Breton Religion

[Excerpt from Jacques Delacroix’s book of memoirs: “I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography.” Delacroix is looking for an agent, a publisher, or some sort of non-venal help.]

The church, the café, and the saints

There was no not going to mass except for the schoolteacher who could only play his part as a soldier of the secular Republic if he was an atheist. Mass always played out the same way: The notables’ families had their pews upfront, reserved by brass-plate names. Other families sat on benches wherever else they wanted but the women tended to position themselves near the front of the church, with the children, and the men gathered toward the back, near the main door. This was before Vatican II and Catholic Mass was interminable in this very religious part of France. It was also mostly in what I understand to have been despicable Latin, with some bad Ancient Greek mixed in. The sermon was in accented French rather than in local dialect, perhaps in part for the benefit of the outsiders, including baigneurs like me. The priest knew pretty well of what kind of sins his year-around parishioners were capable. He may just have let his imagination run a little wild in connection with the sins of the lightly clad baigneurs. Hence, he probably surmised they needed his sonorous sermons more than did the locals whose sins were mostly a little boring to his mind.

As the service droned on and thundered in turn, some old men, all widowers, would slip out the back and cross the square to the café. Little by little, in groups of two or three, for strength and courage, other men would join them in order of descending age. The last ones to leave were newlyweds whose young wives kept an eye on them above their shoulders, young wives who still thought they possessed a vulgar means of retorsion against their husbands embarrassing them before the community. By the time of the “Ite, misa est,” the only adult men remaining, in addition to the priest, were the Count and his relatives. I supposed these retired then to the manor’s grand salon to sip champagne (or, possibly, whisky; they were terribly Anglophile, or rather, Britophiles), while the common men threw a last one down the gullet at the café to conclude the weekly conversation.

————–

Historically, the Bretons always distinguished themselves through their religiosity. They still do. In the French context, it seems especially intense and it takes peculiar forms. There is an important political background to the Breton attachment to religion. Rural Brittany, with other parts of western France, mostly resisted the 1789 Revolution with guerrilla warfare to the bitter end. In part, it was because the Bretons defended their traditional, concrete liberties against the totalitarian abstraction of “la liberté.” In large part they perceived the Revolution, mostly rightly, as atheistic. (There were other reasons I can’t go into here.) In short, they associated the loss of their local and regional freedoms with the militant godlessness of the Republic. The story of the Breton resistance to the centralizing revolution registered in my child’s mind just like any story. I could not attach any meaning to it at the time. Nevertheless, it stayed like frozen in my memory. It influenced my political understanding thirty or forty years later. It gave  tangible meaning to the virtuousness of political subsidiarity, to the idea that power ought to be exercised as close to those it affects as possible, at the lowest level.

This realization occurred not unconsciously but with the benefit of full adult lucidity. The counter-revolutionary experience of the Bretons, that I acquired second-hand, obviously provided a tangible counterpoint to the ever-present centralizing tendencies of the French Republic. (It’s a veritable ogre that devoured 55% of the French GDP in 2012.) The Bretons’ historical experience also helped me conceive of the abstract, difficult, counter-intuitive notion that it’s often best to do nothing and to leave people alone to solve their own problems.

Breton religious forms bespeak their decentralized view of the world. It continues to be expressed by a fervid cult of determinedly local saints that seems to have largely resisted the secularization of the rest of  French society. Or, perhaps, Brittany escaped secularization because the – intrinsically decentralized – cult of local saints provides a better anchor for religious belief than what the centralizing universalism, the catholicism of the Catholic Church had to offer.

——————

At any rate, the Breton cult of local saints made a lasting impression on my childish and adolescent mind. This is a little unexpected because I  progressed from religious indifference to being an unwavering atheist. I was raised a Catholic, as I have said, but in Paris, religion was kept almost entirely inside the church. In Brittany, there were calvaries, crucifix shrines at many or at most rural crossroads. Some were horrible steel-reinforced concrete affairs (with realistic re-barred thorns on Jesus’ head). Many calvaries however were humbly magnificent stone sculptures and often quite old. When I was sixteen, in severe need of pocket-money, and flirting heavily with delinquency, I broke into an isolated chapel late at night with a hoodlum buddy. We stole a forty-inch granite saint that was said to date back to the fourteenth century. The whole next day, I was devoured with remorse and we broke into the chapel again the following night to place the small statue back on its shelf. The attendant might have wondered why the saint had moved, ever so little, for the first time in centuries. It’s a miracle someone did not proclaim that a miracle had taken place!

I remember a particular granite calvary at the crossing of two tree-shaded minor rural paths that showed Jesus on the cross, flanked by two standing saints. One was the local patron saint. His nose looked like a leper’s because any young woman who succeeded in planting a pin into its hard stone so it held was sure to be married within the year. I don’t suggest that they believed this; they were not stupid. The practice may have helped relieve their impatience  in a situation where eligible men ran thin because of alcoholism and because of the call of the sea. Besides, it was fun doing this giggling with a girlfriend or two. The fact is that Paris girls did nothing of the sort and that they got married much later than the girls of Brittany. I am a steadfast rationalist but I don’t argue with facts!

© Jacques Delacroix 2013

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