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SAINT-CHAPELLE, Paris

FIND THE DIVINE IN PARIS

My favourite destination is known as the “City of Lights,” and God is called the “Father of Lights.” Merely coincidence? Hmmm, I think not . . . Paris, to me, is heaven on earth! I invite you to observe the following steps if you’re planning a trip to the capital of France:

SEEK OUT NATURE: Paris encompasses more than four hundred parks—some dating back to the seventeenth century. A tourist can hardly escape the requisite gardens of the Champs-Elysées, Tuileries, or Versailles–but keep a lookout for pockets of green that sprout up behind school gates or on street corners or atop department stores. In Paris I’ve strolled through a Japanese garden, I’ve watched nuns eat a bag lunch on a bench behind the Notre Dame Cathedral, I’ve tasted strawberries and petted goats in the children’s amusement park in Bois de Boulogne. Even the starry backdrop to the Eiffel Tower as I floated down the Seine at midnight reminded me that something exists beyond mankind. Nature has a way of extending my vision past pavement and progress to refocus my attention on a greater reality.

LISTEN TO THE MUSIC: Nothing transcends the bustle of humanity like strains of Debussy or Berlioz. Even if you (like I) don’t care to invest time and money in attending a formal concert when there’s so much else to do and see in the city, many inexpensive events are held in churches or other public buildings. Besides, Parisian buskers are some of the most talented musicians in the world: I’ve tapped my toes to accordion playing on the train, lounged on the steps of the D’Orsay Museum near a violinist making her strings sing, and enjoyed a full-blown orchestra in the underground hallways of the Métro. Live music is everywhere, and one of my favourite memories is of the jazz band in a smoky bar on Île Saint-Louis. Thomas Carlyle (a Scot who wrote a book on the French Revolution) once declared:

Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.

OGLE THE ARCHITECTURE: Medieval cathedrals were designed to turn illiterate eyes heavenward, a religious instruction fully employed all over Paris. Don’t neglect to pop into churches for a peek as you pass by. I did just that with the thirteenth-century Sainte-Chapelle, the stained glass windows of which tell the grand sweep of biblical story from the Creation in Genesis through to the Apocalypse of Revelation. I fictionalized this visit in one scene of The Third Grace, when my character entered the lower level of the

Gothic space, devoid of notable ornamentation, that cast no prediction of the celestial splendor she’d find upon climbing the dank stairwell. But upstairs, multi-colored sunlight fractured the air above her head, the stained-glass kaleidoscope surrounding her like a halo of rubies and sapphires and emeralds. She rotated in a slow circle, head tipped upwards. Fifty-foot windows soared around her within a framework of marble arches extending into the vaulted ceiling like the ribs of an overturned ship, a thousand glass pictures she couldn’t at first interpret for their sheer profusion.                          

GLORY IN THE VISUAL ARTS: Every arrondissement of Paris houses museums full of art. Online listings include close to two hundred official galleries throughout the city, making overload a real threat to a tourist’s peace of mind. So go easy when planning your itinerary and choose carefully—but let the art make its way into your soul. The Louvre, as arguably the world’s greatest museum, is a perfect starting place and, if you’ve got the stamina and can be satisfied with an overview, you can do a preplanned run-through in a few hours (although, of course, thoughtful enjoyment could stretch out for days). My first visit to the Louvre in 1989 showed me works from prehistoric pagan sculpture to Renaissance manuscript illumination, from the Baroque painters to the Impressionists, from pre-Enlightenment religious painting to the didactic style in the Age of Reason. The Louvre introduced me to the icon of my debut novel when I came across the marble statue grouping of The Three Graces, Greek goddesses that got me thinking about the essential, gritty earthiness of creation that contrasts the yearning we all have for the divine.

HEAR HISTORY: The limestone foundations of Paris were set into the Seine River over two thousand years ago, and the city has been the center of cultural history-making ever since, its ancient cobblestones feeling the soles of Celtic tribesmen and Roman soldiers, emperors, monks, artists, and wandering minstrel jongleurs. Paris has known plague and war, royal intrigue and peasant revolt, religious massacres and philosophical movements. Marie Antoinette was beheaded in Paris, and there Voltaire theorized, Robespierre revolutionized, and Napoleon Bonaparte militarized. The city is saturated in history, an integral part of any trip. Whenever I visit as a tourist, I’m reminded that God, who from His own throne in the heavens oversees the coronation of all earthly powers, is the King of kings who governs time and eternity.

RESPECT THE SLEEP OF DEATH: Nothing brings spirituality into focus quite like a brush with mortality, and two top tourist attractions come to mind. (Both of the real-life scenes below appeared fictionalized in my second novel, The Red Journal.)

  • You might choose the Catacombs of Paris—an ossuary (or “bone yard”) situated in the underground tunnels of abandoned stone quarries beneath the city, housing the carefully arranged consecrated remains of six million people. Carved into the rock above the entrance to the museum is the phrase “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead,” and throughout the rather macabre tour you can read other such reminders of life’s brevity as “Believe that every day is your last” and of divine eternality as “God is not the author of death.”
  • I enjoyed a sunnier stroll through the Père Lachaise Cemetery, resting place of the likes of Balzac and Proust and Oscar Wilde, of composer Chopin and rocker Jim Morrison. Though a “city of the dead” with lanes and flowers and shady trees, this much cheerier graveyard is highly decorated in religious symbols: headstones and sepulchres are surmounted with statues of angels, crosses, praying hands, and Bibles; stone effigies of prone corpses and lively skeletons immortalized in marble hint at eventual resurrection; carvings of the dove of peace and the pelican of crucifixion spread their wings above the deceased as testimony to the Christian teaching of the afterlife.

PAUSE TO PRAY: While in Paris, I often find myself responding in prayer to the thumbprint of the Creator visible on so many of the city’s surfaces—when I trace His face in the natural elements of park or garden, hear the celestial strains of music, view art and architecture, engage with history, and observe death’s reality within urbanity’s vigour and vibrancy.

How do you experience spiritual reality when you travel? What stimulates you to consider the metaphysical when you visit foreign places?

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