Last month, my family and I spent ten days in Europe, gallivanting around Germany, France, and Austria. It was a whirlwind trip we had spent almost an entire year planning, mapping our course of nearly 1,500 miles, a dozen different cities, twice as many landmarks, and approximately two metric tons of French pastries and German everything-else. (Beer! Brats! Wine! Chocolate!)
It was a trip we’ll all remember, one that left me exhausted, dazed, and deeply inspired. And because I’m a girl who writes love letters to people, places, and food (definitely food), I came home with pages of a red composition notebook FILLED. Don’t worry, I’m breaking it all up into parts. You can read Part I or keep scrolling or skip it entirely, I’m not the boss of you.
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After crossing a few time zones (six to be exact), we were understandably pretty exhausted for the first couple of days. As soon as we got in the car, I would promptly fall asleep (don’t worry, guys, I wasn’t driving). So when we left Champs-Élysées to head to Sacré-Cœur Basilica less than 5 miles away (plus another 20+ minutes of trying to navigate the narrow, hectic streets of Paris in an 8-passenger van), I was snoring/drooling on my little airplane pillow while we (my dad) made the short but scenic drive up Montmarte, the highest hill in Paris.
I woke up/wiped the drool from my cheek just as we came around the final curve to see the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris rising from the hillside. Yes. It was as dramatic as it sounds. It was the stuff sonnets are made of.
A Sequence of Events: I woke. I wiped drool. I looked up. I gasped and breathed aloud something like, “Oh, my heavens.”
When I was in college, I wrote a thesis on mathematical induction in ancient architecture. (It was riveting, PROMISE). I included a few paragraphs about cathedrals focusing on the innate geometry of their arches. (Yeah, are you still with me?)
Here’s what I learned in college: the angles of a cathedral’s arches have to be meticulously calculated, or else the roof will cave in. Here’s what I did not learn in college: the angles of a cathedral’s arches will floor you, steal your breath, send shivers down your spine.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been in many American cathedrals and other beautiful, sacred places. But the sheer magnitude and divinity of Sacré-Cœur was nothing, not a thing, like I had seen before.
And then, after we had toured her glorious sanctuary, we walked out and saw the entire city of Paris laid out beneath us. We got lucky – it was sunset and it was breathtaking. I stood on the top step of Sacré-Cœur dumbfounded, and I wanted to stretch out my arms from one end of Paris to the other and literally hug that beautiful, twinkling City of Light. I was starstruck.
The next day we had another glorious cathedral on our agenda: Notre-Dame de Paris, built sky-high on an island in the middle of the River Seine. We got there a few minutes before noon mass began, waiting in line just as the bells began to toll the hour. Notre-Dame has earned every bit of her fame and praise, with the stunning stained glass windows, the intricately sculpted façades, the fascinating chimera (un/fortunately none voiced by Jason Alexander), the thousands of years built and lived and worshipped within her walls.
Within Notre-Dame, they have learned to cater more toward the tourist, offering interesting tidbits on previous popes (and one who’s interred there I think? I don’t know, the placard was in French), the history behind the famous Rose Window, and what is kept in the cathedral treasury. I ALMOST stole from the Roman Catholic Church when I breezed into the Treasury, unaware there’s an entrance fee. Within the Treasury is the (alleged) Crown of Thorns and a sliver of wood from (allegedly) the cross upon which Jesus died.
This might surprise like, no one, but I love actual, physical touchstones. I still have the extra party favors from our wedding. I’ve kept the hospital bracelets from both my children’s births. I’ve kept every journal I’ve ever written in (SHOCKER).
So knowing these relics exist, soaked with meaning, kept behind locked glass cases and a stern Frenchwoman collecting Euros – regardless of whether or not they are the ACTUAL Crown of Thorns or fragments of the Cross of Crucifixion – awakens that too-often-dormant awe of Jesus Christ: who we as the Church believe He is, and what we as the Church believe He did.
From Sacré-Cœur and her view of Paris to Notre-Dame and her ancient religious history, touring these two awe-inspiring cathedrals were downright worship services, as meaningful and enriching as any sermon I’ve heard. Even though I’m not Catholic, the belief system I hold so dear descended from the Roman Catholic Church, and from the teachings of the apostles and saints, and from the very life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is certainly no small, brief thing. And standing on the steps of Sacré-Cœur or before the high altar of Notre-Dame helped drive even my faith deeper.