Four Churches & The Guillotine

Historical Paris is a city filled with ornate churches and people who lost their heads.

For folks whose primary view of this dichotomy is via the Internet, one can’t quite grasp the level of such a reality. On the ground, there’s no debating it.

That intricate dance of God and Country played out in the celebration of opulence as much as that of revolution is what drove me to move on from the Louvre after my brief visit with the Mona Lisa to some of the most extraordinary places in all of Paris.

I wasn’t interested in the Eiffel Tower (never even got close to it), Versailles (too far away), or even the Champs-Élysées. I needed to touch faith and death and headed for the only place I knew I could do both—the Île de la Cité.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely clear in my purpose or this afternoon pilgrimage. However, the “see what you’re guided to” approach had been working exceptionally well. So, I just let my feet and my senses take the lead. What I experienced transformed into an afternoon of extraordinary architecture, extensive history lessons, and expressive reverence.

 

 

 

 

Most unexpected of all, the places I was called to on the journey to the island turned out to leave the greatest mark upon me.

Knowing it was my father’s birthday, I lit a candle for him amongst the saints of Basilica of Notre-Dame des Victories. With more than 37,00 ex-votos, devotional artifacts that take their name from the Latin “ex voto suscepto,” or “from the vow made”, covering the walls of the 400-year-old church,  I  found myself overcome with the urge to pray. Despite my own aversion to organized religion, I wondered if the power of belief could draw even the most profound disbeliever down onto their knees.

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Unknown to me, this beautiful minor basilica has been a pilgrimage site for those who pray to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for hundreds of years and became the first stop on my own such journey of Mary.

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Time and time again over the coming weeks, Mary and the saints, pagan women, queens, other feminine figures who needed me to hear would appear to me in different places and ways, transforming a trip to France into a spiritual experience.

Mine wasn’t one of conversion, but one of profound reverence for the stories of women within the ancient world. How, despite their power and place being confiscated and marginalized by men seeking their own power, women and female iconography attached to faith continues to drive millions of people in their spiritual journeys. Their stories remain hidden in plain sight if one knows where to look.

Left with a sense of wonderment, I found myself wandering a bit until the grand mishmash of architecture that defines Église Saint-Eustache came into full view.

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Église Saint-Eustache

I’d read of its stunning sanctuary but honestly only went because the gentle hand pushing me along did so in that direction.  From the moment I stepped into the vestibule, I lost all sense of time and the outside world.

While the other visitors made their way to the right to admire its Gothic flying buttresses, rose windows, and breathtaking art, I found myself speechless and enraptured in the Chapel of the Virgin.

Chapel of the Virgin, Èglise Saint-Eustache

Chapel of the Virgin

There, amongst the handful of faithful, the Virgin rose up and I once again found myself before the Great Mother and her child, wide open and listening amidst absolute grandeur.

I realized how, in these magnificent places we wander through as tourists gasping in awe at the art still glorious after war, revolution, occupation, and conversion, the intricate evidence of other sorts of stories remains unnoticed.

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I stood amongst sacred geometry from every belief system intricately woven into the designs upon the walls:

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On the towering walls, ancient goddess and Sibyl figures with doves and serpents sat woven into the tapestry of Christian stories told through art:

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The stunning Cosmati-style floors that adorn the walkways of Renaissance-era churches across Europe made me gasp (I have a thing for Cosmati). Floors that, at least at their Italian roots, were crafted with the sacred stone taken from ancient temples dedicated often to their own Great Mother. Floors that, according to the anecdotal accounts, mark the path which clergy must walk to reach the higher plane and may have deep sacred feminine roots.

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As I rounded the corner to return to the Virgin, she reminded me to always look for that which others miss.

It would be in those quiet places, where my obsessive study of history, years of research on feminine spiritual iconography, storyteller’s wild imagination, and persistent belief in something not yet entirely revealed, where the stories that needed telling would rise up for me.

Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, while I visited iconic sites such as Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette and thousands of others spent their final hours before the guillotine, I sought only those small stories and found myself rewarded.

In the final act of the day at the Conciergerie—a place that disturbed me beyond explanation—I found myself locking eyes with a woman in the lower-level chapel.

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I have to be straight with you. Following a day of incredible cathedrals and spiritual guidance, I had very little left for such a place and its most famous inhabitant—Marie Antoinette.

I’ve never been a fan of her, and the absolutely horrifying history of the Conciergerie as a prison didn’t improve that condition. It’s worth noting that later in my French sojourn, I’d end up once again at a place that spent a century and a half as a prison after the French Revolution, and my experience there proved extraordinarily different. The effort at the Conciergerie seemed to be at preserving the dark spirit of death and execution. At Fontevraud a week later, I would find none of that but instead a day that seemed to allow me to touch heaven for a moment.

Back to our woman, whom I didn’t even bother to get the name of, hanging on the wall at the Conciergerie. She never waited for me to acknowledge her. Like Mary, she rose up because she knew I was one of those who would hear her if she spoke.

“We are all the Woman On The Wall,” she said to me. “Never forget.”

 

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