Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"I have seldom looked on the end-end of a church with more complete sympathy." (Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage)

This were Stevenson's words in 1878, penned while gazing upon the sprawling cathedral with ragged edges in Noyon, France. It's not imminently clear if he meant that it was somewhat pathetic because of the ruins, or if he found great beauty there, but both are entirely possible.

When we embarked on a train to visit this town with our friends David and Karin two days ago, we found many occasions to have our "sympathies" stirred. The most obvious was our initial reason for the trip: this was the birthplace of John Calvin (ne Jean Cauvin), whose 500th birthday many protestants are celebrating this year. There is a museum devoted to Calvin and the 16th century reforms in a fine reconstruction of his house, a mere two streets over from the aforemationed catehdral.

His was an unlikely beginning for a rebel against the Catholic system. Noyon was an ecclesiastical and political nerve center, with the crownings of Charlemagne and Hugh Capet taking place here in the Middle Ages (the fountain at right has a plaque that celebrates these grand events). In Calvin's time, there were ten churches total, so many that the town was known as "la bien sonnee" (the ringing city). From an early age, Calvin's father worked at the main cathedral, Notre-Dame. His parents intended little Johnny for the priesthood, his mother also being a devout follower of St. Anne. Of course, all of this careful religious training would fall apart when the young man was in his twenties studying law in Paris, and began to read Luther.

The museum is dedicated to not only Calvin himself, but also the history of the Protestant Reformation in France. Of course, this ideology was quickly labeled as heretical, and all known profess-ors were chased out of town or burned at the stake. Personally, I was very touched by the portable pulpit, which was one of many used by preachers in secret locations in the forest over the course of the 16-18th centuries. We learned that one particularly grueling era during these centuries was called the "desert", since they were essentially in exile because of their beliefs.

Meanwhile, the silent, imposing giant at the center of Noyon still stood brooding.

"As it flanges out in three wide terraces and settles down broadly on the earth, it looks like the poop of some great old battle-ship. Hollow-backed buttresses carry vases, which figure for the stern lanterns. There is a roll in the ground, and the towers just appear above the pitch of the roof, as though the good ship were bowing lazily over an Atlantic swell." (Stevenson, An Inland Voyage)

My sympathies for this church were at first aroused when I saw the pockmarks and rubble from two world wars. "Old battleship" indeed. But as I gave it more thought, I saw a much greater sadness. That is, this gargantuan Gothic creation - for all of its wonderful, soaring buttresses and plays of light - is also a monument to the spiritual blindness of man's religious systems when the glory of God is trifled with and the free gift of salvation is offered as a marketable item.

Perhaps I'm getting a little too preachy, but I am mulling over these things mainly for my own benefit, since we are are all susceptible to making little of God rather than much. France has never really undergone the transformation that comes when God's glory is put first, since Calvin was more or less transplanted to Switzerland. Though it is true that non-Catholics in France are now allowed to worship in freedom, it is often with careful governmental surveillance.

The 16th-century library attached to the cathedral is still intact in its original form. It is rumored that the works of Calvin were placed under a section called "heretics." By some miracle, this church library survived the onslaught of German troops - twice - and four centuries of wear and tear. They only open the place to the public twice of year because of its fragility. Or perhaps they're afraid that people will discover the "heretics," blowing the dust off of some of the weightier tomes...

I hope they do.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Less than two months.

If you had just under two months in Paris, what would you do?

  1. Go a final time to the Fleche d'Or, our favorite train-station-turned-rock-club in the 19th arrondissment, before it closes at the end of the month.

  2. Run all of the bridges in Paris (there are 33 with pedestrian access) in one day.

  3. See the exhibition of William Blake's work at the Petit Palais. *

  4. Perform music in the streets. *

  5. Buy a summer-weight scarf. And a fine hat.

  6. Grab one more bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup, Pho, at our favorite noodle joint in our old Chinatown neighborhood.

  7. Buy the new, exquisite edition of a medieval classic, hot off the press with a preface by my prof at the Sorbonne. *

  8. Visit the Musee de Cluny (Middle Ages museum) one last time, and get photos of the medieval gardens.

  9. Peruse the stacks at the oldest public library in Paris, the Bibliotheque Mazarine.

  10. Go to one uppity jazz club, New Morning or Duc des Lombards

  11. Another bike trip in the countryside.

  12. Sip espresso and write stories in cafes like it's going out of style. *

  13. Eat enough French bread, wine, and cheese to hold me for a while. *

  14. Get brave enough to try on “skinny jeans.”

  15. Picnic on the Pont-des-Arts.

  16. Go to Scotland for family, islands, biking, and, well, scotch.

  17. Italy.

  18. Make the rounds to thank our cheese guy Michel, our fruit and veg sellers, the coffee-roasting couple, and numerous other everyday friends.

  19. Eat macarons from Laduree, which to my own shame I have never done.

  20. Say au revoir, which means goodbye, but literally says “till the seeing again.”

* recently experienced, but subject to subsequent repetition.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Running in Both Directions

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”.

On that morning of all mornings, the sun had not yet peeked over the horizontal line that the Lord of all had fixed since anyone could remember. The people of God who had staked their claim on the Teacher from Nazareth were huddled in dark patches of shadow all across Jerusalem behind locked doors that they opened only to familiar voices. Exhausted, grieved in spirit, the Sabbath had been a much-needed rest. But now, no one knew for sure what would happen. The religious and political leaders were likely to strike His followers next. Jesus' words about rising on the third day seemed like a distant dream, the kind where you try to remember the details, but they hover just beyond your grasp.

In this uncertain atmosphere, I am not sure if I would have had the courage, curiosity and conviction of Mary, Peter, and John. Run headlong to the tomb? What if it were a trap? What better strategy to capture His supporters than to lure them with the disappearance of the body? I can just hear myself, reasoning with worldly gravity: “Well, you know that Joseph of Arimathea, on the Council? He paid for the tomb, but how do we know he isn't just posing as a disciple to take us all in? He might be just another Judas.” How mistrust and fear must have run rampant amongst the dismayed believers in these difficult hours, blinding their minds with unbelief.

Mary Magdalene had been momentarily blinded by her grief. She managed to have a short conversation with two angels and a “gardener”before she even realized that something supernatural was going on. Yet, full of courage and curiosity, she persevered in her pursuit of the Lord she loved, even if that meant walking into a threatening situation. Her persistence was rewarded by a dear reunion with her Friend and Savior in the garden, when He opened her eyes personally to recognize Him. She came running back with a firm witness: “I have seen the Lord.”

So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first....then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

When Mary returned with the first report, perhaps that nearly-forgotten dream flickered on the edges of their memories. Had He really said He would rise again? This conviction gave them courage to run towards something that appeared not only hopeless, but dangerous. One of my favorite paintings in the Musee d'Orsay depicts these two running disciples, their faces a complex mixture of fear, hope, and urgency. I can only imagine what conflicting feelings were pounding in their hearts as they approached the tomb of the Teacher they loved. In return, they received the happy news, and at least one of the two “believed.”

Sometimes I am like Mary. At first, I am unable to see Him because of the blur of tears. The difficulties of life and my longing to be with Him makes my spirit groan. But He enables me, even at the lowest points of grief, to move towards Him. He somehow makes room in my doubting heart for courage, curiosity, and even conviction. It is such a joy to run back to my friends time and time again, saying: “I have seen the Lord.”

Other times, I am like Peter and John. I vaguely remember His promises, but they're buried deep. Still, with the tiniest spark of life, He inspires me to run, resurrecting my hope in Him as I go. He rolls the heavy stone away from my heart. Every morning becomes a potential Resurrection Sunday, when I can peer into an empty tomb and believe anew.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Way Home

I stumble in the semi-darkness over the ski clothes strewn around the living room after yesterday's adventures. Feeling around, I can detect the rubber soles of my running shoes under the mess. Bingo. Now I'm laced up, and ready to go. My sleeping husband, gently snoring, has to leave in a couple of hours. I make a mental note to be back in time to kiss him goodbye.

The air outside is colored and warmed by slanting sun rays, it smells like spring. This is a strange contrast to the fresh blanket - no, thick downy comforter - of snow piled in banks and on the trunks of trees. I sure hope the trails are navigable with my mesh sneakers.

It was our last morning in Germany after a week of playing in the snow. We had a 9-hour car trip ahead of us, and I figured I should stretch the legs a little bit. Ha. That would be an understatement.

The first climb was steep, and I took it slow. From the top of the hill behind our resort, I could just see the snow-covered peaks of the Austrian Alps beyond, the valley below was cloaked in early-morning fog. After this, lots of joyful, crazy little switchbacks back down, through farms and fields and forest. The turn-around point I had decided on beforehand was "Hinterhalden", and I muttered this magical-sounding word under my breath every mile or so, like some incantation that would spirit me away to that promised place. (By the way, I looked it up in a dictionary later on, and was much disappointed to discover that it meant "behind the rubbish heap". So much for my German fairy tale.)

Suddenly, I'll pulled up short by a glance down at my watch. It's been 45 minutes already? My hunt for Hinterhalden was, so far, futile. I nervously trotted a little faster, and then a little faster, hoping for a sign. Finally it came, along with a very helpful map. (I love Germany. Did I mention that already?) I had run clear past my objective, apparently, and was in the next village. Definitely time to do a 180. The valley was bubbling with a very exuberant creek, as happy as I was about the combination of recent snowfall and warmer temperatures. A heron and a hawk looked at me as I jogged past, but didn't seem too worried. All was well, until...

Until it came time to go up again. Now, I knew exactly where I was (well, not the coordinates or anything, like my Dad can with his fancy Garmin) and where I needed to be, but the question was, how? There seem to be no marked paths climbing the valley, and it was too late to go back the way I came. I began to despair of seeing Karl before his departure. He was leaving in the first car to motor back to Paris early, and I wanted so badly to say goodbye. Alas.

At this moment, low in various respects, it somehow finally occurred to me to ask the Lord for help. Why it always takes me so long to ask an omnipotent God to give me a hand is beyond me, part of the human condition, I guess. I shot up a prayer, and within a couple of minutes, my eyes fastened upon a blessed arrow labeled "Malas - 10 min" which pointed a snaky trail up the hill. Glory be. The climb left me wet, laughing, exhausted, and deposited me directly in front of our hotel. I love curbside service.

I have seen this principle at work so many times in life - just when I think there is no possible way to get over the mountain, He opens up a new way. (With some of us, He has to show us quite literally.) Just like the old spiritual says:

So high, you can't get over,
So low, you can't get under it,
So wide, you can't go 'round it,
You must go in at the door.

He is with us in every stride and swoosh.

P.S. I did catch Karl before he left, for those of you still in suspense.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Friends in High Places

Who is God but the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God...
He makes my feet like hind's feet
And sets me upon my high places...
You enlarge my steps under me,
And my feet have not slipped...
The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock.
(Psalm 18:31, 33, 36, 46)

The past week is a jumble of bright sun, snowflakes, laughing, bratwurst and bier, praying, and learning. Most of all, our week-long jaunt to the German and Austrian Alps took us out of our everyday routine and stuck us in a place where we could not be reached by the ebbs and flows of everyday concerns, Internet, and the like. Off the grid...

Waiting, every muscle in my body is tense as I wait for the right moment. Here it comes -I'd better not fall again, like last time in front of God and everyone - here it comes around, whoop! I made it. The chair swoops up into the blue and forward and back a few times, just enough to give me butterflies for a moment. Then, silence. I have the impression that the stately pines are staring me down as I glide up the hill. What is she doing here? The delicious feeling that nothing that beeps or rings can reach me here. I have time. Time to think. Or not.

The mountains grow bigger and bigger as we ascend. I attempt some small talk with the people I know and love, and we are eventually hushed by our majestic surroundings. It is the calm before the storm.

For an inexperienced skier like myself, the "storm" means the trip downhill. There is something about strapping long, immovable pieces of fiberglass and metal to my feet and catapulting myself down a steep snowy incline that incites some apprehension. For the guy who shared my T-bar on the way up, well, it's another story. Just bring up the subject of skiing, and his eyes start to gleam with anticipation. Swoosh.

So there I was, pausing and teetering at the top of the slope, realizing that there was no other way down. (That's the thing with chair lifts - how humiliating would it be to take one down the hill?) So, out of a mixture of pride and self-determination, I started the descent. About ten minutes, three bruises, approximately a dozen falls and slips later, I was finally at the bottom wondering if the effort was worth it.

Fast-forward about 24 hours.

The sun in shining like there's no tomorrow, and I'm surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of Austria. Heck, I'm ON one of them. I'm cruising down a blue run, when I notice that the piste takes a steep torn ahead. I flashback to the day before, and push the image away. A beautiful phrase - "he makes my feet like hind's feet and sets me upon my high places" - settles over my mind like a fresh coat of snow, and I repeat it under my breath over and over as I practice my turns (left, swoosh, right, swoosh), and before I know it, I at the bottom with one of my favorite experiences of my whole life under my belt. God is good.

More soon...