Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Reflections on a sojourn in Switzerland: Time, Friendship, and Faith
It’s hard to conceive of Switzerland without thinking of chalets, cheese, chocolate, cleanliness, and clocks. There are indeed chalets with their wide roofs and elaborate exterior wood carvings. However, La Chaux-de-Fonds, the town in which I stayed, is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture and design. Cheese was plentiful, and is essential for traditional dishes including raclette and fondue. Switzerland is a chocolate lover’s dream: grocery stores offered every kind and flavor of it. And then, cleanliness. An acquaintance once told me that her mother instructed her to clean the house as if Jesus were to visit. Whether the Swiss believed the same or not, homes were impeccably clean and tidy and subject to regular dusting and arranging. Messiness was simply unimaginable. If cleanliness is next to godliness, the Swiss meet the criteria.
And as for clocks: When I spent two weeks with a friend in that historic watchmaking town, it was well-nigh impossible to not be conscious of time. Clocks were everywhere, on public buildings, in the window displays of watch shops. The museum of horlogerie showcases a dazzling display of all kinds of timepieces: miniature painted pocket watches, an outdoor carillon clock, talking clocks, a Turk on a flying carpet clock, and numerous other timekeeping devices. Several of the large timepieces featured the figure of the Grim Reaper, a memento mori of the ephemeral nature of life. At one time, the three churches in the town center all rang their steeple bells on the hour and the quarter hours, but they did not ring in synchronicity. One church’s bells would stop only for the second to begin ringing, and the second barely ceased before the third began. It was a real challenge for anyone in the neighborhood around them to sleep amid that joyous cacophony.
My friend and I were always rushing to catch a train or a bus, which depart exactly on schedule. Our pattern alternated between rushing to catch a bus and relaxing once we got to our destination. Taking buses marked my days there: buying the ticket at an automated machine, verifying the departure time, waiting expectantly, greeting and being greeted by the driver, getting off at the station to continue by foot or transfer to a different bus. One must be mindful that stores close at 5:30 on weekdays and are closed on Sunday and often during the lunch hour, making for a sense of sabbatical, for employees as well as customers, as well as creating the need for advance purchases of food and supplies.
Legend has it that, due to the long cold winters, the people of La Chaux-de-Fonds, primarily farmers, needed an occupation and additional income during the winters. Watchmaking was a natural fit. Many a family had a small atelier within the home for watchmaking, with space for the cabinet and tools. Farming and watchmaking are both unglamorous activities, however much one might want to glorify rural life and skilled manual labor. There was no running water in the town until the late 19th century, the occasion of which is commemorated by La Grande Fontaine in the city center, a fountain in which a group of sculpted turtles spew water.
I met with a group of Swiss Quakers my first Sunday there, at the home of a hospitable Quaker family. We chatted over tea, held a Meeting for Worship, and had a lovely meal, seated cozily together at the long dining room table. The meeting for worship was also a memorial meeting for a French Quaker who had recently passed away. Because there was no Quaker meeting close to her home in France, she regularly attended meetings in the Suisse-Romande. She was remembered with joy and affirmations of her service and lovingkindness. And, in vocal ministry, Sigrid, a serene and articulate Friend, presented us with a query: what is the role of a single snowflake in the development of an avalanche?
I visited the town’s synagogue, an architectural gem inaugurated in 1896. I was moved by the First Testament verses painted on the domed ceiling, translated to French, such as “Tu aimeras l’Eternel ton Dieu de tout ton coeur de toute ton âme de tout ton pouvoir” (Deut 6:5). I was awed by the stained-glass windows, embellished with geometric designs; I marveled at the wooden benches with tiny drawers in front of them for storage.
I visited churches also. On the fifth Sunday of Lent, I went to an ecumenical service dedicated to the environment, which was hosted by Temple Saint-Jean. Priests and ministers from three churches prayed and read scripture. A rustic loaf of bread was passed among the congregants for Communion. The sermon was delivered by a Malagasy who spoke about environmental degradation in his homeland. Scientists now say that there are no forms of life not affected by climate change. What can our humble prayers and actions do in the face of environmental disaster?
On Palm Sunday, called Dimanche des Rameux, (officially Dimanche des Rameaux et de la Passion du Seigneur) we went to Mass at Sacre-Coeur. It is a breathtakingly beautiful church, ornately decorated with stained glass windows and murals, but with some modern touches. The service began outside at one of the side doors with the distribution of branches in baskets—not palm branches in this case, but those of plants native to the area, apparently boxwood. The priest blessed the branches, sprinkled the congregants who carried them with water, and invited the congregation to enter through the main entrance, suggesting that we proceed in the spirit of the people greeting Jesus into Jerusalem. During Mass, I heard the familiar scripture verses and prayers, albeit in French. We rose, sat, and genuflected on the hard wooden pries-dieu. The church body reflected the cultural diversity of the town: Swiss, Italians, Portuguese, Slavs, Africans. Most wore their Sunday best; a few wore jeans. Among the Africans, the men wore dashikis, the women colorful gomesis. The priest read the traditional Palm Sunday Mass; a soloist with a hauntingly beautiful voice sang; we recited the Our Father and the Apostles’ Creed; we gave each other the peace; the congregants filed up to take Communion. There were poor acoustics in the high-vaulted church, so it wasn’t possible to hear well, but my Catholic upbringing served me well in following the words and the movements. As a benediction, the priest invited us to go out into the world taking our faith and practicing it in our lives.
The French Mass was only one of several that day: other Masses in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as a French/Italian Mass, would follow. As I read the Bible in various languages, it occurs to me that the words of Scripture, as translated into different languages, open up new understandings. For example, in French, disparition is said rather than death; siècles et siècles rather than forever and ever. I am reminded that the living Christ speaks in all languages and cultures.
After Mass, we walked out of the cool church into the bright noonday sun. As we walked, we passed others carrying their branches, sensing unspoken solidarity. My friend and I stopped to have pastries and coffee at a café, and we set our branches on the side of the table. Later in the day, I was stung by the realization that we had left our branches there. We were too far away to try to go back to retrieve them, and our brief moments of visible witness were gone, as well as the opportunity to decorate the home with them.
I struggle with the concepts of crucifixion and resurrection. I believe in the historical Jesus, but I don’t accept the notion of substitutionary atonement. The Abelardian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion comes closest to my understanding: the cross as example. I can also envision Holy Week in metaphorical and symbolic terms. Regardless of the theological underpinnings of my Christology, I have realized that living as a Christian is the most conducive way to a virtuous life that I can aspire to, and that my life is no longer my own but is meant for service.
In this day and age, people shy away from blood in its elemental and sacral significations. People talk about blood pressure and heart disease easily, but not about spiritual malaises and cures. Moses blessing the Hebrews with blood to confirm the covenant (Ex 24:8) and ordering the Hebrews to mark their doorposts with lambs’ blood (Ex 12:23) seem very far removed. Yet, there has to be a crucifixion for there to be an Easter.
We learned later that day of the two Coptic churches in Egypt that were attacked, and saw harrowing graphic images of the aftermath on television. That was real blood that was shed in Tanta and Alexandria, not metaphorical blood. My friend said to me that, while at Mass, it had occurred to him that intruders could enter the church and launch an attack upon the worshippers. For many Christians, this is an all too real fear. He warned me to be careful when I attend churches. Correspondingly, it was real blood that was shed in Libya in February of 2015. The defilement and destruction of ancient churches and monasteries and killing of priests in Syria is an attempt to rip away the heritage of Christianity and to spread fear.
As Easter approached, chocolate became ever more present than usual. A grocery store featured the slogan “Easter will be so cute.” There were huge displays of chocolate in all shapes and sizes, in forms of tiny chocolate eggs, chocolate chicks emerging from candy eggs, to enormous Easter bunnies of various designs, including soccer Easter bunnies. Chocolatiers displayed fantasies of spring-themed baskets of fine confections. Clearly, for many, as elsewhere, Easter is a loosely observed Christian holiday-cum-spring fecundity festival, with the rabbit, the chick, and the egg as its avatars.
The chocolate industry, whose value is estimated to be in the range of 60 billion dollars, is dominated by multinationals. The growing and harvesting of cacao are extremely exploitative of the workers, including child laborers, and of the land, particularly in western Africa. The growing and harvesting of cacao are rife with human rights violations including human trafficking and slavery. Many of the child cacao laborers have never tasted chocolate.
The question is not merely whether our Easter table groans with excess or moans at its sparseness. It concerns also whether we can worship freely or in secret, whether we suffer for our beliefs, or even die for them. If Jesus’ blood was shed, was it not for all?
During my final days in La Chaux-de-Fonds, I had the privilege of meeting a little boy named David, who had celebrated his ninth birthday the previous week. He hastened to tell me that he was “going on ten.” I remember how, as a child, I was always eager to reach the next age mark, not realizing that time was running away from me even as I ran towards it.
David wants to be a fireman, and loves to draw with colored pencils. The subjects of his drawings are slightly different from those of boys in the past—cartoon characters and superheroes have changed in a generation. But a boy is still a boy, with a boy’s exuberance and openness. He happily allows me to teach him how to play Scrabble, and he unabashedly scrapes the bottom of the fondue pot for the crunchy religieuse.
Prayers for you, David, with your greenish-brown eyes, your gap-toothed smile. I pray that some of your dreams come true, that your life will include many challenging Scrabble games, much fondue, many Christmases and Easters. Keep scraping to the depths, David of today and David of the future. Keep digging for acorns waiting to be discovered. May you always be at liberty to worship in a church, a synagogue, or a temple.
I have realized that I need to take the graces that I am given, and not be hungry for more. When love is given, I can take joy in it; when it is not forthcoming, I should accept the lack. Sometimes the present moment is intolerable, as much as the idea of living in the moment is bandied about. I cannot meet all the lacks and needs which confront me, nor can all of mine be met. Is it possible, ever, to do no harm? Is it possible to live a life without inequitable relationships? I want to clasp each passing moment, and then let it depart. When must I hasten, and when must I ignore the clock? I think often of my friend John’s words: God’s time.
I am grateful for the Palm Sunday branches and the fuchsia-colored carnations in a vase in the kitchen. I am grateful for the pigeons, the sparrows, the crows, the oiseillerie. I thank God for mountains and shimmering lakes, for giddy laughter, and even for tears: tears that tell of love, loss, and memory. I remind myself to call forth memories, not only of my own life, but also of those who made our memories possible, who forged our civilization and kept it alive. I am thankful, above all, for love and friendship.
According to Swiss Quaker Henri Miéville : “Toute méditation qui augmente en nous l’amour est par là-même, un acte religieux, une prière.” (Every meditation which increases love within us is, in itself, a religious act, a prayer.) The train whistle is blowing, and trains are ever arriving, ever pulling away. Remorse for the wrongs done, regret for the needful things left undone, and the good that rests between, are all wrapped in the fold of the infinite.
The quotation by Henri Miéville appears in Swiss Quaker Life, Belief and Thought. Edited by Erica Royston and David Hay-Edie, Switzerland Yearly Meeting: 2009.