Brittany: Where I’m from

Before going to Rome where I am expected on January 10th, I made a detour to visit my family in Brittany, France. This gives me the opportunity to tell you a bit about the region of Europe I come from before taking you to Rome.

Brittany is a region with a cultural identity quite distinct from the rest of France because it was an independent duchy for a long time before being annexed to France in 1532. Even though Breton is now spoken by only 200,000 people because of the pressure of Parisian cultural hegemony and forced cultural assimilation policies, Breton culture still stands out in music, cuisine and conviviality. I will surely have the opportunity to talk about it in another blog or even share some recipes!

Like the Welsh and Irish cultures, Breton culture and language are Celtic in origin (the only Celtic culture left on the continent!) but it  has been strongly influenced by many others, beginning with the Latin and Roman one. Christianity in Brittany is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, but it is also marked by its Celtic heritage. If you want to know more on the subject, we recorded a class on Celtic Christianity at St. Esprit. I explain a little how this way of being Christian has marked the Breton landscape.

In addition to Catholicism, there is also a small Protestant presence in Brittany, mainly in towns like Rennes. Often born from the Protestant Awakening in the 19th century, these communities are generally flourishing and bring together Christians of all origins. Anglicanism is also represented in Brittany by a small community of English expatriates. They have a few churches, notably in Dinard, a former seaside resort where the English have been coming as tourists since the 1830s. These Anglican communities (called chaplaincies and belonging to the Diocese of the Church of England in Europe) have hardly ever had missionary ambitions and this continues to this day. They only offer services in English.

St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Dinard, Brittany

All this to say that my native Brittany is quite different from Rome where I am about to go! This difference does not necessarily appear when you look at Europe from the United States, but it nevertheless testifies to the diversity of the European continent. I think this will be key in my experience of Rome : there, I’m expecting to find many familiar things but also to be unsettled by notable cultural differences. 

Commissioning : like a bridge

Voilà ! The hour of departure has arrived, or rather the time of being commissioned. Below is a link to the service at the French Church du Saint-Esprit in New York City during which I was sent on mission. St. Esprit is my home parish, the one that sponsors me through my discernment process and consistently supports me through its prayers and contributions. The Christmas season is a great time to leave a place I “know”, like New York, to begin a journey to a place where God and the Church are calling me to serve. Christmas is indeed the season when Christ journeyed from heaven to dwell on the earth building a true bridge reconciling both shores.

On one of my last evenings in New York, I took a stroll along the East River. It’s a walk that I really enjoy. The East River is not a river but a sea-way, it is the smallest width I know between two shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and a stone’s throw from St. Esprit! Since I have known St. Esprit and its neighborhood, I have always found this walk heartwarming. The Rev. Nigel Massey, our rector, introduced me to it one evening after a long day of work. I can spend long minutes staring at this ocean inlet. When you’re on this side of the East River, the other side of the Atlantic feels so close and at the same time so difficult to reach. At least, that’s what the imposing 59th Street bridge suggests: if you need such a massive bridge, crossing mustn’t be easy! This walk and this view embody well what agitates and troubles me, the tensions which flow through me as a Frenchman and  a Breton having lived in the United States and on the point of returning to serve in Europe. The tensions of being in this world without being of this world are tensions that all Christians share. Crossing has never been easy for anyone. I know that this crossing experience is not uniquely my own. I share it in common with many of our parishioners at St. Esprit, and many recent immigrants to our diocese, who have left a part of themselves – their families or memories across an ocean; in Africa, Europe, or Asia. It is also a gap that is so present and yet so continually forgotten in the United States: the fact that most people who live in New York have in  one way or another crossed an ocean in order to get there. When I look out at this view, I tell myself that what is impossible for men is not impossible for God, and one of the most powerful signs that he gave to his people is precisely that of bringing his children from one bank to the other, without their drowning or even getting wet.

When I cross the Atlantic, it is never in a trivial way. There is always something going through me and this time more than ever, because I carry with me the voice and the memory of those who sent me. I don’t know yet what the other side will be like because I will be approaching it at a different place than usual. During this little stop on one of the banks of the East River, in the wind, a song came back to me that comforted me a lot and reminded of the miracle of Christmas when “laid himself down” in the crib for us :

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Sail on, silver girl

Sail on by

Your time has come to shine 

All your dreams are on their way

See how they shine

Oh if you need a friend

I’m sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will ease your mind

Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1970