On the day of the mother of battles at Twickenham, a delightful contribution to Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent about Notre Dame du Rugby, a romanesque chapel in France’s south-western rugby heartland, near Grenade sur L’Adour. “We pray for the players, but never for victory,” says the wise priest. “Our Lord wants le quinze de France to do the work.”
I had not heard about N-D du Rugby before hearing this despatch, and was annoyed to discover that it lies on the pilgrimage route I cycled between Burgundy and the Pyrenees. Paul and I could have visited it and admired Our Lady of the Line Out among other stained glass devotional images featuring the oval ball. The symbolism of the young men straining upwards to grasp the prize is fairly obvious, and the French love this sort of thing. At a celebration in a ski resort recently, commemorating the centenary of an early ski race, the local priest invited us to think of the downhill – la descente – as a metaphor for Our Lord’s descent to earth.
N-D du Rugby must surely have been inspired by a small chapel which predates it by a few years and lies not far away in the same corner of France, just outside the attractive little town of Labastide d’Armagnac: Notre Dame des Cyclistes. How many other overgrown chapelles désaffectées are out there, waiting to be discovered, stripped of their ivy and re-dedicated? Notre Dame du Baby-Foot, Notre Dame de Pétanque ….
On the site of an ancient sanctuary, Notre Dame des Cyclistes is old but not a building of particular intrinsic beauty, and the fact that it is often closed matters little, although the accumulated offerings have made it a small cycling museum.
The chapel was discovered, overgrown, by a cycling churchman in 1958 and the following year Pope John authorized its re-dedication to ‘la petite reine.’ Its official patroness is Notre Dame de la Visitation – the confident suggestion being that when Mary hastened through the Palestine countryside on a charitable mission to help her cousin Elizabeth, she would have gone by bike had one been available. The chapel marked the start of a Tour de France stage in July 1989. Many Tour heroes attended and laid down jerseys and trophies, as did the race leader Greg Lemond who went on to win the Tour by 6 seconds and spoke of his win as a miracle.
The chapel is a popular halt for cycling pilgrims on their way to Compostela – 1000km to go, in 12 easy stages of 85km a day, according the chaplain, who has made the journey six times. The website www.notredamedescyclistes.net is nothing if not comprehensive and includes the words and music of a special chant, Les Etapes de la Joie, which may help on the way up the hill. The chapel is open in the afternoon from May to October, morning and afternoon in July and August.
The following is not a verse of Les Etapes de la Joie, but an inscription outside the chapel.
Marie, Reine du Monde,
Protège la terre parcourue en tous sens par les cyclistes
Amoureux de la belle nature du Seigneur.
No religious faith is required to say a loud Amen to those sentiments.