Sunday, August 8, 2010

Paris: Well Worth a (Hot) Messe

Paris vaut bien une messe. (Paris is well worth a mass.)

-Words of Henri IV, the first Bourbon king, in reference to his conversion to Catholicism in order to assume the French throne

Boulevard Henri IV radiates out from place de la Bastille, just a cobblestone’s throw from where I live. The big boulevard, named after the first Bourbon monarch, geographically links the storied king to the once-was prison, the stones of which bolstered barricades during the Revolution.

For some believers, religion, like the Bastille, is a sort of invisible prison, with its creeds and rules, its prescriptions for interactions with God. But Henri IV refused to be locked into anyone else’s God logic. Any die-hard denominational Christian might consider him a fair-weather worshipper. He had already converted from Protestantism to Catholicism to avoid death in the massacre de la Saint Barthélemy then returned to Catholicism once his coronation depended upon it, pinballing between two faiths all of his life since his parents differed in confession.

I imagine his last conversion as a sort of a quick and dirty ceremony, at the basilique Saint-Denis, on the way into Paris. Henri, throwing up his hands and bellowing, “Oh, what the enfer! If this is what it takes to be king, pourquoi pas? It’s not like I haven’t done it before.”

In the past two weeks, I’ve attended mass twice, and each time it’s been, well, messe-y. I have always been clumsy at church, despite having grown up in one. I fumble a little in prayer, drop the hymnal, twist and fidget in the pew, never know how many hands to shake during the passing of the peace.

Another recent example of this confessional clumsiness? Last week, I stopped into l’église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in the Marais for the specific purpose of praying before a statue of my favorite saint, Joan of Arc, and spent half an hour jabbering away to the wrong martyr before realizing that my beloved Joan statue was actually about 75 feet behind me.

There’s a phrase from a song by the Avett Brothers, whom I first heard singing in the fellowship hall of the small Methodist church where we grew up, that sums up this rough-around-the-edges desire to be good:

And I don’t know if my soul is saved

Sometimes I use curse words when I pray

You see, when you grow up in rural North Carolina, you hear a lot of talk about “being saved,” and it can really jar you into believing that if you haven’t had a particular kind of come-to-Jesus moment, you might have wandered off the path, taken an accidental detour to a place Christians might describe as a “hot mess.”

“Hot mess” is an expression I first encountered when I moved to Louisiana. A grad student from Lafayette had applied it to the bureaucracy at LSU. Culturally, it makes sense. No matter what kind of mess you’re in in Louisiana, it’s always worse when it’s ninety degrees and you’re sweat-streaked, hair all frizzed from the humidity.

How do you say “hot mess” in French? I’d translate it as C’est le bordel, which literally means, “It’s the whorehouse,” but can generally be applied to any crazy or disorganized situation.

In an attempt to practice churchgoing, and maybe get better at it, I decided to attend mass at Notre Dame this morning. Instead of being one of those tourists who shuffled through the herd to gawk at the rose windows while being pick-pocketed, I’d continue my experiment of trying to have non-touristy experiences in touristy places. And believe me, it DOES feel very strange to have people flashing photos of you in your pew, praying, or up at the front, receiving communion.

Last week, after a trip to the American Cathedral of Paris, I’d made the mistake of calling the “flesh” component of the Eucharist “the wafer” a couple of times. “The HOST,” my upstairs neighbor, who invited me, corrected. (Apparently, “wafer” connotes “Nilla” rather than “body of Christ.”) She said the proper way to take communion was to let the host melt on your tongue.

So, imagine my surprise this morning when the priest bit off a piece of the wafer, (um, host) which was, afterall, the size of a silver dollar, then put the rest in his mouth and visibly chewed it. It was actually a relief to see him, up there in front of hundreds of people, nibble off a piece of the host like he was snacking on a Ritz cracker instead of experiencing transubstantiation. If he can take communion that casually in one of the most celebrated cathedrals in the world, maybe there’s more than one way to be good. Another line from the song comes to mind . . .

I don't doubt that the good book is true

But what's right for me might not be right for you

The service, which involved Gregorian chants and readings from Hebrews and Luke, lifted my spirits, though post-communion I wondered if I’d committed a terrible sin by receiving the sacrament without being Catholic.

On my way out, I stopped by another statue of Joan of Arc and said a few prayers for the people I loved. Since my friends John and Emily would be getting married a few hours later and I wouldn’t make it across the Atlantic in time, I asked for a blessing for them. As I prayed, I remembered the overheard words of a woman on a cell phone behind the cash register of the cathedral’s gift shop a few days prior.

Tu demandes à Dieu.

Tu lui demandes rien, il va rien faire!

Ask God.

If you don’t ask him for anything, he won’t do anything!

It was a funny image, God just lazing about, thumb-twiddling, lounging on some futon in heaven, waiting for his pager to buzz, when timid Christians couldn't summon the gumption to ask him for anything. I bet this woman used “tu” instead of “vous” when she prayed. I bet, every once in a while, she let a curse word slip.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Tara, what a great post. really enjoyed it!