Connections: A Moment at Notre-Dame
Note: Wanderlust editor in chief Don George has just published the first collection of his own travel stories and essays, “The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George.” The collection presents 35 pieces, set in 24 countries, from 40 years of world-wandering. The story below, reprinted from the book, recounts one of travel’s great gifts: an unexpected moment of connection – and illumination – in Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Notre-Dame from the outside is magnificent, monumental, solidly of the earth and yet soaringly not. But for all its monumental permanence, its context is clearly the present: Visitors pose, focus, click; portable stalls sell sandwiches and postcards; tourist groups shuffle by in ragtag formation.
Walk through those massive, humbling doors, though, and suddenly you breathe the air of antiquity. Let your mind and eyes adjust to the inner light, and you begin to realize that there is much more to Paris than the life of its streets, and a small sense of its magnificent and moving past comes back to you.
When I entered Notre-Dame on my most recent trip, I was overwhelmed by the solid, soaring arches and columns I had forgotten, by the depth and texture of the stained-glass windows with their luminous blues and reds and greens. I thought of how many people had worked to build this magnificence, and of how many people since then had stood, perhaps on the very same stones as I, and marveled at it. I thought of all the faith and hope and sacrifice it manifests.
I walked through the fervent space, awed by the art and the hush that seemed to resonate with the whispers of centuries, and just when I was beginning to feel too small and insignificant and was getting ready to leave, I saw a simple sign over a tiny stone basin of water, on a column near the doors.
The sign said, “In the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit” in seven languages, with pictures that showed a hand dipping into the water, then touching a forehead.
I touched my hand to the cool, still water, then brought it to my head, and as I did so, chills ran through my body and tears streamed into my eyes.
Somehow that simple act had forged a palpable contact with ages past, had put everything into startling focus: the ceaseless flow of pilgrims to this special place, the ceaseless procession of hands to water and fingers to forehead, all sharing this basin, this gesture.
I felt a new sense of the history that flows with us and around us and beyond us all—of the plodding, tireless path of humankind and of the sluggish, often violent spread of Christianity through Europe and the rest of the world—and a new sense of the flow of my own history, too: my Protestant upbringing, a pastor whose notions of Christian love have had a deep and abiding influence on my life, the old and still inconceivable idea of God.
For a few moments I lost all sense of place and time—then a door opened and a tourist group entered, looking up and around in wonder, and I walked into the world of sunlight and spire again.
I stopped, blinked at the sandwich stalls and postcard vendors, then turned back toward that stony symmetry and thought: Sometimes you feel so small and insignificant in the crush of history that you lose all sense of purpose and self. Then something will happen to make you realize that every act and every encounter has its own precious meaning and lesson, and that history is simply the sum of all these.
Sometimes it comes together, as it did for me that moment in Notre-Dame; sometimes the world is reduced to a simple sign, a stone basin, the touch of water to head—and the vast pageant of the past and the living parade of the present take on a new, and renewing, symmetry and sense.
Reprinted with permission from The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George. Copyright 2015 by Don George. Published by Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House, Inc.
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