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9 December

Saint Juan Diego
1879, death of Br. Louis-Marie, second Superior General of the Marist Brothers

Marist Calendar - December

Blessed are those who believe without seeing



Vicissitudes of the La Valla table

11/07/2013: France - Photo gallery
The La Valla worksite

This evening after dinner I went by car to Valfleury, a small town 20 km away from the Hermitage across the Gier valley, in the opposite direction from La Valla. Jean-François Telley lives and works in this idyllic spot. He is the specialized carpenter who is now restoring the La Valla table, which he withdrew from the Hermitage on Pentecost.

LaI drive pleasantly in the quietness of the evening, mesmerized by the landscape. Suddenly I find myself pondering the risk of turning La Valla and its table into an idolatrous Champagnat shrine and replacing Jesus of Nazareth. “Is it so?” – I ask myself out loud. It is a risk indeed... But no! La Valla is an ecumenical place which instructs, guides, edifies and sanctifies people. Jesus Christ was there as the cornerstone of the small community born in 1817, and there he awaits the apostles of today, who live out the same mystery of love. A Marist church that was born to evangelize, as the Spirit communicated – and still does today – a diversity of gifts to the little apostles who met in that house – as they still do – around this table.

La Oh, what a wonderful table!

Jean-François called me a few days ago: “Joan, ninety percent of the table has been repaired. I need you to come and give me your opinion”. “Okay, I will come next Wednesday”, I replied. “I’ll arrive late” – he added. “I’m teaching sculpture at Saint Etienne. See you around half past nine”. I wait for him in the garden of his house, sharing a drink with his wife, Anne-Marie, a good friend of mine. She drew and painted the murals in the oratories of the Hermitage last year.
The table awaits us at the workshop.

The waiting is pleasant, listening to Bach in the background: Jesus bleibet, Cantata 147, how nice! The chorale singing as the meadowlark chirps, most unusual! We talk about painting, her mode of artistic expression. Anne-Marie, who also teaches, uses symbolic meanings when she speaks, as I do in some of my architectural works. Suddenly, LaLluís Duch, a Benedictine monk from the Monastery of Montserrat – the spiritual heart of Catalunya – is there “sitting” with us: The symbol is a means leading us beyond what is evident. It does not impose itself. Being ambiguous, it remains wonderfully open! It allows everyone to interpret, translate and update it here and now, depending on personal situations and particular moments in life.

Lluís, wonderful friend! Your wisdom has accompanied me for a long time, and now you return at the right time this Valfleury evening.

What a relief! From this point of view, La Valla will be a revitalizing experience for all, absolutely not something closed, pietistic, or dogmatic.

La The table, our table, the iconic object whose traits actualize the presence of “he” who is absent.

That is why I requested Jean-François to restore the table respecting absolutely all the wounds and mutilations inflicted by its history.

Not a facelift at all! Looking at the table, we must “see” the first brothers, and witness the miracle of love which took place between these walls; reenact the scenario, so that those events can be actualized within us today. The power of suggestion? No, just a way to fully mobilize our symbolic comprehension skills so that they can lead us beyond mere reasoning.

I look forward to seeing his work. Jean-François is in his full maturity as a person and artist. Last year he won the MOF Award (Meilleur Ouvrier de France - Best Craftsman of France) in his specialty of woodworking. He is a gift that Providence placed in our path. His works are exceptional.

LaFrom the beginning, in 2009, there was a good empathic connection between us allowing a mutual understanding through the language of sensibility and artistic expression. He has restored all the old furniture pieces of the Hermitage: the Chambre Champagnat (bed, armchair and kneeler); the office (desk and confessional chair); the eighteenth century altar, and the first altar from the Chapelle du Bois (actually a chest, also from the eighteenth century). He is now working on the La Valla table, but the list will go on with a big piece of furniture, Le Trésor de l’Hermitage (a glass dresser with a low body of large drawers), a real exhibit piece which Champagnat received in 1838. And then the confessional, and...

The sound of a car engine announces his arrival. “Bonsoir !” We greet warmly with a sense of artistic complicity. Then in silence, with contained emotion, we head to his workshop. But he won’t let me in! He wants to set the stage! I realize he is putting a couple of lamps in place, for the night has fallen and it is complete darkness. “Allez-vous !”, he says, reopening the glass door. There, in the middle of the room, is my dear old table. I feel a slight tremor, but pretend to be calm, for I gather he is quietly observing me. Creative souls know very well this unique and exceptional moment: this instant when you open your soul, your work, your art to the scrutiny of a colleague or the general public, while the heart pounds madly in your chest, and the blood freezes in your veins. Just a second, in which any sign, any rictus is captured and amplified, becoming an intimate occasion for painful frustration or overflowing excitement.

“Elle me plait ! Superbe !” I mean it sincerely as I break the silence and crack a smile. “Merci, Joan !”, heanswers. It is true: his work is excellent. At first glance you would say he has done nothing. However, as he starts speaking, he gives me a full explanation of his work, professional and detailed.

Jean-François, a French citizen of Swiss descent, speaks and vocalizes very well. He explains and shows to me how he has imperceptibly placed a massive steel structure inside the table. “Pour les siècles des siècles”, he says. “Amen !”, I reply.

LaAll the rotten wood has been replaced with oak, and covered with thin layers of old wood reclaimed from the floorboards of father Champagnat’s room at the Hermitage which I fortunately kept.

All the drawers have been repaired, and the one that was stolen a few years ago was replaced, although you cannot tell the new one from the old. And – gee! – all the wounds, cuts, scrapes and holes have been respected. “Jean-François, congratulations, I expected nothing less from you”. “Thanks to all of you for trusting me”, he replies.

After the visit, we celebrate with a drink in a warm atmosphere. Just a sip, for I have to drive! I say goodbye with the midnight bells. Gosh! Everyone must be sound asleep at the Hermitage. A large moon, red and mysterious, rises over the horizon of La Valla across the valley in darkness.

La The strength of symbols – I ponder again while driving back. In La Valla, some will only see old wood, withered stones or even a risky modern architecture. Through the symbols, however, others will be able to openly read a message inviting them to look beyond and realize how certain the words from John are: “Blessed are those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29).

Joan Puig-Pey, arquiteto

The La Valla worksite

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