You know, when I was little, I used to stay at my grandmother’s home when my family would go “up north” to visit our relatives every winter and summer.  The rest of my family got to stay at my uncle’s house, but I stayed with my grandmother.  I credit that with a lot of things in my life, from my love of cooking and more especially baking, to my fear of ever having my home be so warm that it melts candles (another story for another time).

One thing that I really remember, more than a lot of others, is the fact that I was raised as a Lutheran, much to my grandmother’s chagrin.  You see, my mother’s side was Lutheran and therefore so was I.  However, my father’s side was Catholic (mostly lapsed, now), and my grandmother; well, she was Mother Superior, in every sense of the word.  While the rest of my family was in my uncle’s house watching movies on Saturday evenings before we would meet for dinner, my grandmother would take me to Saturday night Mass at her church.  Even though I wasn’t Catholic, and really, even though I was too young, she would always tell me that I could go up to the altar when it came time for the sacrament and tell me that I could take it, because really, they didn’t know that I wasn’t Catholic, and honestly, God probably wouldn’t mind.  Secretly, I always thought that she just really wanted me to be Catholic and would try anything in her power to make me one.

Flash forward to my holiday in Paris a couple of years ago.  On one of my last days there I decided that it was time to go to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in the Montmarte area of the north of the city.  I walked all the way there; all the way up the stairs, in the beautiful light of an early spring evening in Paris, with the birds singing and the other tourists flashing their cameras as they took photos of each other in front of the church and on the surrounding lawns that yawned out from all sides.

I hadn’t realized that I actually arrived right at the start of the nightly Mass there, but following in my grandmother’s footsteps and feeling that a) she would love to have been able to be in such a place at some point in her life and b) God wouldn’t really mind, I walked up front, in front of the tourists and those that were illegally trying to take photos with their cameras (it was forbidden to photograph inside the church itself, unlike Notre Dame).  I walked all the way to one of the first rows and sat next to a beautiful woman of some African decent.  She was deep in thought and prayer, on her knees while the priest spoke.  I tried not to disturb her, but she noticed me sitting down, flashed me a huge smile and gestured for me to join her on the wooden pew, third row center.  Although I had no idea what was being said (not only do I not know the traditional Catholic Mass, but I know it even less when it’s in French, since I don’t speak the language at all), I tried to imitate her as much as possible.  I knelt when she did, I crossed myself when she did, and when it came time for the sacrament, she gestured enthusiastically that I should join her when she went up for it.

Now this was a little forbidding – this was not just a small Catholic church in some small city in the Midwest in the US.  No indeed.  This was La Basilique du Sacre Coeur!  In Paris!  Now, those not familiar with Christian sacraments or denominations might not really understand, but the sacrament at Mass (the wafer and wine) are sacred.  Lutherans might allow others of the Christian faith to partake, but the Catholics don’t play that game.  if you aren’t Catholic, you can’t partake.  You can walk up and get a blessing from the priest, but not the actual wafer or wine.  At least in theory.  And I felt uncomfortable going up there, but this time, with this lovely French / African woman gesturing for me to follow her, and me not knowing nearly enough French to tell the priest that I shouldn’t be receiving the Mass, I walked up in the shadow of the grand, awe-inspiring dome of the Basilica, covered in a beautiful mural, with angels and saints watching me, and I stood before the priest, hands in a prayer (which is typically used to indicate that one is not taking the sacrament) and watched as the priest handed me a wafer.  And then the golden goblet in which was the sacred red wine.

There are times in life when one should follow the rules.  Certainly, when you are in Tunisia, you shouldn’t take photos of the police.  That’s not only frowned upon, but generally, well, it’s illegal.  However, it’s not like me taking the wafer and wine was technically illegal.  And the brief thought in my head said to me “I am sure that God won’t mind and has much more important things to think about than whether or not a Lutheran partook in the sacrament.”  So in a moment, I opened my palm to take the wafer and then found myself taking a sip of the wine, and suddenly turning back around and walking, solemnly, back to my seat, next to the smiling, now praying woman.

The Mass lasted only a few more minutes, and in that time, I felt flush.  Flush with a slight feeling of deviancy, but also of, well, I don’t know.  Not holiness, but something more akin to companionship.  In the community of the church, of the French, of belonging to a group, if only for an hour.

And as I walked around the inside of the church following the service and then out into the slowly waning light and rising moon, I felt somehow whole.  Somehow reminded of the love of my grandmother when she and I would go to Mass.  Reminded of a greater love that so rarely manifests itself, deep in one’s heart.  And for however brief a time, I couldn’t stop smiling.  And the evening air, the walk back to my hotel for dinner, the lights of the city turning on for the night – it was all beautiful in a way that I had only barely noticed before.

I love Paris.

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