I went to Paris expecting beautiful art, food, and history. Of course, I wasn’t disappointed; Paris is a magical city and I love it. I hope my visit was the first of many.
What I didn’t expect was a spiritual experience. Everything I’ve read and heard prepared me for churches and cathedrals that were nothing more than museums. I know that statistically speaking Europe is more post-Christian than the US. But many of the churches Jenny and I entered were far more than beautiful monuments to the past. They may have been full of dead men’s bones (literally) but there was no denying the life there.
The architecture of a cathedral does its work well. Entering from the bright and noisy streets, the churches are dark and cool and quiet. The church leaders clearly take maintaining a sense of separateness seriously even when they sometimes resort to having attendants whisper ‘Shhhh!’ like grumpy librarians. But I got the feeling it’s because they know their churches are more than landmarks to check off from a travel guide. The good news is that the reminders turn out to be mostly superfluous; the experience of entering such ancient places of worship naturally evoked a sense of reverence from most.
Everything seems to whisper, ‘holy’ as you enter. The stained glass transforms sunlight into breathtaking colors and patterns. The soaring walls invite your gaze up. The metaphor is simple and it works—thoughts that were focused on tired feet or the next delicious meal or problems from home seem to turn heavenward of their own accord. The idea of generations of worshippers over countless centuries combined with a sense of God’s Spirit brought me to tears in nearly every church we entered. Talk about a cloud of witnesses. I felt like I could almost touch them.
And the people weren’t simply there to either curate/maintain or tour a historical site. In every single church, we encountered genuine worshippers. They had to tune out picture snapping tourists like me. Sadly, they sometimes had to navigate around keepsake vending machines that pressed pennies into likenesses of the church (who decided those were ok?!). And at the Sacre Coeur, they had to run the gauntlet of tourist shops, street performers, overflowing trash cans, and guys aggressively trying to sell woven bracelets or bottles of Heineken. But the sacred somehow peacefully lived among the daily.
On Palm Sunday, the three men who entered the Eglise Saint Germain des Prés (the oldest church in Paris) with me held their branches and knelt in worship as they passed the threshold. There was something really right about the ceremony of it. It made me feel kind of homesick. I loved that for the rest of the day, I passed people in cafes or soaking up the sun parks whose bundle of branches signified they’d been to worship that morning. In that same church, a very old woman—in her 80s I’d guess—sat praying before a statue of Jesus holding rosary beads for the entire time I was there. I found myself wishing I could sit at her feet and soak up her wisdom. If only I spoke French. And in every church it was like this. Visitors swirled around people who were there to pray or serve. Behind glass enclosed meeting rooms, priests counseled parishioners—latticed confession booths gathered dust in the corners or had been removed. Posters announced service and mission projects both locally and abroad. And others encouraged locals to gather in community. Maybe things were different because we were there during the Lent season. Whatever the reason, I had the sense I was connecting with something missing.
These were the last things I expected—signs of living, breathing places of worship. And all in churches and cathedrals built by who knows how many people working together often over hundreds of years. It was overwhelming. Can you imagine giving the best of your life’s energy to create something you’d never enjoy?
I left Paris with a deep sense of thanksgiving for generations that gave more than I can imagine to preserve the faith for me and every worshipper I know. I am glad God called them and I’m more convinced than ever that I want to learn from the faith practices of the past rather than reject them unexamined. I think this experience was one more way God is underscoring the lesson in humility and teachability he’s been guiding me in. It makes me blush to think that I actually believed I didn’t need anything much beyond my Bible and my own discernment to figure out how to live a life for God, live in community, and guide a church in ways that honored him. How arrogant to think I didn’t have much to learn from those who had gone before me. That isn’t Christian theology but it is very American thinking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I want to undo the reformation (at least not most of it). But I am left more committed than ever to learn as much as I can from those who went before me. And I know that’s a good thing.
Check out an iphone video of some beautiful church music here.
[PS I have lots more to tell you about Paris. Stuff like a champagne tour led by a guy named Trong, dancing in a WWII jazz club in a cave, jumping out of a metro car and traipsing through a dirty tunnel back to the station, and frites—lots and lots of frites.]