There is a church, almost in the middle of nowhere.
I didn’t know about it till he showed me. Never knew it existed, but then most people don’t, I guess. We went there one gloomy day when the clouds loomed large overhead like they were about to spill burdensome showers on us. Maybe we needed to be washed clean from the drudgery of life? Maybe we needed a reawakening? The church beckoned.
It would have taken us 30 minutes to get there from where we were based, but we took a detour via L’Abbaye de Sylvanès; and we did actually pass a handful of people on the way. So it wasn’t really in the middle of nowhere. It was in the hameau de Pessales, on the outskirts of this beautiful village. The larger locality was Sylvanès, in Aveyron, France. It’s about an hour away from Millau, and 2 hours away from Toulouse.
Long winding roads seemingly go on forever as we drive through archways of trees and vast open grasslands.
We reach L’Abbaye de Sylvanès but it’s closed for a holiday. We try to peep in through the windows of the Sylvanès Abbey Church that’s famous for its Cistercian art and international music festival, but we can’t. After he told me about it, I wanted to see this 12th century Abbey church that was famous for its extraordinary acoustics and much, much more.
The clouds clear a bit. So we walk around and take it in, and as always I forget to take photographs. There’s a gate of a field nearby that seems inviting. It’s closed. He goes to see if there’s a gate at the other end. I climb over this one. He comes back and climbs over too. We walk through an open grassy space, reach into the woods and find a stream some way off. He takes my hand and we follow it till we reach a garden with cabbage and pumpkins so big, they look abnormal. He tells me it’s normal in France. We cross another hedge to a smaller garden and startle an old gardener who’s busy with her work. A hurried ‘Bon Journée’ and we’re off!
We find our way back to the car and start towards L’Eglise Russe de Prieure Sylvanès.
More beautiful open roads with hardly anyone to see, except for two hikers walking up these sloping hills. These mountains feel distinct and beautiful, even if they are just 11 minutes away.
We’re almost near there, and we pass the Musee Auguste Zamoyski which is also closed. It seems we really picked the wrong day to visit. But we find some brochures outside and we Google the infamous sculptor. It seems Auguste was born in 1893 in Russian occupied Poland, and contributed to the creation of a different ‘formist’ form of art in Poland. Auguste died in France in 1970 after living there for over 30 years, and although he isn’t well known in France, his widow Helene donated his collection of sketches and paintings from his house in Toulouse to the Abbey in Sylvanès.
Some of Auguste’s famous words were:
‘What I call ‘Art’ is this disinterested effort which seeks to render the absolute intelligible, to have us touch it, identify with it…’
We move onward and in a few minutes reach a fork in the road, one goes towards the Prieure de Sylanves which is also known as the Barn Priory, the home of the priests. We don’t take that road, because it’s where the priests reside. Instead we turn toward the Russian Church, a tiny spectre of wood on this great big planet.
We park at a stage that seems decent enough to walk up the rest of the gravel part. It’s a decent incline up and I slow down to start taking pictures. The clouds seem to part a little to let the light through, just perfect for me to take dark and dismal depressing pics. Maybe the overcast weather mirrors my emotions that day? Maybe it’s just nature’s way of balance. You can’t always have sunshine. He reminds me, I’m the one who loves gloomy weather, not him. I’m the one who loves rain and darkness and the sun hiding his face away.
He takes my hand again and we walk the rest of the way to the church. It’s simple and it’s beautiful. And it’s closed! This can’t be happening thrice in a day, but it is. Well, talk about blessings and luck and stuff like that. Anyways, we get back to Google, our ever present friend.
We read that the church was built in 1993 by farmers and artisans in the Kirov region of Russia in pure Russian tradition. It was then dismounted and transported by train to Millau station in Aveyron in July 1993, and put back together in the Pessalles forest by the same young Russians who built it, in camaraderie with the French.
And it’s a reminder that boundaries don’t exist, not really. There really aren’t different skin colours, or races, or countries, or kingdoms. We are all really just one people, we all came from one beginning, and we will all go to the same end.
The Egliss Russe was the brainchild of Father André Gouzes, who wanted to build a little log chapel in the mountains of his childhood, among the boxwoods and the oaks, where the views stretched on forever, and he could “look the sky in the face, in an eternity of praise”.
‘Je rêve d’un jour où Sylvanès étant définitivement assurée dans son avenir…
je pourrais monter plus haut dans la montagne. Il y a là, parmi les chênes et les buis, un léger promontoire de terre d’où la vue s’étend à l’infini, par-dessus ravines et forêts.
J’y bâtirais une petite chapelle de rondins, ouvrant sur la vallée…
Et là, comme aux plus beaux jours de mes onze ans où la beauté du monde étreignait ma poitrine et embuait mes yeux d’enfants, je regarderai le ciel en face, pour une éternité de louange ”
The church was built under the patronage of the late Father Serge de Beaurecueil who passed away on 2nd March 2005, and was buried right in front of the wooden church.
And it’s a reminder that things don’t last. Everything ends, even life. But the works we do, they live, the lives we’ve changed, they matter. That’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? Make your life matter, even if it is to just one person.
We go up the steps of the church and there are three bells. Maybe we’re not supposed to ring them, but there’s no one around, and he does. It lifts the spirit, gives more joy.
And there’s the other reminder, it’s the little things in life that are the most important. Hold on to the little joys; hold on the seemingly mundane, because in the end, that’s the real treasure.
Come back to the front of the church and the sun breaks through the clouds and smiles down on me; me, the one who doesn’t like my pictures taken, or me, the one who needs a dozen warped photos to get one good pic. He clicks a photo. There’s more sun than me and it’s perfect. That’s the pic on here.
We click other photos and they’re gorgeous, the sun playing with the clouds, and the rays of light bouncing off the roof of the church. Those pics aren’t on here, but they remain a part of my treasure trove long after we have gone our separate ways. I look at them now while writing this and remember him. Smile; wistful smile; learned smile. Ah life!
The church stands 27 meters in height and is made entirely of wood. You know you can tell the age of the tree by counting its rings. He does that. These logs are so large that I walk around to the other side of the church and come back, he’s still counting the rings.
I walk a bit of the way up a slope and come back after 10 minutes.
He’s still counting.
I walk around the back of the church and there’s a single bench to sit on. The view of the mountains and the trees is unhindered and open. I love it here and it reminds me that you don’t have to be from a place to be a part of it, to feel like your heart and soul were created for it.
I try to take a landscape picture, but it doesn’t do any justice. The sun will go down soon and it’s time to leave.
But then it happens. Not the rain again, but a light falling snow like a cleansing from heaven.
We lift our faces to the sky in thanks.
And there’s the last reminder this simple wooden church in the middle of nowhere gives me; travel to be thankful for all the things that otherwise seem commonplace; travel for all the experiences and the learnings’ that open your eyes to a new way of being; travel to find yourself, and travel to let go!