The place that changed me

Nora Seton: As a sulking child, the writer found her mood, and life, transformed by the sights of Jumiÿges
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The Independent Travel

I was eight when my mother took me to Jumiÿges. It was the first time I had been to France and I was behaving like a typical child - whining about being tired and about the unfamiliar surroundings. My mother led me through the square to the beautiful ruins and bade me look up at this wonderful vaulted ceiling. It was like looking through an arch into the heavens and she said: "You must lift yourself out of yourself. You must think higher thoughts."

I was eight when my mother took me to Jumiÿges. It was the first time I had been to France and I was behaving like a typical child - whining about being tired and about the unfamiliar surroundings. My mother led me through the square to the beautiful ruins and bade me look up at this wonderful vaulted ceiling. It was like looking through an arch into the heavens and she said: "You must lift yourself out of yourself. You must think higher thoughts."

I had never felt such a strange juncture of magnificent beauty and death. I remember looking up and thinking: "Wow! Look at how much bigger than me all of this is." And such beauty in devastation (Jumiÿges' abbey suffered a severe beating during the Wars of Religion). I immediately felt how little my grumbles meant. It was two years later when my mother became sick from cancer, from which she eventually died, and I often wonder whether she somehow knew then.

Jumiÿges was once one of the great centres for Catholic pilgrimage and our visit there was a sort of travelling religious studies class. My parents were intellectuals and not at all religious. They felt you could only live a valid life through an intellectual mind, that there was no one to turn to and that this was the miracle of our planet.

I went back to Jumiÿges when I was just married and it touched my husband in the same way it had me. It is hard to say whether my first experience of Jumiÿges was one of the wonderful serendipitous moments that allowed me to appreciate the full significance of my mother's words or if it is something in the place itself.

Maybe if I had never made the trip I would never have understood her life philosophy: you may not wallow, there is too much to see, too much to learn - you must aspire.

'The Kitchen Congregation', by Nora Seton (Weidenfeld, £12.99), is out in hardback.

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