It’s been three months since I traveled to Europe, and I’m still not sure if the trip has finished affecting me. People ask me “how was Europe?” and I stand still, awkwardly trying to encapsulate in a few words the richness and depth and wonder of my first experience of the Old World. It was beautiful; it was dirty. It was profound and shallow; old and new; hospitable and xenophobic; deeply religious and profoundly pagan. Every city brought with it a cacophony of voices past and present proclaiming two millennia of stories to ears incapable of hearing it all. I strolled through narrow cobbled streets trying to absorb small charms and trinkets of each city’s vast hoard of history, art, and culture. Paris, Lyon, Nice, Prague, Berlin, and countless towns along the Rhine: each stood erect and distinct from the others, boldly displaying its own unique and stratified identity.
But among the endless idiosyncrasies of each of these cities, a common DNA dappled their streets, towered over their squares, and loomed upon their summits: the old and weathered churches of an age long past. It was to these buildings my heart continued to be drawn, and it was these buildings that became my greatest tutor, the stones crying out in a land near bereft of all true worship.
In Paris, I stayed in a flat in the Montmartre district–known to many as the art district of the 19th and early 20th century, and the past home of Picasso, Dali, Monet, and Van Gogh. Today, tourists daily visit the old homes of these artists and small museums dedicated to their work. But most come to the Montmarte district to experience another work of art: The Basilica of the Sacre Coeur. Towering above most of the city, the Sacre Coeur features some of the most beautiful and impressive stonework of any of the churches in France.
It’s a beautiful display of architectural ingenuity and structural beauty. I was even able to attend an evening mass the last night I was in Paris. But for all its beauty and power, it was the church beside it that captivated me. Hidden away and overshadowed by the Sacre Coeur, the Eglise Saint-Pierre de Montmartre stands a forgotten piece. It is much older than the Sacre Coeur, a church built upon the ruins of a Roman temple and known as the birth place of the Jesuit order. Yet for all its history, it stands unattended and forgotten by tourists and locals alike, not because it lacks history and character, but simply because compared to its counterpart, the Eglise Saint Pierre seems small and plain–a plate of bread and water next to a feast of meat and wine.
Upon entering the Sacre Coeur, one is immediately confronted with its grand spectacle. The massive arches, polished stone pillars, and gold furnishings dazzle the eye. And with this comes all manner of tourist-driven booths where people can buy candles or other trinkets. Not so with Eglise Saint-Pierre.
It boasts no gold furnishings, grand architecture, or smooth stones. It features nothing for tourists. Nothing sparkles. Nothing dazzles. Nothing draws attention to itself. I walked into an empty church building whose only voice spoke the echoes of my feet upon its sober stone floor. The restored pillars were streaked black and worn rough by a millennia of time, wrinkled and grey with age and experience. The church was still. And in the stillness, it whispered its worship up to God with the voice of humility and awe. In its simplicity, the church professed the mysterious intricacies of the Godhead. In its sobriety, the church sung the joys of the Kingdom. In its humility, the church confessed the majesty of the Christ.
This church possessed a character and integrity that the Sacre Coeur and even Notre Dame could not match. Forgotten and empty, the Eglise Saint-Pierre stood with a subtle profundity and a humble magnificence, embodying within its ragged stones the ragged beauty of the cross-worn Christ. And in this simplicity and stillness, the stones cried out in worship.
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Three months since I walked among those stones, I have not forgotten the lesson and challenge of that simple church, for within that structure stands a lesson about what my life is not and what my life should be. Standing in that church, I could hear the whisper of wisdom through those weary walls: Those whose piety stands upon the surface, often find little of it beneath.We are not called to a life of golden spirituality, polished virtues, and grand public influence. For often these things become mirrors reflecting the image of oneself. We are called to a life of sober simplicity and ragged faithfulness–a life whose magnificence is found in its humility and whose grandeur is found in its subtlety. For the life of the saint is one of quiet faithfulness, when all visitors forsake his doors and all marveling eyes turn toward another. Ragged and weathered, he stands, the humble pillars of his life joining the chorus of the saints who have gone before, the stones of Christ’s Church crying out in praise of the One whose majesty lights the stars.
*Photo credit for the Eglise Saint-Pierre: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ec/%C3%89glise_Saint-Pierre_de_Montmartre_-_portail.jpg