It Is 300 years since these sad words were uttered by Our Lord to St. Margaret-Mary Alocoque
in Paray-le-Monial (Saone et Loire), France: "Behold, my Heart which has so loved man and which, in return, has received for the most part nothing but ingratitude and indifference."
It was on December 27, 1673, that Margaret-Mary Alocoque, then aged 26, daughter of a local landowner, who had entered the Convent of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial as "a timid little postulant", was granted the first of what were to be some 70 revelations concerning the Sacred Heart.
These revelations, which took place in this quiet town on the banks of the Bourbince in Burgundy, were to continue for 12 years. Evidently based on the soundest doctrine, their content received official approval and subsequently devotion to the Sacred Heart became one of the most popular cults in the Church.
Today, Paray-le-Monial is visited by more than 350,000 pilgrims a year, but few of them are from Britain.
This city of the Sacred Heart is situated in the "Roman Garden" of France. Soon after the year 1000 there was a remarkable cultural blossoming in Italy and Gaul, and great numbers of basilicas and churches were built or re-built.
This flowering was particularly evident in Burgundy where, in 1088, the great Abbot of Cluny, St. Hugh, crowned his career, as it were, by building what was
for ninny years (until it was surpassed by St. Peter's in Rome) the largest church in all Christendom — Cluny Abbey.
Cluny, which is about half an hour's drive from Paray-leMonial, today lies in ruins. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the monks had been expelled, the massive abbey was used as a quarry. It has been suggested that Cluny might well be designated an official Museum to Vandalism.
Bu( we still have sonic idea of -:hat Cluny looked like, since the Basilica of Paray-le-Monial, far from being what one might expect — a 19th-century monument to had taste — .is a small. perfect 12th-century replica of its mother-church.
Its serenity is remarkable, and spills out into the narrow streets of the unspoiled town with its buildings of cream-coloured stone and its weeping willows which line the banks of the river which meanders through the centre.
Two or three times a year the pilgrims pour into Paray-leMonist, but for the most part Paray-le-Monial remains its still self.
As I watched a grey nun pushing her bicycle past the flamboyant Rennaisance town hall (a gift from a wealthy merchant draper) and saw the children playing under the trees by the Basilica, I reflected what a . remarkably pleasant and ordinary place it was for such stupendous things to have happened in.
The chape I where the revelations took place, behind the enclosure .grille, has recently (1966) been restored — mercifully in good taste — and is easily visited.
Commercialisation has not struck in Paray-le-Monial as it has struck in Lourdes, and good accommodation is somewhat limited. My own recommendation would be to stay at one of the oldest hotels in France, the Hostellerie des Trois Pigeons, now run by M. and Mme. Louis C'hristofoli.
Paray-le-Monial is in the heart of the Charollais country and, to strike a thoroughly unascetic note, steak is one speciality of their restaurant, while duck cooked with olives is another. So are the wines of Burgundy.
Cluny, too, has an admirable hotel which has been built in what was once the north transept of the abbey church. The Hotel de Bourgogne is more elegant than the Three Pigeons — a fact which is reflected in its prices.
There are some pleasant drives to be taken in the rolling and wooded countryside near Parayle-Monial. You can visit St. Margaret-Mary's birthplace or take a well-signposted tour of about a dozen small 11th and 12th century country parish churches, once dependent on Cluny, which are remarkable for their well-preserved sculptures of honey-coloured stone.
The interiors of some are, unfortunately, in a pretty sad state. Many of their attendant monastic buildings are now farm buildings. The local tourist office publishes a map of these churches, complete with potted history.
Paray-le-Monial lies in an area somewhat neglected by holiday makers who like to tear down the autoroute front Paris to the Cote d'Azur without stopping; but those who whizz through Burgundy do miss a lot. Apply the brakes at "Macon Nord" and turn westwards from the autoroute and you will be rewarded.
Or if you're travelling by public transport, come to Lyons by train or air (daily flights from Britain) and then take the railway. It's slightly longer than the rail journey via Paris and Moulins, but more attractive. There are no "package" tours to Paray-le-Monial, so you must make your own arrangements to get there.
Pa ra : Hostellerie des Trois Pigeons (1 eleplione: 10). Average price for room for two with shower: Fr. 40.
Cluny: Hotel de Bourgogne (Telephone: 018). Average price for room for two with shower: Fr. 50.
Times of Masses for Pilgrims (a = Chapel of the Apparitions; b = Basilica ): Weekdays: 07.00a, 08.30a, 11.00a, 17.30a, 19.00 (Saturdays only), Sundays: 07.30a, 08.30a, 09.00b, 10.00b, 11.90a, 11.1.50, 17.30a, 18.000,