On a visit to Paris a few years back I ended up, well, visiting a series of (Catholic) churches. Each was very different in its way) I have often tried to revisit this piece but am content to present it here in its unfinished form.
Reflections from six Parisian Churches.
Saint Germain des Pres
The first Church I visited during a day in Paris, some months ago. In between conferences and flights, this day had presented itself, during which I would be in Paris with no firm commitments. I thought of revisiting the places I been with my family some years before. All I had planned was to visit to Cluny Museum and then the Orangerie, and wherever my feet took me in between. I have long ago learnt that the secret of successful tourism is to make modest plans and to have a mind for chance. It is early on a Saturday morning, and the air feels clean and cold. I walked around this empty Church, with its memorials, its sense of being made from clean light and dark stone, and its many graves. Descartes is buried here. His grave is located with two others, and with a bust of a monk called Mabillon on top. Later, I will look up Mabillon, being somewhat embarassed at not having heard of him.
Notre Dame de Paris
This was the Church Touristic. I had not really intended to visit Notre Dame – it simply hadn’t occured to me. Walking along the Seine, I began to get sucked into the gravitational attraction of the place. Notre Dame is, like the Mona Lisa, so much a cliche of tourism that those who identify themselves as travellers rather than tourists (like I did, once) avoid it. It is not a Gothic cathedral in Paris, but a piece of visual culture that transcends its physical location. It is a building that is not where it stands.
But, of course, it stands somewhere, it is located here in busy, rich Paris, it is here in front of me. I walk happily through the park behind it, enjoying the company of the birds, looking for gargoyles on the Cathedral itself. Then I am in the square in front, and I am pleading bafflement to the pedlar trying to tie a multicoloured woolen bracelet around my wrist. I am in a crowd now, and then I am in the Church. I have been here before, as a teenager with my family, I liked it then, but now I am a little upset. I think of how it was then, when I still had a faith that was somewhat innocent and unforced, and now it seems to be too crowded, with the busy world all over this place, and around me the eyes, bored and interested at the same time, of tourists look.
I feel oppressed by all this busyness, and then I find a confessional and make a confession.
I stumbled across this Church. Following a sign on the rue de Sèvres for a student residence off the street, I found myself away from the busy street in an open area. I decide to explore, and eventually wandered into this narrow, dark Church. A mass is finishing. One couldn’t call the church crowded, but there are more people than I expected.
Darkness is the main motif of Saint-Ignace. The frescoes of black-clad, heroic Jesuits embarking on the missions, or dying on the missions, are particularly impressive. They are like spiritual supermen, and the frescoes bring home to you how impressive and how terrifying the Jesuits must have been when they were first on the scene. No wonder they inspired such Protestant unease. This Church is unsentimental, determined, impatient, rigorous.
Chapelle De La Medaille Miraculeuse
There’s a rosary in progress. Where Saint-Ignace was all narrowness and darkness, with occasional light piercing through, this Church is wide and airy. I feel reluctant to go to the body of Saint Catherine Labouré herself.
The Church is packed. No doubt at other times I would see it all as rather kitsch. I am not inclined to do so now.
Chapel of the Martyrs
The missionary Church.
From missionary zeal to advocacy.
The classical church. This is the