Sunday, September 20, 2015

The sacred heart

Last Sunday, I missed church. The website a friend had shown me that lists the congregations of my church in Paris was out of date, so when I showed up 45 minutes early, the meeting was almost over. Crucially, I'd missed the sacrament (called by many names, including Holy Communion and Eucharist). This opportunity to commune with our Father is the principal reason that members of my church are so scrupulous about attending church meetings every week. Although we believe that other churches do much good in the world and we love to join hands with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, we believe that we have an exclusive claim to the authority of the priesthood. Because of that exclusivity, I had no recourse but to wait another week for another opportunity.

So it was with dampened spirits that I set out later that afternoon for Sacré-Cœur, a beautiful cathedral on Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. I entered the Metro, walking past advertisements for Straight Outta Compton and an assortment of electronics. I believe that the Holy Sabbath is a day for quiet contemplation, time with family, and rest from work; as such, these attention-claiming advertisements and the noise of the Metro were uncomfortable for me on a holy day.

I arrived at my station and left the bustle of the Metro to find an even busier street. The street between the Metro station and Montmartre was crowded. Shops sold postcards and kitsch and hustlers had people betting on that game with a ball hidden under one of three overturned cups. I saw someone who clearly wasn't blind walking with a cane and thought he was playing some sort of joke. Now that I think about it, it was probably part of a scam.

I looked up the street and saw a merry-go-round. The merry-go-round was at the bottom of a fairly steep hill covered in walkways and steps. There, people milled around and vendors sold selfie sticks and souvenir miniatures of the Eiffel Tower and little trains whose cars are letters. The cathedral's beautiful domes and statues came into view as I crossed the street and began to climb.

I passed countless vendors and people taking pictures. When I reached the steps, I started passing people who were there hours ahead of time to catch the sunset over the city. The view was already remarkable, so I'm sure the sunset must have made it dazzling.

Wary of pickpockets and trying to inhale as little cigarette smoke as possible, I continued my climb. The hill itself was pretty, but I was focused on making it out of the noise and into the cathedral. I was there to see something beautiful but also to seek spiritual solace and such solace was not to be found in the crowd or among the vendors.

When I stepped inside, I saw signs instructing people to silence their phones and to not take pictures. There was a large area for people to sit who were participating in the Mass and a smaller area towards the back for people who wanted to pray. Around the edges, there was a walkway. Visitors were instructed to keep moving and to remain quiet. I sat there and observed the Mass and prayed, seeking a touch of sacredness.

Many of the visitors to the cathedral disregarded the signs. I don't know if they'd read them or not, but many of them stopped to look at the Mass a little to my left. A member of the staff there would quietly get people's attention and instruct them to move on. He did the same when people pulled cameras out. Sadly, some people reacted not by abandoning their design but by furtively sneaking pictures in other locations that were less closely supervised. In the background, I could hear clanking from machines that sold Pope medallions. These machines were owned by the cathedral and their presence is completely without irreverent intent. But both the machines and their use in a church and on the Sabbath are foreign to my own traditions and they added to my overwhelmed feelings.

I persisted and did my best to understand the liturgy in French. As I did so, my vision changed slightly. I began to see the people who would walk past and cross themselves when they came to the aisle. This was no reflexive action, done by force of habit. Their body language made it clear that they loved God and wanted to honor Him and did so with a simple but sincere gesture. I thought of the people I'd seen earlier that day at Notre Dame, who worshiped in a similarly tumultuous setting but who paid close attention to the proceedings of the Mass. I remembered watching them as they took the wafers offered them and as they shook hands as a sign of peace to their neighbors. The people worshipping in Sacré-Cœur were similarly earnest.

The world around me was still disorderly. I'd still missed the sacrament. But I discovered the commonality I had with my fellow worshippers. I'm grateful for the sacredness I found at Sacré-Cœur – in the hearts of the worshippers there.