Prayers in Paris, France
Sing the bells, bells, bells, bells, The Bells of Notre Dame
I entered the Cathedral half expecting to see the glint of Quasimodo’s good eye to shine somewhere in the dark corners. If truth were told though, it would be one of the many lights that shone in the sanctum. There were thousands of candles, some neatly tucked into rows, others off to a side, alone in their remembrance of a prayer uttered by some faithful solicitor of heavenly deliverance. There were some in glass cups, adorned with the blessed Maria, some bare sticks of wax, their wicks burning with the fervor of the prayer it was lit with. Surely, if God were listening to any prayers, he would be listening here: listening to the loud incense that burned and to the bright light that came from the thousand candles placed under this crucifix and that. Here, I would be heard.
I was right: He heard.
I had once dreamt of visiting Paris, but in much different circumstances. The city of love and light. The city whose pavements and alleyways reeked of amour on each echo of its residents voices. Yet as I climbed from the abyss of the metro’s Châtelet station, the light rain that hit my face served only to mask the tears as I wept knowing that I was visiting this city forlorn of love myself. Indeed I knew, at least inwardly, that this foray into a new world was at its core an attempt to bury myself in culture in the hopes that it drowned out the pain of lost love. In truth though, Paris brought out the worst: I imagined each couple holding hands as they traveled through the morning markets as some evil sent to test me as though a facsimile of what I had lost. I imagined each rose peddler looking at me wondering where my love was, judging me with their years of experience for having come to this lover’s city devoid of what gave it its name. I imagined I was the only person to have graced the steps down to the Seine without another set of footprints treading alongside mine.
There was symbolism in this climb for me. A transcendency beyond and above the lowest points in my life. How was I to know that it would break me, before fixing me?
Months ago, before even having bought the plane-tickets that would have carried me across the Atlantic; I printed out my ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. And now, mere feet from it, I clutched at the neatly folded sheet of paper I held in the breast pocket of my coat, waiting for the queue to move forward towards the south foot of the tower, her elevators crawling up and down her legs, ferrying people to her steel-bound heights.
I climbed into the metal car and remembered a story, which I only knew to be true in faith rather than facts. When Germany took France in Hitler’s unrelenting trist across Europe, The mayor of Paris had ordered the cables for the elevator be severed in the hope that it would prevent a hideous red, white and black flag from flying over the streets of his beloved city. How beautiful, I thought, to cut away a part of yourself in order to keep yourself intact.
The lights that shone nine hundred feet below me earned Paris her first name: “The City of Lights”, What was happening 15 feet beside me earned her the other: “The City of Love”
I did it all, as any good tourist should, I walked the circumference of the tower, touching every guard rail, running my hands across its painted metal and feeling the coolness of the breeze imbibed within. I looked where the floodlight pointed, and admired the city from above. I picked out the brightest lights from the horizon, imagining what merriment took place under it’s twinkling radiance. I picked out the darkest spots, the void within the lights, and imagined what could be hiding there, and what secrets could be hiding within its jaws.
My thoughts were ripped from me as I heard a gasp and a breathless “oh my God!”
I turned around and saw a beautiful sight. The crowd I was trying to avoid parted perfectly to frame them both- He was on bended knee, looking up at her. She was looking at the ring in his hand. The unheard question hung there, suspended in the breeze for what felt like hours, until she dropped down in front of him and planted a joyfully uttered “yes” and an even happier kiss. The crowd then closed in around them, like curtains at a play, clapping as the scene drew to a close. I started taking steps back away from the sight, hearing each remnant of my heart shatter into glass with each step.
There’s a weird phenomenon called “L'appel du vide” It is and ironically French term that means “the call of the void”.
I’ll make it known here that I wished the happy couple no ill will. I was happy for them; and happy that there was more love in the world coming out than it had going in. But jealousy holds no empathy for that sort of goodness, and rears its ugly head regardless of the logic. And its twin, malice, is never far behind. I backed away from the couple’s makeshift stage slowly, not knowing whether to believe that the scene I just witnessed was not a figment of my imagination. I remarked to myself that if it were, I was more cruel to myself than I had previously thought.
I walked along the rails, tracing my steps back through to the other side, away from where the crowd was so quickly forming, until I was alone, until it was just me and the 8th arrondissement in attendance to my thoughts. I looked over the railings edge and heard the void call, its voice a dark timbre that I have come to know and sometimes love. Tonight, however, with having seen the light of happiness so close to me, it shined a light on the hollowness I tried to hide in me, a hollowness that echoed that dark voice, “You are alone, and you will never have anything as beautiful as that.”
I gripped the cold metal in a white knuckled fervor begging it to stop as tears fell from my eyes to my steadily colder hands: but the echoing grew louder and louder still, each repetition turning into a mocking laughter I could neither silence or escape from. I felt my body loosen as I dropped my bag to the metal floor and with both hands began to pull myself towards the edge as I began to lean outward I felt myself drawn forward.
Some say before you die, you see a light. Maybe they’re right. I saw millions; the lights of Paris, coupled with the lights that adorned the twinkling Eiffel tower once every hour.
The lights were bright, and teetering over the edge of the rail, the light of one of the thousands of strobes that lined the tower’s metal frame hit me straight in the eye as it flashed on throwing me backwards from the rail. I pushed back and away from the edge, stumbling on my own feet as I fell onto a bench by a wall. I sat there, burying my face in my increasingly tear-drenched hands as the sweet breeze I loved not minutes before turned bitter in the realization of what I had almost done.
Eyes closed, I reached into my bag for something to wipe my face with, fearful of what an onlooker’s reaction might be to a grown man of my fortitude openly weeping would be. My fingers rummaged around, looking for a packet of tissues I knew were in there, but the first thing I grabbed was a white paper bag.
Before the climb, I had visited the Notre Dame again, hoping to see the candle of my prayers still burning. It was not.
I was determined to buy a souvenir there. So I bought a rosary; a simple thing, adorned with no gaudy text proclaiming its origin. The lady at the counter packed it in a white paper bag and sealed it with a foil sticker bearing the logo of the cathedral. I smiled as I placed my trophy in my bag and turned towards the corner altar where I lit my prayer candles the previous night. I realised in looking for the candles, that I had not lit one to pray for myself. I guess there was an arrogance to it; thinking that I had no use for divine intervention when I clearly understood and knew that I selfishly wanted a guiding hand more than I wanted all the other worthier things I prayed for.
So I lit one.
A simple candle, not one of the pretty ones in the glass cup with the Holy Mother on it. I chose a simple candle, and paid for it with the remnants of the twenty euro bill I had spent on my rosary. A simple candle, I thought, for a simple prayer I, ashamed of my selfishness, did not want God to hear.
The night before I had prayed for health for my father back home, strength for my mom, a future for my friends, even guidance for a single mom I knew and felt for. But my own prayer’s importance paled in comparison, I thought, as I lit my simple candle with the flame of another one beside it. But yet, on my knees, I prayed. Asking for guidance and the faith to carry on. Hoping that my unworthy and silent voice would drown in the singing of the choir that sang praises in the other end of the cathedral.
I believe in signs, my friends will all attest to it. And this night: my faith was proven.
I held the white paper bag in my hand, each falling tear turning it transparent as it hit the surface around the foil seal. I had held it in my hand as I lit my candle and uttered my prayer, and carried it in my bag as I climbed the tower. As I tore the bag open, and pulled the wooden rosary out, I remembered what I had asked for on bended knee, looking up at a statue of the crucified saviour. Here, so soon after I had asked, it seems the heavens answered in a resounding voice.
The void called, but the light pulled me back, as literally as it could be said. I promised myself that having come so close to the edge of night, I would not turn my back on the light, not after so sweet an answer to so bitter a prayer. I held the rosary up, the lights of the Eiffel’s magnificent display flashing on into the Parisian night and found myself rallying for a second wind. I pulled my journal out of my bag and wrote down the words that passed through me as the breeze did so high above Paris: “I’ll bring her here one day, because one day, I will find her”.
I took the elevator down the Eiffel, and when the wrought iron gave way to the gleaming and twinkling lights I was reminded of how even in the darkness of whatever void we traverse, beauty exists. We just need to have the faith to ask for it.