By Erin Byrne
Gathered wisely into your inner ground,
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
Stone apostles frowned down over their curly beards, and I withered. Again and again, I had flown from the U.S. to France in an arc, but as organ music thundered from within, to step over the threshold into Notre Dame seemed a farther distance to travel. Something near scratched my nerves.
Great cathedrals had often pulled me again against my will, and I’d gone: scurried down the cloisters in Salisbury to gape at the Magna Carta under glass; craned my neck in Cuzco and thrilled to the rebellious nature of Inca slaves who had slipped their own religious symbols into paintings of the Madonna done for their Spanish conquerors; and perused the storehouse underneath The Vatican, wondering whether the treasures were rightfully gained or stolen by victors. Vow of poverty, indeed.
Inside these stifling churches where air seemed scarce, I had sought history, art, and architectural feats, but never God.
In my childhood, Sundays had been for sailing, not sitting in church. As our boat streamed out of the harbor with waves slopping the hull, my dad would curse the choice of a weekend day for being “stuck inside at some service.” We were lucky to get away, but I was complicit in the escape.
At a junior high church camp around the campfire, I observed dramatic conversions: Kids surrounded by groups huddled in fervent prayer, would suddenly stand, indicating they’d been “born again.” Cheering rang through the smoke-filled air as the number of the doomed dwindled, with me among them. To repel this laser-like focus, petrified of burning in hell and feeling the pressure pile up, I’d staged a fake scene, leaping to my feet as sparks flew from the fire. Hands clapped me on the back and I was swallowed in an endless series of congratulatory hugs.
I felt nothing. I was a fraud, secretly unchosen.
As I grew up, wherever religion reigned, I asked too many questions, could not articulate the right ideas, never managed to be sweet and submissive enough, and did things for fun that were considered sinful. I defied convention, but felt I was flawed. Even at my own wedding, I hadn’t converted to Catholicism, so was on the outskirts of the action.
I sensed the peaceful presence of Something at the edge of a thundering ocean, or in the deep pool of solitude, but I had drifted far off the coast of Christianity.
My new extended family, strongly Irish Catholic—including a priest, an ex-priest, and two former nuns—brought acceptance and love to my experience of religion, an oasis to a thirsty soul. Family events usually featured a prayer, ritual, or mass, and I felt embraced by this boisterous family and by extension, God. I began to sense an invitation when I was inside a church.
Years later, I joined the Catholic Church. The service seemed a combination of sitting and sailing: hand motions, kneeling, incense floating through the air, cool saints with adventursome bios. There were relics—bones of saints, the shroud of Turin—tangible bits of history that fused reality with faith.
I became part of the action of our local parish, but soon a hierarchical structure became clear, in which people—me among them—were put on pedestals. Others seemed to admire me for qualities that, once again, I didn’t possess. Fraud.
When the debate began over whether Iraq and Afghanistan were “Just Wars”, I began to waver. The cover-up of sexual abuse by priests came to light. I could not muster hard and fast adherence to the beliefs of the pope and bishops. Again, the narrow way was blocked. Although my family’s acceptance by now was not hinged upon it, my faith plummeted. I stopped seeking spiritual sustenance in church and parted ways with organized Christianity.
My spiritual thirst was quenched with the poetry of Julaladdin Rumi, and his simple Sufi insights: The cure for the pain is in the pain. Good and bad are mixed, he’d written, and We move as particles. That motion is all we need do. I was attracted to Celtic spirituality through the writings of John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher who had left the Church in 2000. O’Donohue encouraged us to succumb to warmth in the heart Where divine fire grows, and to embrace life’s mysteries. I thrilled to the Buddhist philosophy regarding the self-imposed isolation of the thinking mind.
I now found The Universe (a power or being no longer thought of as God) in the odd synchronicities that occurred every day, the way events would line up to place me in a certain spot or with a person with whom I shared a deep connection, and in certain “knowings” and unexpected tiny miracles, but never in the proximity of a church.
That afternoon I stood under the towers of Notre Dame, I remembered that the French were not avid churchgoers, with a majority rarely attending services. That thought lowered my guard and I ventured inside.
High above, a waterfall of sunbeams fell slantwise through the blue, purple and red glass of the round Rose Window. Flecks of dust sparkled like gold leaf in the sun, and spun in rhythm to the varied voices of a choir. A service was in progress, but throughout the rest of the vast space, people milled about in slow motion, wandering the nave under Gothic arches, lighting candles in alcoves. I drifted past sculpted angels with uplifted arms toward relics in throne-like cases: the crown of 70 original thorns, a nail, a piece of the cross. Mirroring the dust motes, I circled slowly, relaxed.
Bells clanged, a deafening vibration that jump-started me with a jolt. Panic bolted through me as I wove through the crowd and out. As I walked under the arch of stone apostles, I remembered that during the Revolution, their faces had been hacked off.
~ ~ ~
A year later, I began teaching a travel-writing workshop, Deep Travel, most often at a bookshop across the Seine from Notre Dame. Deep Travel was both a model of travel and a process of writing that my friend Christina and I had developed based on this quote by Joseph Campbell from The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward—into the depths, where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost powers are revivified.
If the overground journey is an arc to a spot on a map, we taught, the underground journey is a U shape in which the traveler delves deeply into his or her own psyche to find how and why they connect to a place or people and the reasons images and scenes captivate or haunt them.
We urged travelers to open all their senses, including their sixth sense of intuition, as well as to consider the destination’s history, art, architecture, music, sports, food and drink—all aspects of the culture—and to interact with people in an intimate way. We asked our writers to consider their prior expectations and preconceived notions in order to shake loose from their grip and to embrace the new, and to notice their own reactions, whether admiration or puzzlement, disgust or delight, love or loathing.
“Listen to yourself talk,” I’d say. “This may indicate the heart of your story.”
We used a process of questioning to help writers narrow their focus. Mentors had done this with me and I’d discovered hidden meanings in my travels. Why do you want to write about this farmhouse in Normandy, that statue in Christchurch, those brothers in Capetown? The writers, as I often had, first sought answers outside themselves, and then began the inner quest, the underground journey.
Once I began working with writers in this way, I recognized in them the same resistances to their own truths that I’d felt myself; finding connections between a place and ourselves never makes for a tidy little tale. Did Sisyphus roll the boulder up the hill, wipe his hands on his toga and head off to greener pastures? No, he had things to learn on that hill. When Alice stepped through the looking glass, her adventures did not proceed in a straight line.
The same had happened on my own travels: conversations inside a Parisian café had evoked a hunger for connection, van Gogh’s self-portrait had shown how he painted his own harsh truths in a way I longed to share mine, a woman who tended the graves of American soldiers after D-Day had taught me how to unburden my own grief.
Places touch us in a multitude of ways. An impoverished alleyway in Mumbai rubs salt in an open wound inside us, the Moroccan custom of eating with the right hand only tweaks a memory, the texture of a child’s hand at a school in the Himalayas evokes maternal yearnings, the reverent style of greeting in Thailand causes awkwardness. We react strongly to something, and begin to ask why.
We are beings being formed, and the universe gives shape and meaning to our lives in mysterious ways when we travel—our issues unravel further or are resolved, broken bonds are healed or severed, untranslated messages dropped or decoded, dashed hopes mourned or reborn.
With our Deep Travel writers, resistance would crop up like rocks at a certain point in the process. Places and people they had met on their travels touched them in sensitive spots that flinched to the touch, but when writers continued to push through these resistances and explore this inner terrain, meaning would surface: an Italian hillside became a place to part from youth, a graveyard in Prague conjured the confusion at a crossroads in one’s career path, a guide in Mali aroused unsettling superstitions.
“Dig deep enough and you will reach the universal emotion,” we would remind them, and each time a writer plumbed his or her own depths, he would find that his own reactions while traveling were triggered by various threads of his life. When we connect the black threads of our own dark sides, the red threads that unravel from our hearts, and the vivid hues of our memories with what we notice on our travels, we reach the dip in the U of the underground journey.
This murky ocean floor often is reached at the moment we feel far away from home, utterly overwhelmed with the otherness of a place, the strangeness of people. The buried treasures of our stories—chests overflowing with pearls, gems, gold and silver—is found here.
We can rise to the surface changed, having acquired new threads to weave into the tapestry of our lives upon returning home—we photograph our neighborhood children as we had those living in a village in Nepal, we appreciate a simple meal as we had in Rwanda, we notice the silhouette of the skyline of our front yard as we had in New York.
I found it invigorating to travel, write, and teach using this model because there was always an element of surprise. I saw that travel revivified us, whether we flew to foreign lands or drove to the next town.
~ ~ ~
Since I usually stayed on Île Saint Louis, I passed Notre Dame many times each day. Soon after my quick dash inside the cathedral, I developed an interest in the differing views of the structure from afar, and pointed out “her” moods to anyone who walked with me.
From Pont de la Tournelle under pewter rainclouds, her flying buttresses seem to crawl forward, like the legs of a spider, which I pronounced creepy.
From the wide, paved area in front of her, Place du Parvis Notre Dame, as the towers guarding her bells shone white, she appeared pristine, her façade was a party dress. She seemed so innocent but above, gargoyles crouched baring their teeth. She was not so naive after all.
Her bells rang out insistently, with a clear sound, sometimes bold and seductive, sometimes sharp and shrill. She couldn’t be called quiet.
From the left bank side, as I strolled along the park past lovers kissing on benches and children chasing each other, the birds swooped so close. It seemed they were the only ones brave enough to approach her. Later, walking the opposite way at twilight, the little dollhouse-like treasury, shaped like a small château, had windows that shed a yellow, lamp-lit glow, with the South Rose Window’s darkened glass behind it. I wondered who was inside.
The opposite side near the souvenir shops was her gritty side, where I felt a sinister chill and wondered if, long ago, some priest murdered someone here, maybe on the stairs.
My friends became as mesmerized as I, and we spent hours contemplating her, whispering, shouting, swooning or shrinking. But when alone late at night, I became utterly obsessed and frightened by a sense of impending doom. I’d scurry across Pont de l’Achêveché toward Île St Louis, with quickened footsteps. She was there, too close. Avoiding eye contact, I pondered her psyche as I passed: she was immaculate, yet mysterious, safe yet dangerous, good yet bad.
In some way, she and I were one.
~ ~ ~
A few years later, on March 24, 2013, a Saturday afternoon just before 17:00 (5 p.m.), Christina and I sat close together, elbows on knees, along the left bank quai of the Seine with what seemed to be all of Paris.
In a few moments the new bells of Notre Dame would first kiss the air.
The previous fall, bleachers had been erected in the Place du Parvis, now called Place Jean-Paul II. All through the fall and winter, people had settled themselves on the cold metal and admired the façade, imagining the sounds of the new bells, which were designed after the original ones, cast in 1686, all except one of which had been melted to make cannons and money during the Revolution. To mark the 850th anniversary of the founding of the cathedral, the new bells, all of differing decoration, had been displayed for everyone to see in the nave of the church. Now she held them in her pristine towers as they awaited their debut.
Clouds paused, poised in the purplish-blue sky. The moon appeared early, just to listen. People of all ages, dressed in suits, in skirts, in coats, in burkas and saris, in jeans and silk dresses, held their breath. Pigeons lined the roofs of nearby buildings and clustered together on tree branches, tilting their heads and rustling their wings, shifting.
One hollow, hushed tone rang out. Another, and another, sonorous sounds swaying into a rocking rhythm of repeated chimes.
The sound of the new bells was softer.
Against the creamy stone backdrop of towers and turrets, statues and spires, four birds simultaneously swooped down from a rooftop into the center of the sky in front of the cathedral.
The birds soared as one, turned and circled in arcs and loops in perfect synchronicity as if they’d rehearsed for weeks, months. Their feathers aligned in measured symmetry, the distance between each identical, turning together, rising and dipping. With a final oscillating plunge, the birds darted in a string to a tree branch and turned their heads toward Their Lady.
The bells chimed again and again sounding their muted, gentle tones as two birds fluttered down from the rooftop in a flawless entrée, then pirouetted and plummeted with precision. All around, people’s heads followed their movements. Several children pointed.
“Are these trained birds, brought in for this?” I whispered to Christina.
“How could they be?” she asked, astonished, as the pair twisted and spun in adagio agreement, and fluttered off-stage to alight on an outstretched branch.
The next group of four descended from the roof and continued dancing to the rhythm of the bells, choreographed by an unseen hand.
The Universe was serving up a miracle smack in front of Notre Dame, and it seemed as though the bells were asking what I thought of it.
A collision clashed inside of me, yielding no answers.
The next week, one night long past midnight, I walked home across Pont de l’Achêveché. Earlier in the evening, clusters of soldiers gripping machine guns had been roaming the Place du Jean-Paul II, and I’d heard the cathedral was closed down due to a terror threat. A protective panic had gripped me then—I’d never once thought of Notre Dame as vulnerable—but now all was silent on my left as I crossed the bridge, its metal locks glittering in the moonlight. The only sound, my heels tapping the sidewalk. Fear, syrupy and familiar, rolled through my veins.
She invited me to look again.
I stopped and faced the dark figure that lurked behind ghostly trees in the shadows. Violent images appeared: imaginary crusaders slashing throats with bloodstained swords, Inquisitors in robes pointing long fingers, my soul, a target. Revolutionaries hacking the faces off the statues on the façade with hatchets, turning to me. My heartbeat skidded and I recoiled.
Then I wondered: Why had I seen so much evil in this cathedral, why had she frightened me so? Why had I kept away from her hushed sanctuary for so long? Why, why, why?
I saw myself cynically critiquing Christianity, avoiding churches, dashing out of this one, pointing out her flaws. I peeled back these images, and underneath, saw a girl sailing out of a harbor, escaping; sitting by a campfire, petrified, inadequate; a young woman rejected, accepted, then repelled; a woman welcomed, then becoming angry. So afraid and angry that when I stood underneath carved figures, I’d felt their scowls.
My thinking mind had mistaken the blunderings of human beings seeking meaning for the character of a Creator. The rejection I’d felt had been from people, as had the acceptance from family I’d forgotten was ever felt inside a church. I knew I’d never leap back into the hierarchy, but neither did I need to avoid Christianity, for I am not chosen or unchosen; I choose.
I stared her down. Her scars and her sweetnesses were mine. Good and bad, mixed.
I remembered the meaning of the word catholic: universal. Standing there in the dark, it wasn’t just Our Lady of Paris I felt connected with. It was everything: the miracles that rotated Rumi’s spinning thoughts, the ancient wisdom that flowed from O’Donohue’s pen, the Buddha’s meditations, the birds’ wingspans, and the light spilling from the Rose Window. God and the universe were one.
Inside me, black threads spun together with red, flickered, and lit up this quote from a poem by Rumi:
This flame says, Nothing here but God.
Everything, everyone, every moment.
This fire says, That.
With one last glance at her flying buttresses, poised in the dark not to lunge but to embrace, I continued walking. The bells began to chime, stoking the air with their sacred symphony of subtle sounds. The graceful birds, God’s representatives on earth, had celebrated these revivified bells.
My spirit, lifted by an unseen hand, swooped up in an arc.
Erin Byrne writes travel essays, short stories, poems, and screenplays. Her work has won numerous awards, including 2013 and 2012 Travelers’ Tales Grand Prize silver and bronze Solas Awards for Best Travel Story of the Year, and appears in a wide variety of publications, including World Hum, Vestoj, Burning the Midnight Oil, and The Best Travel Writing anthologies. Erin is the writer of The Storykeeper, an award-winning film about occupied Paris. She is occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, and is co-editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Paris, an anthology of writings from the bookstore, first in a series. Erin is currently working on Wings From Victory, a collection of her travel stories about France, Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco, and her novel, The Storykeeper of Paris. Her screenplay Siesta will be filmed in Spain in 2015. www.e-byrne.com.
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