I have been always very careful to which of my French friends I would reveal my spiritual search. For in this country, spirituality and religion are very much a private matter. Why is this topic to be handled with care? Today’s France is a society firmly entrenched in the separation of church and state. And the rocky road to a secular republic has taken a few centuries to achieve.
Origins of neutrality
The seventeenth century Age of Enlightenment, which embraced reason and the scientific path is the beginning in France of a liberation from the predominance of the Catholic Church and its system of beliefs aimed to dominate the population of the time.
The French Revolution brought into action the split between religion and reason, culminating in edicts to separate Church and State. This was due to the egalitarian fervor of the times, which denounced the privileged excesses of the Catholic clergy in tandem with the ruling aristocratic class.
Nineteenth century France saw a steady progression of this division, and in 1905 the law (loi du 9 décembre 1905) formally established a separation between Church and State.
“Laïcité”, or secularism, became the so-called French religion. This means that the Republic does not recognize or subsidize any religion. The state has no religious affiliation, but churches can operate freely and all churches are equal before the law. All public offices reflect neutrality. To this day, anything that smacks of official recognition of a religion is anathema to the French.
The existence of faith
On the other hand, it is generally presumed that France is still a predominantly Catholic country. But Catholicism here is more a tradition than a religion. Very few of the French attend regular mass these days. However, the traditional church rituals of baptism, communion, marriage and funeral are still celebrated by a majority.
The past 50 years has seen the slow rise of divergent spiritual paths, ranging from Islam brought in from North Africa in the sixties by the fleeing inhabitants from Algeria and Morocco, to Buddhism and the influence of the Dalai Lama, who not so long ago filled Bercy stadium to capacity. From the religions of the East, yoga, meditation and other Eastern spiritual practices are becoming more open and prominent in everyday French life.
I have been fascinated by the increased attention to the spirit amongst my French friends who pride themselves on being standard bearers of rationalism. They claim to be followers of the enlightened ideals of Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu. So their spiritual quest is not a freewheeling exploration of the spirit and its myriad dimensions. They need the reassurance of a structured physical practice leading to a higher realm, such as yoga, meditation or acupuncture.
The Quest for Spirituality
But I have come up with clues that, behind that cloak of rationality, the French are intrigued by manifestations of the spirit found outside the safety net of religious or esoteric practice.
A publication of a book first released in France in 1976 has had great influence in opening the French mind to other dimensions. The book, “Dialogue avec l’Ange” (“Talking with Angels”) recounts the messages conveyed by a divine entity to four young artists in 1940’s war torn Budapest. For 17 months, they received explanations as to why barbarity such as the war exists. They reveal the errors committed by humanity and how to change them. This book has had enormous impact: over a half a million copies sold in French and there are regular meetings around this topic at Forum 104 in Paris.
Forum 104 is an exciting meeting place for a variety of spiritual teachers on topics ranging from meditation, past life exploration, and mysticism to herbal medicine. Just one example that the French are opening themselves up to alternative paths of the spirit these days.