Confessing my sins to an anonymous priest at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral was a much more public experience than I imagined it would be.
Not that I expected to be taking part in that particular ritual. The last time I had done so was twenty-five years earlier, at age twelve, when I was on the cusp of understanding there were nuances of sin and nuances of awareness that might explain, for example, why my mother’s boyfriend wanted to touch the inside of my leg, why the young girl in the next apartment was so bruised, so tough, so unafraid of beating someone up, or why people who desired children or abused them would still go to church. But the likelihood of them confessing these sins was pretty slim, anyway. Maybe they believed no harm was done, or maybe they didn’t care for the self-reflection that would hold them culpable.
As it was, I couldn’t see the point of it.
Perhaps I was simply being rebellious; perhaps other parents guide their kids through this transitional time between innocence and knowledge by insisting they continue with confession and with the other church rituals – communion, mass, confirmation – understanding that, while they might moan and rebel and question, the continuity will provide a touchstone and they’ll come out the other side, as the euphemism goes, being knowledgeable enough to choose for themselves.
Perhaps I was just too young and I missed the point; the need for absolution – for somebody to say that, no matter what I did I was still loved – hadn’t occurred to me. Nor had the idea of reflection – on the nature of sin, my own role in the world, how my personal actions affected others. Maybe if I had been taught by a priest with enough depth of soul to understand how to explore those ideas with me, instead of one who believed his words held the gravitas of God’s and that, as such, I should simply, unquestioningly obey. Maybe understanding what hypocrisy was made me more inclined to not listen.
Eventually, in my teens, I moved away from my mother’s place – she had left my father when I was eight, after she suffered a series of mental breakdowns. With its revolving door of boyfriends and chaos, hers wasn’t a world I understood, and it wasn’t one I wanted to live in anymore.
As I grew up and into my twenties I developed a dilettante’s relationship with church. I loved going to midnight mass at Christmas – and in particular, singing O Holy Night: “Fall, on your knees, to hear the angel’s voices.” The idea of being overcome by humility or passion was foreign to me but romantic enough to be appealing. I was comfortable in the knowledge that, when I went to weddings or funerals that required it, I could summon up the old words – the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the responses of “have mercy on us” when the priest intoned “Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.” The comfort of knowing I belonged in that space, in that moment, provided a stability I didn’t have many other places. It also offered a sense of equality: no matter how different we all were, we had the rituals to unite us.
Through my twenties I had a very stable life with a house and a long-term relationship; but when that ended I wanted something else: a bit of adventure, a bit of seeing the world.
Of course, I ended up visiting Paris. I stayed in Montmartre, where it was cheaper than the Left Bank, where the Sacre Coeur overlooked the entire city, and where the neighbouring streets carried the history of a life more carnally, robustly lived; where a sex museum’s window displayed an antique chair with a hole in the seat, fitted beneath with a revolving wheel of simulated tongues; where the Moulin Rouge offered up (at least back in the noughties) a tame version of its famed burlesque, where the dancers looked slightly bored at kicking it up for the tourists – the lust for life I’d imagined had given way to a well-performed but passionless, choreographed show. It lacked authenticity.
That lack of passion was also evident for me in the Sacre Coeur; while the cathedral was impressive, I came away with little more than a nice memory of the view at the top of its long steps and one of those vending-machine coins whose sole purpose is to remind you of where you’ve been.
Notre Dame was another thing altogether. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t inviting. It towered over everything around it – even those famous stained glass windows looked dark and foreboding. Any god worshipped here was meant to be feared.
I was more interested in the building’s literary history than in the masses going on within it; in walking around it, up the stairs, following what I imagined were Victor Hugo’s footsteps as he invoked his famous hunchback. Literary ghosts were, for me, more evocative than holy ones – Hugo would have touched these very stones, wouldn’t he? Books were the things that made me reflect, outraged me, helped me to explore and understand the complexities and nature of sin, honour, decency, good and evil. I savoured the idea of being in the same spot that had inspired great writing and thoughts.
I had sought that same feeling, previously, in Greece. I wanted to find some place where the two thousand years or so between my existence and that of the great philosophers disappeared – where I could feel as if I were breathing the same air, seeing the same sights. If I could somehow internalize the landscape that informed and influenced them, maybe I’d gain a better understanding of the texts themselves.
I mistakenly thought this would happen at the Parthenon; it didn’t. The closest I came in Athens was walking around the Plaka, beside the ruins; sure, it was still a marketplace and people were still getting together in groups to drink and talk, but the market stalls selling American baseball caps and the hordes of middle-class tourists were too hard to ignore. My imagination just wasn’t that flexible.
It was on a smaller island, Paros, where the feeling of being part of an ancient continuum of ideas and humanity came to me. The island was popular with tourists, but not overrun with them; most of the hotels were in one of the two major port towns and you could still ride into the heart of the island to see Greek island life. I hired a moped and went to the hilly interior of the island, passed an old man trudging along with a donkey as I made my way up the steep road. When I made it to the top of the peak I dismounted. As the moped’s engine cut out I realized it had drowned out the sound of insects buzzing in the hot afternoon sun. Along the side of the road oregano grew wild; I picked some and rubbed it in my fingers, taking in the scent. Field after field peppered the sides of the hills with muted greens and browns; there were no buildings. I could see the Aegean – its sunlit blues contrasting with the fields and the lighter blue of the sky. This scene, or one very close to it, I thought, had been here since time immemorial. I was quite willing to embrace the romantic notion that this barren landscape had somehow influenced those who gave birth to Western thought and now, here was I, inhabiting the moment with them.
My experience at Notre Dame bore echoes of Greece, but while there, too, I walked in the footsteps of the greats, I was doing so with hundreds of other tourists as they milled around the aisles of the cathedral looking at the architecture, the icons, unwittingly doing the stations of the cross. When mass was about to start, everyone was asked to respect the worshippers and stop walking or leave. Most took a seat in one of the pews, so I did, too. I was comfortable lost in a crowd of other people from all over the world, each united by the rituals and a similar, remembered experience.
The time came for communion. I might have been a lapsed Catholic but, no doubt from long habit, I knew I wouldn’t go up without confessing first.
People lined up to receive the host. One tourist took it in his hand and brought it back to the pew where his friends were. They passed the host around, each breaking off a tiny piece to taste it. I was surprised at how affronted I was – this wasn’t a tourist spectacle, it was a real mass. For those who believed, the host represented the body of Christ; it was sacred and passing it around was a desecration. It wasn’t that I necessarily believed – I wouldn’t have been able to answer the question “Do you believe in God” with any certainty either way – but I still had enough respect for the rituals of the Church that making a game of it like this irritated me.
Still, that first time I didn’t feel the need to go to confession. Instead, I sat in one of the pews looking up at the altar, not quite a tourist, but not quite a participant, either.
A number of years earlier, on my first trip to Dublin, I heard about a church that still said Latin mass, so it went to the top of my must-see attractions. I went in the middle of the week; it was mostly attended by older people – those who’d grown up with a Latin mass, who were used to what it had been before Pope John XXIII and his council allowed English to creep in as part of Vatican II.
While I liked the idea of experiencing how mass would have been said for millennia, the language was unfamiliar to me. What bonded us were the movements and the motion, the standing and the sitting and the kneeling, the smell of incense being waved back and forth, the clank of the censer, the vestments. I found a certain delight in seeing the old traditions still preserved through use. It was something the Irish had done with their language, too: when it was threatened by the English, who said they mustn’t speak it, they taught Gaelic in hedgerow schools, knowing it would die out otherwise.
When I mentioned that I’d gone to the Latin mass to an Irish Catholic acquaintance I received back a strange look – I couldn’t tell whether it was scorn, disinterest, or something more complicated. The relationship the people of Catholic Ireland have with their church is much more complex than I can ever begin to relate to, but I was a bit envious of the ease with which he dismissed my enthusiasm – growing up with the Latin mass had made it something possible to hate; familiarity didn’t just breed contempt, but made contempt possible.
Still, I think he was missing the point: whether intellectually or spiritually, we seem to be programmed to look for something bigger than ourselves, but something we can feel comfortable in, that contracts back to community.
The second time I went to Paris I returned to Notre Dame. It was just as big. Daunting. Dark. Imposing. Uninviting. Fear- and awe-inspiring. Only this time – and I don’t recall it being available the first time I was there – priests were ready to take confession in any number of languages. I hadn’t planned it, but it occurred to me that this time I could be more than a tourist: I could be a participant. I could belong. So I took a seat in the row of chairs and waited for a priest to become available. When the previous confessant left, head bowed, the priest beckoned me in through the sliding glass doors that created a confessional in an otherwise open space.
“In English?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“How long has it been since your last confession?”
“A long time,” I said. “Twenty-five years.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And why now?”
“I’m here at Notre Dame and I want to take communion,” I said, then felt the need to go a little deeper. “I want to feel part of something bigger than myself.”
This made him smile. He asked me a few more questions – about where I lived, whether I intended to continue going to church after this. But I don’t recall him demanding me to reflect on the nature of sin – how could I, in so short a time? Mass was starting soon. So, instead of asking me what I wanted to confess, he asked me why I wanted to confess. A few exchanges later, my absolution, like a lapsed tetanus shot, had been brought up to date. I took communion.
It was nice to be able to participate; it felt familiar. Whether you believe or not in God or the church, the rituals learned as a child are in the bones and the blood. But it didn’t really change anything. Perhaps I was simply feeling homesick.
I ended up living in Ireland, on and off, for six years, and the Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula was one of the most peaceful places I found during my time there. The landscape surrounding the oratory is green and grey, rocky and barren, full of life and history. I once spent a month there at one of the local youth hostels, and often directed people to it. Sometimes they’d ask me whether I wanted to come along for the ride; if I was a local or a tour guide. I told them I just liked the place, admired the smoothness of the oratory’s dry-stone construction that had withstood a thousand years of history.
That small beehive hut embodied everything I admired about this particular part of the world.
If you look out to the Atlantic from certain parts of the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas you’ll see the islands known as the Skelligs: Skellig Michael and Little Skellig. The bigger one is now famous, thanks to Star Wars, as the place where Luke Skywalker went to get away from it all. He couldn’t have picked a better spot.
The island is isolated and inhospitable, reachable only by boat or helicopter, and then only on fair days – boats have crashed against the rocks trying to land. Upon arrival, you must climb hundreds of stairs, a convenience left behind by the monks who, hundreds of years ago, dared to carve their mark and their solace on it. They did this by building, not a big cathedral, but small, perfect stone huts in a place whose physical hardships would remind them of their own limitations, of what they were capable of making and what they were made of.
The people who came to the southwest coast of Ireland before electricity, before convenient transport, before motorized tools, carved a living and, more profoundly, a life, out of the rock and moss and peat bogs. The resilience – and stubbornness – of their spirit still astonishes me. What leap of faith did they have to take? With the Atlantic winds blowing and the rain lashing their faces and the darkness bearing down through cold winter months, how did they envision this as a place where they could build a life?
While some of them created from the Skellig rock, a monument just as impressive and extreme in its own way as Notre Dame, they also built the Gallarus Oratory on the mainland.
Nearly as famous as some of the big cathedrals, that small hut is no less a marvel in many ways. It was built of just one material: stone – there’s no mortar, nothing to hold it together except gravity and ingenuity.
Inside, it almost seems unremarkable. The Oratory’s roof curves up on itself to a peak with no visible supports – just balance and symmetry. It was perfectly formed to keep out the elements; despite having an open doorway, the building and its packed-dirt floor is always dry inside; nor does it have a musty smell. The awe I felt inside it was more subtle than what I experienced in Notre Dame. Its spirituality was simpler, too. If Notre Dame of Paris was meant to invoke fear, this small gathering place evoked stillness and reflection. The Skelligs, though they have huts built in a similar fashion, are almost as extreme as Notre Dame in their starkness.
But there’s grace in the Oratory’s simplicity. In all of the spiritual places I’d visited, in all of the places where I went where ancients had stood, where writers had been inspired, where gods had been feared, what I’d really been looking for, it occurred to me, was a place where everything was stilled, where I didn’t have to think about the words or the rituals or the ideas.
This was the place, it occurred to me, where my soul lived.
—From CNQ 98, (Winter 2017)