One doesn’t expect to encounter God when you have to queue for 15 minutes to get into church! Notre Dame Cathedral is a top Paris attraction and I went very much as a tourist, albeit a spiritual one. As I approach the door I read instructions about this place being a Living Cathedral – an active place of prayer and worship, with choirs of singers, priests, and congregations who carry on the work of liturgy and ministry in amongst the crowds and then as I pass over the threshold I hear the unmistakable pull of sacred music from somewhere high and hidden. I pay for a guidebook and take a seat amongst dozens of others in the rear rows of seats in order to orient myself to the space. Looking around with the help of the guidebook, I begin to notice a plethora of the life I have been warned about. There are several side alters that have been cleverly converted with glass boxes to allow pilgrims to see a priest with privacy. You cannot walk 10 metres without another sign reminding you to be quiet, this is a place of prayer. We are invited to light a candle and the words about paying for it genuinely make me feel leaving coins is a gift not an obligation – that my prayer even would be a gift! The guidebook emphasises the theology and religiosity of the building, the building itself emphasises the spirituality of prayer and devotion. I found it impossible not to be moved.
This spiritual experience was almost entirely about the beauty of the building, although without the sensitive curation and sacralisation of the worshipping community who live and breathe in it, the cathedral would likely loose it’s etherial sensitivity. The curating is essential for transforming the architecture from aesthetic voyeurism in to an invitation to engage with the divinity and mystery of the universe. It is the vastness of the open space above our heads – inaccessible to touch and hold but descending into the body of humans below like the cloud of God descended on Moses on the mountain. Exquisite windows, the multiple stories of distinct styling, the delicate decoration of the hard stone – all this testifies to where the magic happens: up here in the heavens, in the empty, undefinable space. The very fact that it is beyond us is transformative.
Oh course there is beauty at ground level also. There are lots of paintings, statues, religious fixtures and fittings which are an invitation to devotion. Noticeably, they are ‘down to earth’ – Saints we can relate to, Mary who will mother us, Jesus who will save us. It is the Christian story of God Being Revealed and yet, so hindered by human limitations to describe what the absence of discourse can do in the metaphysical liminality up above.
In a missional era of spiritually oriented or open seekers, Western Christians are rediscovering both art and apophatic theology. It’s a powerful combination – I will never forget the hour of my life I spent at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.