Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Skiing and faith

Benediction of the skis
Today, St Agathe's day, sees a remarkable village festival taking place at Montchavin, the northern-most village of the La Plagne ski area. Even the smallest of the Tarentaise villages has a chapel, or oratoire; here in Les Granges we have a tiny baroque chapel dedicated to St Blaise, patron saint of barbers!. The annual patronal festival would be an opportunity for the hard-pressed villagers to let their hair down and enjoy some of the fruits of their arduous labours.
When winter sports started taking over from agriculture in Montchavin in the 1930s  the locals (luckily their saints' day fell in the middle of the winter season!) used the occasion to raise money from the tourists for a hardship fund for sick or injured ski instructors.  This tradition continues, and today there will be ski displays, a torch-lit descent, fireworks and of course the customary giant tartiflette. The celebrations will however be preceded by the moving 'Benediction of the Skis', given by the Abbé Petit,  with prayers for safety, courage, humility and plenty of snow!

Ski benediction at Les Avanchers
Similar Christian rituals of blessing are not  unusual in Savoie. A similar event which began in 1934 in Les Avanchers, the village from which grew the resort of Valmorel, attracted people from all over the valley. Many  priests were quite progressive in embracing the new  skiing industry as an alternative to the dying agricultural economies which their flocks were deserting for les grands villes. The 7 days-a-week nature of the new tourist activities made it difficult for those involved to attend Mass regularly. Priests had to become more flexible with the timetables and location of their services, as few of the new wave of purpose-built resorts had chapels. The Cupole building at Arc 1600 was built partly with this function in mind, and services continue to be held there every week.

A defrocked priest, L'Abbé Borrel was however on of the most bitter opponents of Les Arcs in the 1960s. He formed a vocal opposition group in Bourg St Maurice that did everything it could to undermine Blanc and Godino's plans for the new ski area. The basis of his objection was that there was no way the town could raise the money to build it and it would become and abandoned white elephant! Perhaps his motivation was also to do with his ownership of a small building within what was to become Arc 1600 (bequeathed to him a member of his congregation). It was one of the first to be compulsorily-purchased, and turned later into the base for the Les Arcs ski club (Still is today). A touch of spite perhaps on the part of Roger Godino, perhaps annoyed that Abbé Borrel's supporters tried  blow up his office in Bourg with dynamite!

Chapel of St Esprit under construction, Arc 1800
Robert Blanc himself was a committed catholic and church-goer. In 1979, shortly before his death, he told his daughter Claudie that there was still one more thing to do in Les Arcs, and that was to build a chapel. She and others have been campaigning and fund-raising (including donating the proceed of her book, Reve de Bergers, mentioned in previous blog) for several years to fullfil his wish. La Chapelle du Saint Espirit is being built by the pedestrian path between 1600 and 1800, with stunning contributions from local artists  and artisans.
From the elevated site of the new chapel there are wonderful views of the massif de Beaufortain, the Haute-Tarentaise and north to St. Bernard pass and the Italian border.  St Bernard of Menthon established a monastic order high above the valley in the 11th century to aid pilgrims heading for Rome and other travellers crossing the wild  and dangerous high-mountain plateau. The famous St Bernard dogs were trained by the saint and his monks to deliver tea (not rum or brandy!) to those lost or stranded, and to guide them back to the safety of the monastery. The last eight monks finally left about 10 years ago, and today the building is museum. St Bernard is the patron saint of skiing and snowboarding, for as bishop of Lombardia he would use skis and sledges to visit the isolated mountain communities within is diocese.

The Christian has faith provided great comfort and hope for the mountain communities of the past, under constant threat from natural elements which they could barely comprehend. Science and human progress have largely vitiated the need for simple faith, but these magnificent mountains we inhabit constantly remind me that there's another dimension to our existence which perhaps only a belief in higher things can begin to explain:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 121

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