Meditatio 4: A Castle in the Clouds
A Dream Come True
As a girl, I had long dreamt of living and studying in France, and my dream came true when I was accepted at the University of Paris, back in 1999. Seems like a lifetime ago! After a great many preparations and complicated logistics, I arrived in the French capital in the fall of 2000. Except for a few distant friends of my relatives, I didn’t know a soul here. Not one soul. The cold, lonely city felt even icier in the fall than the Canadian winters which were so familiar to me. It was a chill which I’ll always remember. It went straight through your bones. I also remember the greyness of everything: the greyness of the sky, of the buildings. The greyness of the people, the greyness in my heart... Would I make any friends here? Would I succeed at my studies? What did my future hold? I looked out of the window of the small room I rented, out over the slate-grey roofs of Paris.
‘...as I sat down by the bed and rested my head and arms on the pillow, a terrible oppression overcame me. All at once my position rose on me like a ghost. Anomalous; desolate, almost blank of hope, it stood. What was I doing here alone in great London? What should I do on the morrow? What prospects had I in life? What friends had I on earth? Whence did I come? Whither should I go? What should l do? I wet the pillow, my arms, and my hair with rushing tears...’1 That passage is from the 1853 novel Villette, by Charlotte Brontë. It is from a chapter titled Turning a New Leaf, which recounts the arrival in London of the lonely Lucy Snowe. Lucy’s feelings accurately reflect my own upon arriving in ‘great Paris’... She feels just as desolate as I did.
Memories Rush Back
But there was one antidote to my loneliness and actual terror. An antidote that isn’t afforded Lucy Snowe. It is while looking at photos on Instagram one day that I stumbled upon a few images that brought it all back to me extremely vividly: these were photos of the Château de Masseuil, outside of the Western French city of Poitiers. A beautiful, large castle boasting towers and turrets. The château de Masseuil, I read, has at least two towers dating back to the 15th century. A bed & breakfast today, it stands as an important witness to the history of Poitou-Charentes, where my aunt Diane and cousin Séverine now live. The ‘antidote’ to my ghostly existence in Paris was that of spending time with my cousin and aunt in and around Poitiers. It was the one comfort I clung to. I look through the images in the online gallery of the Château de Masseuil: a cup of morning coffee sitting on a table, ancient sculpted stones covered in moss, the bulk of the castle outlined against lowering skies...
Looking closely at the images, one of them stands out: that of two people strolling through quiet woods on the castle grounds. Suddenly, like a great river, memories rush back into my mind. Memories of walking with Séverine through the countryside surrounding her mother’s—my aunt’—house. Not that Diane’s large country house was a castle by any stretch of the imagination. But it was sufficiently grand to impress me, as a young woman. Furthermore, the image of the woods at the Château de Masseuil actually conjures up an atmosphere, an ambience, rather than a particular setting. It evokes the feeling that, in an important sense, autumn in the French countryside is so much more beautiful than autumn in Paris. It evokes one particular autumn afternoon... the memory of which floods back.
A Mysterious Figure
It must have been the autumn of 2000, during one of my visits to Poitiers. I remember the town, the surrounding countryside, so beautiful even this late in the season. As Séverine and I stroll through the naked woods, we chat, we laugh, we share memories and impressions and amusing little stories about our new professors, our new classmates. What a comfort it is to have a friend! The sky is low and moody today, but its greyness does not affect me here in the same way it does in Paris. Its moodiness, here, is not hard and steel-grey, but soft and poetic and beautiful. I am with a dear friend, and the slanting autumn light promises to teach us things even our professors cannot. We walk on, musing on our childhood, our teenage years. Séverine begins to talk about her father. I am a bit taken aback, as she rarely mentions him. He had died in a car accident many years before.
- I undertook my studies in law in part to honour his memory.
- I know. And he would be very proud of you.
My uncle had been a brilliant lawyer and also a historian. As we walk under the canopy of darkened trees, I wonder if I myself was not at least partly inspired to study history because of him. My uncle had always been a mysterious figure to me. He had seemed remote to me, as a child, in the same way that a country called France seemed remote. Later, as a teenager, I had wanted to chat with him about my budding interest in history, but something about his formal demeanor discouraged it. As I tried to make my way, years later, through French bureaucracy and the university system, I would come to miss him and could only imagine how much Séverine missed his guidance as well. As my cousin and I chat and laugh and cry together along this country path, I feel her father’s quiet presence linger on. It is a great comfort and seems to help us nurture anew a relationship which had been strained by time and distance.
The Old World and the New
The time and distance that separate Séverine and I seem a perfect symbol of the time and distance separating North America from Europe, the New World from the Old World. Though the impact of globalization has been cultural uniformization, there still exists a stark difference between the North American way of viewing its place in history, and the European way. In North America, the lack on interest in history paired with the destruction of Indigenous ways of life results in an absence of culture. Mass consumerism has filled the void. I have always suffered from this absence of culture, of beauty, in my native land. One could say that the beauty of the natural landscapes makes up for it and that is true to some extent. But not entirely, as we have defaced and degraded to a great extent these landscapes as well... I believe our lack of aesthetic refinement, of aesthetic sensibility and understanding is a result of that failing.
These days, I feel increasingly restless, troubled by this lack of understanding. I search for beauty and, with a few exceptions, I cannot find it here. What I can find is the consolation of connecting with others. It seems to make up for the lack of beauty , in some ways. I need to share, to connect, to bond with family, with friends. To connect with you, my audience. It is a spiritual exercise that complements another: the exercise of letting myself feel the pull of the past as a way of finding and reclaiming the center of the soul.
A Castle in the Clouds
My walk with Séverine on that distant autumn afternoon through the French countryside has come to symbolize these two means of communication: the power of connecting with kindred spirits and with living history. My cousin and I stroll on along the wooded path. There is a stiff breeze with a touch of winter in it. It brushes through our long hair, makes us shiver a bit. Suddenly, we pause. We stop walking.
I remember the complete, utter silence which envelops us. The silence which envelops you in dreams. Have I dreamt this up? Was this vision a real part of our afternoon stroll that day, long ago? This vision of a beautiful old building, a castle, its windows glinting in the mid-day sun. Could this ‘castle in the clouds’ have been the Château de Masseuil? I don’t know. It is too long ago. Yet the image is as real to me as if I had just now stepped onto its grounds. Though we are near the village, there is total silence. I have never experienced anything like it before. Nor have I ever heard or read anyone accurately describe the silence that one can hear in the French countryside. We pause and listen. It is the silence of a myriad past lives. A constellation of lost histories. It is the silence of eternity. A truly transcendent experience.
The Center of the Soul
I have noticed that when we experience a transcendent moment, we realize that we have found, or located, the center of the soul, as if the whole of life, or existence, is revealed to us in an instant: past, present and future. Our search for meaning answered in one flickering, timeless moment. We stand outside of time and place. We feel completely serene, grounded, whole. We walk on, trying to hold onto that feeling. Suddenly, an ancient church or manor house or castle looms ahead of us, at the end of the path. Somehow, it feels like home.
This is how I imagine our stroll through the naked woods of what might very well have been the Château de Masseuil. The fact is, my visits in the ‘campagne poitevine’—the countryside in Poitou-Charentes—grounded me when I needed it most. My experience of this lovely region made me understand the actual reasons I had travelled so far to study history in the first place. I had travelled this far to touch the past, the eternal, to experience a sense of connection to history. To experience a truth which I could not find at home. This was home to me. I store away this feeling, as I travel back to Paris to pursue my studies. It is a challenging time for me. But now I feel secure in the knowledge that I can always come back here, to this secret, sacred home.
Come discover the art collection, Treasured Heirlooms, which the Château de Masseuil inspired!
Learn more about the Château de Masseuil here: