“O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house, the place where Thy glory dwelleth.”
Little else compares to the feeling of walking into an ancient, beautiful temple, consecrated by hundreds of years of prayer. Though modern Parisians have largely rejected the faith of their fathers, churches abound still.
The first time I visited the city, with my high-school French class, we didn’t get to see the inside of Notre-Dame because the lines were too long. I remember telling my parents, “It’s okay; I got to see the outside.” When I returned seven years later, I realized how woefully short this experience had been. In hushed reverence, I wandered the aisles and drank in the stained-glass windows, the statue-filled niches, and most of all the pilgrims — people who had come from all over the world to light a candle and say a prayer in this sacred place.
We returned on Sunday morning for Gregorian mass. When the brothers processed in, carrying the cross and chanting fluid melodies with haunting, open intervals, my soul discovered a new capacity for awe, filling with joy and gratitude.
Years later, on our first travel-study jaunt, I prepared the students ahead of time for the all the walking we would do: “Find comfortable shoes! Don’t worry about how nice they look! And DON’T wear brand-new ones!” I failed to take my own advice, however, and after the first day I had so many blisters it hurt just to look at my feet. Covered in Band-aids (I had not yet discovered these magical little patches,) I limped from monument to monument, and after hobbling around Sacre-Coeur I tearfully told Rob to go on without me; I was going to sit inside for awhile.
It was early, but the church was already crowded, and as I wondered at the numbers, it suddenly dawned on me that it was Sunday morning. Someone passed me a printed program, and soon a sister emerged to sing through the hymns of the day with us; in a clear, sweet voice, she chanted the melodies and encouraged us to join her. Then she departed and the service itself began.
I found out later that this was called Solemn Mass. At the time, I just marveled at how similar it was to Orthodox Liturgy: the elements of the service corresponded almost identically, and most of them were chanted, the huge space swelling with a chorus of voices. At the passing of the peace, the profusion of languages reminded me of the first Pentecost, and as I greeted those around me in French (thank God for Agape Vespers, which had helped me remember Christ’s words in the upper room!) I was met with warm handshakes and nods from African, Asian and European faces. The priest gave a stirring, inspiring homily about the simplest virtues of the Christian faith, and I understood every word, feeling for the first time a familiarity in French that had always eluded me before.
At the end of another trip, we ended up at Notre-Dame in the evening, and while touring the interior we stopped to watch a choir of blue-robed children lining up at the altar. Suddenly, Vespers was beginning, trapping us in the seats where we stood — Christians, Jews and those without faith at all. This made me a little nervous, but there was no way to exit politely, so I smiled reassuringly at the students and sent up a prayer for peace.
The choir sang French versions of the hymns I knew so well from the Eastern church: “Lord, I have cried to Thee; hear me. Hear me, O Lord.” “Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening, we praise Thee.” “Lord, now let Thy servant depart in peace.” A soloist, not more than twelve years old, brought tears to my eyes with the stunning clarity and prayerfulness of her voice.
After almost an hour — not nearly long enough — the faithful filed out, and we all stared at each other. There were no words to describe what had just passed between us. Whether or not you accepted the truths the clergy and musicians and congregation had just declared, you could not ignore their majesty and depth. With full hearts, we entered the courtyard outside, where the sun shone blithely as if nothing had happened at all.
Nothing, and everything. Like so many French concepts, a perplexing paradox.
And a beautiful one.