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We'll Always Have Paris PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 17:19
I have felt a bit overwhelmed by the challenge of sharing some of what I learned about the great French revival of the 17th century during my week as a wanna-be scholar in Athens, Ohio.

First of all, Dave made me read tons about the dark days that set the stage for the generation of saints and the profound religious revival that marked France and especially Paris for 150 years. That meant the Eight Wars of Religion that racked France for 36 years. Massacres, siege, famine, civil war, mob lynchings, reigns of terror, and some of the nastiest diatribes ever written. Oh, and real albino friar assassins. Dominicans. Hmmm.

Dave told me that the relentless grimness was one reason he had never been able to bring himself to read Reformation history. A convert from evangelicalism, he couldn't stand reading about Christians doing the unspeakable to one another in the name of Christ. (So he specialized in World War II Poland and ethnic cleansing instead which is mostly about Nazis and Communists doing the unspeakable to the ideologically and racially impure. I don't know as how I count that as an improvement.)

The fascinating thing is that many 20th century historians of the period don't take religion seriously as a motive. It had to be a cover for economic or class warfare, political motivations, power grabs, etc. It is the most recent generation of scholars, writing in the 80's and 90's, who have insisted that as uncomfortable as it makes us - 17th century Frenchmen and women were truly exercised by religious questions and driven by religious feelings. And this startlingly anachronistic working assumption that France and the French were essentially non-religious people also permeates our popular culture.

I realized as I read that I had a powerful, unspoken image of Paris, nurtured by innumerable films and stories, as a cheerfully amoral and irreligious place where style in living and the arts, food, and sex are recognized as the center and purpose of life. (Think of Professor Henry Higgens declaiming: "

"The French don't care what they do actually as long as they pronounce it properly."

The Myth that is Paris seems to run like this: When Americans want to get out from under our bourgeois, work-obsessed, dour, joyless Puritanism; when we want discover our inner passion, artist, and cool; we go where an irresistible sensuous tide will carry us - guiltless - away and tutor us in the arts of living. We, like Audrey Hepburn or Anne Hathaway or Gene Kelly, go to Paris. Mere morals are helpless to resist the sensuous force that is Paris.

So it was a bit startling to grasp how uneasy the Maurice Chevalier of American films would have been in intensely religious late 16th and 17th century Paris. That Paris would easily give early American Puritans, 16th century Spain, and Islamic Mecca a run for their money in a contest for most religious culture. For 100 years, Paris was one of the most religious cities on earth.

Paris was the Catholic bastion in France, the center of Catholic resistance in the Wars of Religion. For six years, Paris was run by a radical branch of the ultra-Catholic Holy League. Penitential Eucharistic processions filled the streets of the capital for months at a time. Parisians endured months of siege and starvation rather than accept a Protestant king. It was the intransigence of Parisian Catholics that ultimately forced the Protestant heir to the French throne, Henry of Navarre, to become the Catholic King Henry IV. (And no, Henry never said "Paris is worth a Mass." The quip that launched a thousand bad histories was coined by ultra-Catholic propagandists who insisted that Henry was not capable of conversion. More on that later.)

Over 60 new religious orders were founded in the city in the first half of the 17th century. And the majority of these new religious were contemplatives who lived very rigorous and ascetic lives. Parish was the center of the Catholic revival that ultimately transformed the entire nation.

So the next time you hear Humphrey Bogart say "We'll always have Paris.", remember that Paris has not always been the seductive, religion-free, symbol of our escapist fantasies.

More as I have time. I must finish preparing for the Stewardship Conference talk next week. It was fun telling Fr. Mike this morning (as i dropped him off at the airport) "See you in Munich." Now that's something I've never been able to do before!

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