We climbed to my favorite spot in Paris on Saturday: Montmartre and Sacre Coeur. Literally, we climbed! The basilica sits atop a hill that offers an awe-inspiring view of the city from a northern vantage point. The nearest metro only takes you so far and then you have to wend your way up winding roads strewn with charming cafes frequented by a global clientele. Countless stairs. But breathless becomes breath-taking when you see the grandeur of this white stone church rise before you.
I did the math. It had been 39 years since I had last stood on this site. I was a sophomore at St Olaf College on a semester abroad to work on my French major. For the month of January about ten of us lived in Hotel Jean Bart and ventured out into the city each day to explore another layer of it. We learned how to say, “Put your buns in gear” (rough translation: Mettez les petits pains en marche!) to spur on those who didn’t move so quickly in the morning. We ate patisseries and photographs of my ballooning face from that January Interim boast of their goodness. We transcribed portions of a radio broadcast each day to finetune our listening skills. We entered into buildilngs with such history and beauty that we stopped our collegiate chatter and stared in awe. Sacre Coeur and Montmartre was one such area for me.
39 years. It looked the same. Could it really have been that long? The presence of my husband of 33 years and my youngest daughter who is on the brink of 21 was evidence of a great passage of time. The 19 year old co-ed was still in me but with a few added layers of life (in several ways…). I could not have guessed in 1979 that I would return with rusty French language skills, a career as a parish minister and a family whose best interests I hold most dear in my heart. But the distance of time has a way of fading away when we find ourselves standing on holy ground.
39 years later I have a little more money to spend on tourism so we hired a guide to tell us about this beloved area of Paris. I learned that the Romans once had a fortress on the hill! That’s right, the Romans! They had a temple to the god, Mars, and there is some conjecture that the name of the district is derived from these ancient roots, as in Mont of Mars. Once the Romans left the scene the Christian pilgrims tried to erase all vestiges of the pagan worship. They erected the Eglise de Sainte Pierre, which still stands today. In fact, the bells were ringing as we arrived on the hill. So the Christians took over the hilltop but this ancient sanctuary has several pillars that were crafted by the Romans for their own worship space. I like to touch history, imagining who quarried, hauled, chiseled, and shaped these building pieces of the past. Garrett caught a picture of me running my hands across a dark stone pillar that was the handiwork of Christ’s government. Time moves forward but traces of the past are part of the foundation for new lives and movements.
Fast forward to Saint Denis. He is believed to have been martyred on this popular hilltop by beheading. Legend tells us that he carried his head in his hands some six kilometers before dying. I’d say that deserves canonical recognition! In some architectural carvings, including in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, you will see a line up of the saints and he is the one standing with good posture and his own head in his hands. That must have been quite a photo shoot for the other guys! At any rate, some hold that the name of this Parisian district comes from his martyrdom: Mont of Martyrs.
Our very knowledgable guide, Miriam, walked us through the business area, which is teeming with tourists. In the 1800s this area of Paris was far removed from the town center and was, therefore, cheap rent for starving artists. It seems like buildings in France last forever so she showed us some of the places where well known artists ordered cheap grub, hoping for a bit of success with their etchings. At one eatery now named Restaurant Le Consulat, Renoir is reputed to have traded one of his paintings for a piece of bread and a glass of wine.
Later that day we looked at that same painting hanging on the walls of the Musee D’Orsay behind protective wires that will sound an alarm if you get too close to it. Something tells me that there are still some baguette crumbs along the edge of the frame and some camembert cheese smeared in a spot or two from the time this painting hung in a local bar drawing the occasional interest of Renoir’s contemporaries who probably had too much to drink. Years pass and life changes in ways never imagined. The scene the impressionist artist painted depicted the social life of Montmartre at a cafe in his day. The customers look back at us from the museum walls and, with a change of clothing and different hair, they could be the folks drinking wine and laughing around tables at cafes encircling the artists’ square today. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that what is now has already been. Though time passes there is nothing new under the sun.
It was obvious that 39 years had passed since I last visited Sacre Coeur when we paid six euros each to climb to the “observation deck” near the top of the biggest and central dome. We assumed there would be an elevator added to this ancient and majestic cathedral. You know what happens when you make an assumption! Right. So we walked. I mean, we climbed a narrow staircase that must have been included for medieval bell ringers. Our 20 year old daughter ran ahead of us while we lived out our marriage vows in new ways by offering physical encouragement and some prayers for each other.
Time and bodies had changed but when we made it to the top and looked out over the beautiful city of Paris, all the layers of my life melded together perfectly as if time had stood still.