The Worst of Times: My soul had withered: Wendy Perriam talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN I was 18, it seemed I'd made a total mess of my 18 years, because I had lost my faith already, I had rejected Catholicism; I had to, because there were so many things I could not accept.

I was ignorant of any other religion or outlook, it was as if by losing the Catholic faith I had nothing else.

So I was in a dark, depressed state of mind, because until then the whole point of my life had been God, and I felt the reason for living had gone.

After I left my convent, I went to be an au pair in Paris, and I looked after a family of three very difficult children, whose mother kept retiring to bed, and having sick headaches.

One afternoon off, I went to see Chartres. It made an incredible impression on me. I hadn't seen a lot of beautiful buildings or religious art, because convents are suspicious of too much sensuality in any shape or form, but I thought it was the most stunning thing I had ever seen.

You come from the brilliance of the sun into this dark cathedral, which at the same time is glowing with a sort of light.

There must have been hundreds of tourists as it was the middle of summer, but I remember seeming to stand there alone in this incredible half-darkness.

And here was this beautiful place, which had been made by people who believed what I had lost. Everywhere it was telling the stories of faith, in the carvings and the glass, it was a sort of living book about the faith.

And that underlined my loss in a way; it seemed a terrible irony that there, in stone, was what in my soul had already withered and disintegrated.

As at this time I believed in mortal sin, so my soul must be a withered mass of shrivelled blackness, and it contrasted cruelly with this great, shining, wonderful cathedral.

I wanted to believe. I wanted to have a feeling of mission like those artists who had spent a lifetime putting their beliefs into that fabric. And it seemed an arrogance, turning my back on the faith . . . .

Well, I didn't know when I went at 18 that there was a labyrinth, I guess a lot of people go to Chartres and don't see the labyrinth.

When I went again last year, I was astonished that I'd missed it, because there it was on the floor of the nave, a huge circle cut deep into the stone, in two colours, a dark blue slate, and a creamy grey - the same colour as the outside of the building.

When the labyrinth was first put on the floor, it symbolised the heavenly Jerusalem, and people used to dance along it, and it was the equivalent of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

I got up at dawn, and I went to the cathedral. The light was just beginning to come through. It was very beautiful.

They say if you put your flesh in contact with the ground, you're more earthed into any healing powers . . . I took my shoes off, and I walked this labyrinth, very prayerfully, and as I walked, the light deepened and seemed to be dispelling the darkness of doubt and despair.

I felt a sense of mystery that was beyond any particular religion. I felt in touch with the mystery religions that some people claim were there before Chartres was built, and I had a strong sense that this was a holy place. I think you can believe in prayer even if you don't believe in God, and I believe prayer is some sort of force or wave, and if people pray long enough in a place, that in itself makes it holy.

And, suddenly, I could see a wider view, that perhaps Catholicism was only one manifestation of the endless waves of religion that break on humanity, and that one has to take a much broader view and settle for a sense of the religious, rather than taking on any particular religion.

And it was like discovering another route one could go down. In this cathedral of Chartres, I was tuning into something else, by-passing Catholicism.

Wendy Perriam is a writer.

(Photograph omitted)