Before the Germans bombed Belgium in 1940, Tournai was a city that creaked under the weight of its own rich history. Conquered by the French, it was thought more beautiful than Paris. Conquered by the English, it was the favored city of King Henry the Eighth.
It was also a city of God.
One hundred bell towers, four hundred bells. So many churches, their spires teetering at odd angles, they eclipsed the narrow streets, streets filled with knots of nuns and priests moving about like so many bees.
God was Tournai's main industry. The banks, the universities, the cafes, the souvenir shops which sold the nearly authentic relics: they all thrived on God. Survived by creating a city devoted to devotion.
In Tournai, God, apparently, was as common as air.
The baker said he saw Him in a cherry tart. The milliner, in the eye of a peacock feather. The trash man said he saw Him tumbling down the alleyways in the white grease of the frietzaks, the abandoned paper cones, their twice-fried potatoes eaten long ago. These sightings of God were well documented in newspapers and radio broadcasts. They were proudly spoken of in the streets.
“Did you know that the barber saw the face of the Virgin on the floor of his shop yesterday?”
“No, but I heard the butcher found a small cross within the belly of a lamb.”
Everywhere, everyone saw God. How could they not? In Tournai, seeing God was a matter of civic pride.
Then bombs came. Then soldiers. Then silence.
Now recruitment posters cover the church doors. Ersatz kommando der waffen! The Germans are asking for help. Support us! they say, and show the enemy in his “true light”—a red devil, the Star of David around his neck. The devil laughs at the cross, crushes Belgium with his pitchfork.
Some of the priests, their churches in rubble, ask their congregations to consider the Germans’ position. Did not the Jews betray our Savior? they ask.
Ersatz kommando der waffen!
Since the occupation began, it is said that God has not been seen in Tournai. It is believed that He quietly slipped away. Heartbroken, He eased himself out of the situation, unsure if He would ever return.
Excerpted from IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS © Copyright 2001 by N. M. Kelby. Reprinted with permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.
In the Company of Angels