This morning I accompanied Camille’s class on a field trip that I just cannot imagine happening in my somewhat WASP’y corner of Canada. Once we kitted the little ones out in their warmest hats and scarves (it’s cold here today) we trundled off to visit the Carmelites of Beaune, and to learn about their tradition of venerating Baby Jesus.
Camille was quite sure we would be seeing a real baby, and not being an expert in catholic matters, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect either.
At the entrance to the nunnery we were warmly welcomed by Soeur Bernadette, sporting a brown wool cassock and heavy wooden cross around her neck. She ushered us into the Carmelities chapel where, at the end, in a gilded gold glass case (strangely reminiscent of an Snow White’s coffin stood upright, I thought), was the statue of the venerated Baby Jesus – or “L’enfant roi” as Soeur Bernadette referred to him.
The statue was basically a rather grubby looking wax baby doll propped upright, decked out in a shining gold brocaded dress and heavy crown like the kind worn in the old Imperial Margarine commercials. When I pointed at him and told Camille that this was the Baby Jesus we had come to see she looked confused.
“Him?” she asked.
I was surprised to learn from Soeur Bernadette that the statue, or doll as I couldn’t stop thinking of him for some reason, dated back to the 16th Century. Subsequently the Carmelites of Beaune had created a cult of veneration around him, and prayed to him on a daily basis.
I overheard Michele, the teacher’s assistant, whispering to another parent. “My mother is convinced that my son is alive today because of this statue.”
“Oh?” the woman said.
“When he was born he was having a terrible time breathing – he almost died – but my mother came here and prayed to l’enfant Jesus. She is still sure he saved him.”
“Oh my,” said the other mother.
“Personally, I think it was more likely the doctor,” added Michele wryly.
Logically I agreed with Michele, but part of me still felt comforted by her mother’s belief in a miracle. When life serves us a whopper of a problem, and strips us of any choice or control in the matter, isn’t it nice to be able to do something? Asking for the help of a higher power and relinquishing the problem to them, even if the higher power takes the form of an ancient baby doll in drag, seems to me to be a singularly sane reaction.
Next we were taken into a side chapel where a huge manger scene was set up. The children sat on little wooden benches and admired it with wide eyes. There were not only the usual suspects; Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus (with golden wings this time), and the three wise men, but also a flock of Carmelite nun figurines and several local peasants with miniature wicker baskets full of plastic bread rolls.
Many of the statues were also very old, dating back to the 17th and 18th Century, and most were fashiond by the Carmelites themselves.
Soeur Bernadette talked about the manger scene for a bit and then asked a few questions.
“What baby did Mary have in her tummy?”
“Jesus!” Camille answered with confidence.
“And on what day was Jesus born?”
“Noel!” answered Camille again, trimuphant. I flushed with pride.
I had not anticipated it, but I am finding that having the girls at a Catholic school and learning about faith has made me question many of the notions I hold about religion. Basically up until now I felt very estranged from organised religion of any kind. I am not sure if this comes from being skeptical by nature or from the fact that I grew up in a society where being a born-again Chrisitian has only slightly less stigma than being a crack addict. Probably both.
But the longer I am here in France, untethered from my home, I realize that having faith; in yourself, in love, in the people you care about, in Buddha, Nature, or even a gold statue of Baby Jesus, is key to finding some peace in this life. It seems to me that it’s not the object of the faith that is important, but rather the act of believing in something bigger than ourselves.
So I for one am glad that my girls are learning to believe in something – Jesus and Mary and the Angel Gabrielle in their case – even though I would also respect their choice to reject these beliefs as they grow older.
Before we left, the teacher had the children sing “Voudrais-tu Marie” to Soeur Bernadette. The song recounts how the angel Gabrielle asks Mary if she wants to carry Baby Jesus in her stomach. I realized as I followed the sweet little voices of Camille and her classmates that sometime during these last few months I had memorized the words.