Under my feet on a day in early summer lie ruins of a Roman building, bits of stone from a long buried medieval road, a crumbled wall that failed to keep the invading Franks out in 497 A.D. Across this plaza, I watch tourists in black patent heels and Nike running shoes descend steps down into history, down into the crypt 100 yards below the shadow of Notre Dame.
Old Parisian men sit near the statue of Charlemagne mounted on steed, watching the world stream by, saris, light swathed and flowing, weaving through studded denims and goth teens mumbling into cell phones, fiddling with ipods. Taxis rush by on serpentine routes plotted on green GPS screens. The courtyard flashes with shutters freezing international smiles onto LCD blues dimmed by blazing sun overhead.
Somewhere on this cobbled stone square before the cathedral, under this milieu of colors swirling and languages murmuring, somewhere over time crumbled, a plaque marks Paris’ center, kilometer zero of French national highways. The center of Paris, the traditional center of the country of France, lies within line of sight of the Dame’s perched gargoyles.
We brush through the clamor, walk over centuries powdered, find our way to ancient doors open.
Arias, heaven-song rising, calls us in. I stand under the carved central portal of the last judgment, with its statues of the enthroned Christ judging the living and dead. From the massive, ornately carved doors, into the lofty darkness, we can see candles flickering along the central nave. Where the crossbeams of the cross-shaped cathedral intersect, at the altar table, we can see ethereal robes of white gathered, heads bowed. There, at the center, we can see the bread and the wine.
Sonorous organ strains soar the heights.
We step into this cavern carved with earthy peasant hands, into streams of celestial light. Quietly, reverently, we walk under towering arches of stone, these larger-than-life praying hands that clasp over the souls that wander through this place.
The rose window’s radiating expanse of glowing glass transfixes. We linger in this arch of colored light falling, an encompassing circle of brilliance softening medieval stone.
Hushed, we walk through side chapels flanking, moved by medieval air and unearthly light. At the back of the cathedral we find a seat.
My French is too rusty to understand the message from the altar, but I listen quietly to the inflection, the tones, of worship that transcends language and denomination. The sound of the milling crowd outside, the tourists traipsing through the side aisles and chapels, drifts in, distracting. My eyes keep following the slender columns up to the where the songs went. The crowds buzz.
And when the organ pipes pulse again, filling the high spaces, I stand knowing it is time to leave, wishing it wasn’t.
I turn and it’s just a moment, and I almost miss it. She still sitting behind me, my age, a woman in a mottled brown t-shirt, fine brown hair falling to her shoulders. In her arms she holds a child, a child with eyes closed, a child nestled close and cradled. Walking past her, our eyes meet and I smile, nod, and, in that time blink, I see and my soul orients. In her arms she holds a child nursing.
And I walk past and out into glaring light and the spin of the world. A travel bus roars by, windows popping with tourist lightning. Twangy melodies from street musicians seated on the bridge across the Seine offers the soundtrack for this people swirl.
We wind through the crowds and I can feel how change is constant, relentlessly sanding away. What we click, flash, tap now will one day be grist for the crypt, tourist morsels. Today, tomorrow, food prices will spike, markets plummet, economies crack and tremble, world powers flash and fade. On intersections criss-crossing this sphere, newspaper headlines blast of ominous fear clouds mushrooming on our collective horizons.
I step out into a summer day’s blinding glare and a world spinning with fear, dizzy with change.
But there’s a ground zero.
There’s a changeless center.
There’s a place, a Person, in the shifting, uncertain sands, offering nourishment, offering to feed and comfort us in eternal arms.
I hear Him whisper, “For thus says the Lord, ‘ . . . you shall nurse… (Isa. 66:12) As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you (Isa. 66:13)… Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isa. 49:14)
The globe orbits, and we rest, filled and safe.
Father God, in a world of change, You are our Unchanging One, our Center, Our Nourisher. Into Your arms, we lean back, trusting, resting. Safe.
Photos: of a transforming morning at Notre Dame