Chartres in medieval times was a pilgrimage site because it was believed that the bodies of early martyrs had been tossed into a deep well on the premises of what is now the Cathedral. Various churches were built on the site over the centuries. Around the year 876, the church was given a treasure: the “Sancta Camisa,” believed to be a tunic or shawl worn by Mary at the time she gave birth to Jesus. Over the succeeding centuries, this relic became an attraction for pilgrims in its own right. Was there any truth to the legend? Recent scientific studies have established that the fragile garment dates from the 1st century. It is now kept in a lovely side chapel of the Cathedral.
I always think the best way to see a great cathedral, or any church that is a tourist destination, is to attend a service. Even when I can’t understand much or any of the language spoken, it’s an opportunity to sit in quiet contemplation while listening to beautiful music and being immersed in a sublimely spiritual place.
When I recently visited Chartres, there were two services, almost back to back: a Mass and Evensong. I attended both. Mass is an ancient and beautiful ritual. Although it is not in my religious tradition, I have always felt entirely welcome attending Mass.
Evensong is almost equally old. At Chartres, many people from various religious traditions are there to study. They are invited to prepare and participate in the Evensong service, which is mostly chanted and sung. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that Evensong participants did not necessarily have to be Catholic. About a dozen people, both men and women, filed in wearing pristine white robes.
At Chartres, believers and non-believers seem equally welcome to experience the peace and loveliness of a place that has been a spiritual haven for many centuries.