ROCAMADOUR, FRANCE — For my niece Rachel, it was that magical summer between high school graduation and the start of college. I hoped our trip would be the beginning of a new set of memories, the adult life realized.
I had already treated a niece and nephew to graduation celebrations in Hawaii, but the islands somehow seemed the wrong fit for Rachel, a devout Catholic and, at 18, already a cancer survivor. She is a remarkable young woman, my sister Tina's middle child, who, even before her illness, had exhibited a graciousness that continued into adolescence, lifting her past the awkward it's-all-about-me stage into an early serenity.
With her oval, Italianate face and deep-brown eyes, Rachel looks as if she walked out of a Renaissance painting, and her faith may be just as old-fashioned: She credits St. Bernadette of Lourdes with her recovery. Indeed, her diagnosis bordered on the miraculous, discovered as the doctor searched for the cause of an unrelated condition.
Lourdes had to be on our France itinerary, but I was also intent on visiting Rocamadour, the home of a rare and mystique-shrouded Black Virgin, a place I suspected would be as spiritually charged, especially at this juncture in our lives, as Lourdes.
As the world worships the pleasures of Paris, it forgets that France is a Catholic country. Long before tour buses plied the French highways, millions of pilgrims were inspired to hit the road in search of miracles. Lourdes was the best known destination, but for many Catholics, the Black Virgins have also engendered their own devotion.
Some believe these darkly colored statues, scattered at sacred sites throughout Europe, are throwbacks to pagan icons. Others maintain they are simply statues carved from dark woods that have become blackened by candle smoke over time.
Whatever their origins, they are believed to act -- sometimes miraculously -- on behalf of those who seek help from the Virgin Mary.
Rachel, Tina and I were embarking on our own pilgrimage. We wanted to give thanks for Rachel's restored health, of course. But we also had a new twist in our family story.
A visit to Lourdes
We spent three days in Lourdes, whirling by thousands in scores of languages to bathing in the springs to marching in the nighttime candlelight processions. Then we set off.
We broke the 155-mile drive from Lourdes to Rocamadour at Moissac, a place that my art-history-loving heart was set on seeing. Moissac is home to a 12th century Benedictine abbey and church that boasts one of the most outstanding carved walls, called tympanum, of Romanesque art. I had been dazzled two years before when I visited some of the great Romanesque churches of Burgundy, including the one at Vezelay, so I hoped to be dazzled here again.
We pulled into the medieval section of the city on a Sunday afternoon, quiet but for the cafes tending to the small but steady trickle of tourists to the abbey. Our $7 entry fee gained us access to the cloister, where the carvings, like those at Vezelay, had sustained significant damage in the 16th century during the Reformation, with its tide of anti-Catholic sentiment. But unlike those at Vezelay, they had not been repaired, robbing them of some of their visceral power.
Still, I could clearly see St. Martin cutting his cloak in two to clothe a beggar and an angel of God returning the miraculously restored garment. In one corner, a moon with a smiling face was held aloft by two angels; its relation to a biblical passage was lost on me, but its bliss was not.
These carvings were examples of great storytelling. The people got their marching orders from these works, which told them how to live, and that charity would be rewarded and greed punished.
The tympanum over the main entry doors was in spectacular shape. As Christ listens to St. John's vision of the Apocalypse, rows of crowned elders sit at Jesus' side and below his feet, many with musical instruments, seemingly waiting to serenade the redeemed to heaven. I could have stared all day.
Inside the basilica were more reasons to bond with early Christian art. A brooding, majestic head of Christ from the original Roman altar was mounted on one wall. Tina favored the colorful carved-wood tableaux throughout the church, showing the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, Mary mourning over her son's body and Christ's burial.
We spent the night at Le Moulin de Moissac, the city's grand old hotel along the Tarn River. A garden-filled park runs past it, buffering it from the city, and the silence was deep, punctuated only by the calls of water birds.
We savored the large, high-ceilinged rooms, each idiosyncratically decorated. On the walls of my sister's room, several plastic sculptures celebrated the joys of winter sports. Mine had Asian motifs, seemingly done by the same artist who decorated the dining room, where we fortified ourselves at the large breakfast buffet the next morning.