Sunday, 10 August 2008

The problem of encountering excellence

As previous posts have explained, we have just had a great holiday in France which was also something of a stimulus in many areas. Yes, I did get some notes jotted down towards new books but frankly, dear reader, I am still recovering from having produced The Infinite Day and am reluctant to commit myself to the vast number of hours of labour necessary to write the sequence I want to. (An attractive offer of a publishing company/wealthy fan/visionary could change all that.)

Anyway, while we were in France we got the chance to look at two sites in the Dordogne, that vast area of dissected limestone plateaux that drape onto the western edge of the Massif Central. The two sites were the village of Rocamadour and the small town of Sarlat and both feature highly in any tourist guide.

Rocamadour is a suite of ancient churches and chapels spilling down the steepest of slopes. It is all steps, spires and dizzying vistas down on to red roofs. At times you feel you could be in some mediaeval romance.

Even if you have very little sympathy with much of the religious elements (and I am too good a Protestant to be fond of the multitude of statues and icons) it is an awesome place. Allegedly it is the number two tourist site in France and understandably so.

Sarlat is supposed to be France’s best preserved mediaeval town. When you finally get in past the traffic you are soon in lost a tumbling maze of ancient buildings. Winding streets present a constant succession of half timbered and honeyed stone buildings with the steepest of roofs pressed together with endless and varied doorways, courtyards and arches. It is one of those places that that it belongs more on the film set than in reality.

Having visited both of these places a problem emerged. We went to what we would have once considered an attractive French town a few days later with some lovely old buildings and both concluded that sadly ‘it wasn’t Sarlat’. In other words the good had been spoilt for us by our glimpse of the excellent.

It is a phenomena I have come across before. There are three sites in the Near East of global stature: Lebanon’s Roman temple of Baalbek, Syria’s sprawling Crusader fort of Krak des Chevalier and the jawdropping city carved into rock that is Jordan’s Petra. Baalbek is the greatest Roman temple preserved anywhere; Krak the greatest castle anywhere; and Petra the greatest… well, ‘city-carved-into-rock’ anywhere.

I am grateful that having seen these things, and especially, this summer, Sarlat and Rocamadour. But they expose the danger of focusing on excellence to the point that we overlook that which is merely good. I suspect there is a spiritual lesson here. Maybe we need sometimes to turn our eyes away from superstar excellence (which, in all probability, is utterly unattainable) and focus instead on a more down-to-earth ordinary kind of goodness.