Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Aug 1, 2019
Angoulême is the largest city in the region where we’ve been staying. Over the last few days Gilles and Nicole have been showing us around. We’ve explored the Château de La Rochefoucauld and Sers. We’ve also visited a bunch of other places. Here are a few of the most interesting:
Also known as the International Comic Strip Museum, the Musée de la Bande Dessinée is located near the SNCF (high speed rail) train station. We saw a temporary exhibition on the relation between fashion and comic strips. I learned that Yves Saint Laurent made a graphic novel prior to ascending to the height of the fashion world.
The museum’s permanent collection is pretty neat too. It portrays a history of comic books (with a French focus) from the mid-19th century through the present day. As someone who was raised on Tintin comics, I appreciated the large selection of Herge’s work, much of which highlighted his early efforts at using the beloved boy reporter as a propagandist for reactionary politics and brutal colonialism.
The other big museum in town features three floors of art and artifacts that stretch from the Neolithic to the present day. The collection highlights local artists and history. The historical materials are the most intriguing part. They stretch back to perhaps two hundred thousand years before recorded history and include everything from Neanderthal and early homo sapiens skulls to surprisingly complex tools from the Iron Age.
Looking at the menhirs and (virtual) dolmen on display was something of a spiritual experience. There’s a kind of emotional resonance, maybe I should call it awe, that I feel when I think about the ancient human urge to create systems of meaning. These giant stones were used for ritual purposes. I suspect that these rituals served much the same purpose that rituals in a contemporary Unitarian Universalist (or any other faith tradition) congregation serve—to enable people to feel part of something larger than themselves.
The middle floor of the museum is basically a tribute to French colonialism. It has a selection of beautiful pieces from North Africa, Central Africa, and Oceania that I can only assume were acquired under dubious circumstances. The top floor is dedicated to local artists from the fifteenth-century to the present. The work is almost entirely banal.
Far more impressive is the view of the roof of the Angoulême Cathedral that the upper floors afford. Standing on the inner stairwell, looking through the clear glass windows, I got an excellent view of the various gargoyles that line the roof. They were exquisite and almost certainly worth a trip to the museum on their own.
This space for art and ecology is run by Gilles and Nicole’s friend Catherine Mallet. Les Modillons is located in a beautifully renovated early nineteenth-century farm about 20 minutes outside of town and regularly features exhibitions by both local and national artists. Gilles exhibited there a few years ago. The gallery space is hands down one of the most beautiful gallery spaces I’ve ever been in. It’s in a converted barn, built in 1818. The rafters and original stone have been preserved throughout. For those looking for an excuse to visit to France, Les Modillons offers residencies for artists and environmental activists.
These are two local cognac distillers. We visited Les Freres Moine our first full day in Sers. We visited Le Maine Castay on our last. Le Maine Castay is managed by a close friend of Gilles and Nicole’s. They get much of their produce from his garden and most of their meat from his farm as well. He gave us a tour of the cognac facilities. It was on a different scale than Les Freres Moine and principally provides cognac to the big cognac brands that they blend, bottle, and sell. I saw massive wooden cognac barrels and learned that a single one contains about $360,000 worth of liquor. I also learned that making cognac is dangerous work. Every year a couple of people succumb to the alchol fumes and fall into a big vat or barrel and drown. We learned that this happened to one of Gilles and Nicole’s friend’s neighbors last year.
After our tour we were invited back to his house for dinner. It was a beautiful stone building. My son played with his cats and I got to drink his homemade pineau alongside some of Le Maine Castay’s champagne. We were introduced, in French, to some of his friends and family as “the Americans who don’t speak French.” I can understand enough French that I was able to more-or-less follow the French conversation. Everyone was incredibly friendly. It was a great last evening in France after a wonderful three weeks. Tomorrow we’re off to London. I plan to write at least one more post on France as we travel from Sers to Angoulême (by car) to Bordeaux (by train) to London (by plane).
Jul 29, 2019
This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.
We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.
About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.