William A Gardner
Flash fiction, or Scenes of Life and Travel
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At the Heart of Paris
It was late evening on April 16 when I rolled into Paris, la Ville Lumière, the city of light, a center of the Enlightenment. I had hitched rides up from Spain, one of them from a very nice lady doctor who took me a good way through France following the Rhône northward. My last ride dropped me near the center of Paris. It was Good Friday and cool with grey clouds that seemed to reflect the solemn mood of this Christian holiday.
It was too late to get into the youth hostel. Without money for a hotel I wandered the wet streets until I passed a church on the left bank - possibly Saint-Sulpice but there are many churches in Paris - where people were entering for midnight Mass. Inside there were few parishioners and they grouped near the front of the nave. Not being catholic, I slid into a pew near the back and sat listening to the priest recite the liturgy. When it was time to bless the worshippers the priest walked down the main aisle using the aspergillium to sprinkle holy water on the faithful. Then, as he reached the last full pew he started to turn and hesitated having just seen me crouched further back near the narthex. Perhaps seeing me as an unfortunate mendicant in need of saving, he walked all the way back and blessed me with a sprinkle. It was Easter after all. I took it as a good sign.
To enter Paris as a young man is to revel in the history of western civilized thought and action, love and revolution. It is romance personified in the literature of so many including Hugo, Maugham, members of the Lost Generation who drank and wrote in the bars and tenements of Montparnasse and la Rive Gauche, and countless others who found in this place the inspiration and courage to write about real life and experience. In this place of dreams you can touch stones that have witnessed key events of western history, events that helped to embed the concept and practice of individual freedom and expression into our society. If stones could speak, what tales they would tell. And at the center of the city are the storied stones of Notre Dame, the Cathedral on Isle de la Cité, the living breathing heart of France.
After Mass I walked back to the Seine and found a café that was open all night. I paid for a latté and sat on a bench by the river, sipping the hot drink and dozing occasionally. The discomfort mattered not at all. This was Paris. I felt like I belonged. Easter Sunday, April 18th. I had never experienced a high Catholic Mass and so found myself in the square outside of Notre Dame, drawn there not just by the desire to attend the service but to explore this famous Gothic Cathedral. You could hear the great Emmanuel bell announcing Mass, thirteen tons of pealing sound. Passing under the stone carvings of the Saints, the entry through the massive wooden doors was like a rite of passage. Inside, the massive round columns supported Gothic arches that carried the eye upward to the lofty roof. These Cathedrals were designed to focus the eye and soul to the heavens above and Notre Dame does that.
I found a place to sit among the faithful who were there to celebrate the rising of Christ. There in the long nave I listened to the chanted liturgy in Latin and French, watched the priests in their robes, and smelled the incense from the censer swinging back and forth in a great arc above the main aisle. It was a feast for the senses. I was struck by the importance of ritual in our lives, the ceremonies that mark our passage through life and remind us of who we are and where we belong.
Little did I know that the roof above me that had protected the interior and its precious paintings and relics for hundreds of years would be consumed by fire decades later on that same Easter weekend in April.
The Enlightenment was a philosophical and cultural movement that stressed reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought. It denigrated dogma, blind faith and superstition. It was all about bringing the light of reason to the affairs of man. That is where the term City of Light derives. Today we witness the opposite as free speech is curtailed, reasonable skepticism is denigrated, and common sense is less and less common. Are we losing our reason, our logic and freedom of thought? Evidence would suggest so. It is as if the burning of Notre Dame could be a symbol of burning the principles of the Enlightenment and the decline of our western civilization.