High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City
One of the greatest perks of my job working as a courier and tour guide is that I get to visit places I’d perhaps never normally go to. People say when I am off to Paris, how exciting, aren’t you lucky and things like that, but the truth of it is I am not a city person at all. I find cities hard to deal with, and one of the things I do when I don my uniform on the morning of departure is also to put in place what I call my “game face”, which goes deeper than merely my face. I have to adopt a mindset where I can cope with the problems I experience with frenetic places crowded with thousands of people, and the attendant sensory overload that can afflict me. It’s a good job it’s time limited because I can only do it for so long before the cracks start to show. Usually by the time I get to my hotel room at night, I’m longing for solitude and silence like a parched traveller seeking a spring in the desert. It helps when the group are pleasant and the teachers friendly, but even so, I’m so relieved to shed my shell along with my uniform.
But cities have places where the numinous peeps through, and my tours usually take in a few of those. Sacre Coeur in Paris is one of those. Set like a fairytale castle on the top of the Butte of Montmarte, the shining white basilica draws the eye from anywhere in the city. Ascent is either by hundreds of steep steps or, if you wish, by funicular railway. There is no parking up there, so while you can get a car up there, this is simply for deliveries. The stone it is built from secretes calcite constantly, renewing the whiteness in a city of ten million souls and almost as many cars. Built between 1870 and finally consecrated in 1919, the basilica was aimed at expiating the excesses of the Third Empire and the chaos and death of the Paris commune, the church is maintained solely by gifts, and is run by an order of nuns who have had their convent up there for many years. They also have a vineyard that makes very fine wine.
When you go inside, the atmosphere hits you even before you have a chance to look around. Light from a thousand candles flickers, and the scent of hot wax fills the air. Incense has a ghostly remnant of scent. The architecture of the building, the vast mosaic in the central dome, and the hush of people trying to be silent add to it. One night we came in while the nuns were singing night prayer; it was just how you might imagine angels singing.
I take school children there, usually teenagers, and before we go inside I explain that whether they have beliefs or not, they need to be silent and respectful. The guardians will eject anyone inappropriately dressed or who talk loudly after a first warning. Photography is forbidden. Usually I put on a scarf out of respect for older traditions of covering my head. There’s generally not a lot of time so I explain before we go in how long they have. Some walk in and round and then walk out. Others…..well, it has an effect. Once we are outside and on our way, there’s always a kid who comes up to me and says something along these lines: “I’m not religious at all….but…..” and then they grind to a halt and start stumbling over words and similes. During the time that follows, others usually confide in me that they felt something they’d never quite felt before. It also generally defies definition and explanation.
I had an excellent conversation with one of the kids about it, when I was in Paris on Thursday and Friday last week. She thought that the fact that you couldn’t chatter and take photos really made the place extra special, because you could do that everywhere else. Another child told me it was the first time she’d felt safe enough to let go her clutch on her bag. This place is set aside from normal activities. People are at prayer all around. Behind the high altar, the Host is kept, the communion that the faithful believe is the body of Christ. Statues of saints keep stony and stern watch, their faces human and flawed.
Notre Dame, in the historical centre of Paris has a different atmosphere. You can take photos and quiet talking is permitted. Even though it is a far more ancient church, dating from the twelfth century and built upon an older cathedral, itself built upon a Temple to Jupiter, in turn built upon a druid site, it’s atmosphere is not so dense. I’ve never been in while a service was being conducted; while you do see people praying, there are fewer, and those who light candles are often doing so just for the sake of lighting a candle. There is a shop for souvenirs in the main body of the church while at Sacre Coeur the shop is tucked away, in a side room, and not constantly open.
I cannot begin to explain what creates the overwhelming feeling that Sacre Coeur gives to many visitors but I think some factors can be listed. Sacre Coeur is only accessible if you make the effort of climbing the steps. It has a community who live and work there and who also work to aid the many beggars you see in Paris. It guards the sacred space from mindless chatter and the flash of cameras. It was built as a gesture to make right wrongs of the whole city, not to glorify the wealth of one man (Notre Dame was commissioned by Archbishop Sully). And it is a place of constant prayer; open day and night, there is always someone from the community present and at prayer.
Whether you believe in prayer or not, many do, and perhaps the power of that collective belief also adds to the sense of the sacred, the awe-inspiring atmosphere.
“You are not here to verify, instruct yourself or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” T.S Eliot, Little Gidding (Four Quartets)
If it is indeed prayer than creates and holds sacred space intact, then there are oases of sacred space tucked away in every city on earth. Many languish, becoming tourist traps like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, losing their numinous atmosphere with the tramp of feet and the mundane chatter and the flash of cameras.
One of my ambitions is to create sacred space in my own home, a place set aside to be a spring of quietness and peace. Perhaps one day I may achieve it. By carrying in my soul the quiet of places I have visited I can one day add my own measure of prayerfulness to the deep well that our collective awareness creates within the wider world.