It is early December. Paris is draped with lights, they illuminate the early dusk like fallen stars. The sun rests this time of year, hazy and dimmed in the cloudless afternoon sky. I walk the city, endlessly. Its beauty is drenching, as absurd and as necessary as a four hour dinner in an ancient restaurant with still more ancient recipes.
The city leaves me insatiable: no amount of wandering, no amount of intimacy with hidden passageways in the Marais, cobbled lanes on Isle de la Cite, exploration of the strange and often sad outer arrondissements will satisfy my need to be there. I am in love with the city, with its riches, its limestone and light, with its horror of contradictions writ large by the old Roma women begging in front of Louis Vuitton, five stories high.
Afternoon. I am going somewhere, I think I have a destination. Was it a film? A vintage shop I had seen earlier? Or perhaps I have it wrong; I was just walking, the walking my destination. I don’t know.
I find myself in the 1st arrondissement, in the richest part of rue St. Honore. The shops carry dresses I cannot even look at out of a mix of desire and disgust. They are perfect. They would slide onto my body like a hungry snake. Silk, wool from Scottish mills, heels from Florence, Rome. What would the dear price of one dress do for a family of six from Damascus? I pass Le Meurice. One night in a simple room would be my mortgage. The ultra wealthy flood by me, I can smell them, their difference and their indifference.
The shops are too much, the wealthy are too wealthy here. It is the vulgar part of the city, the cruel cold center. But there is a church, rather humble in appearance compared to many Parisian buildings; its doors are covered with pigeon shit, paint-hard, and the stairs have beguiling and unkempt layers of thin moss. It is set back from the street, I almost miss it. Of course. Of course. Here is the Eglise Saint-Roch, its presence odd and out of place amid the rapid clicking heels, the gold handled glass doors with large black men guarding the gates.
Inside, the silence has a containment, its edges are restive. An echoing. It is a tenuous silence. One knows how easily it is cracked open, although the sudden sounds of footsteps or the opening of an old wood door are absorbed instantly by the dedicated quietude; the silence has power, and age. Old unremarked violations, perhaps. An allure, certainly.
This is a woman’s place. That is what I thought, or felt, as I walked, slow motion and stunned, through the outer aisles of the great structure. The support arches are thick and low, so different from the church’s older Medieval sisters, whose ceilings often appear lifted by the slender legs of a spider, or the hair of a saint. Nameless men began work on this place in 1653; I cannot conceive how this solidity came to be, stone after thick pale stone.
The light, though, is penetrating. It is a light of directness, erasing the usual gloom one so often finds within these buildings
I am always cold, always there is a deep chill in my body, my limbs. Even in Mysore practice, when people often sweat so profusely they must bring towels, I finish practice with dry skin. So the cold of cathedrals has always evoked an intense reaction in me: it is physical, but also emotive. The cold is a memory. How, I wonder, did people worship their god, sit in meditative prayer, hour after hour, in a place that has both the austere beauty of an open tundra and its temperature as well?
Somehow, that day, the power of Saint-Roch was such that the cold entered me, as it always does, like a ghost, but the numbness faded to the cadence of soft sound, silence, a mysterious atonal rhythm. It is a wonder how old churches and cathedrals create their own worlds, spaces utterly separate from what one experiences outside the high arced doors. Architects and popes spoke of building a house of God, but they succeeded more in building a world of God, so different is the landscape, the light, the alters and icons from the busy transient lanes outside cathedral walls.
Eventually there were just two of us. An old Frenchman, sitting under the pulpit, babbling to himself a continuous whispered sermon, and me, traversing the marbled stone like a careful drunkard. The marble was a deep red brown, almost like blood, in some places, and its veins ran through it like a pulse.
In front of the altar I came upon a large bell, encased by low, unfriendly iron fencing. The gate, however, was slightly ajar, and the old rope pull snaked toward the opening, as if daring passerby to pull it.
I could sense the afternoon passing. My destination had been forgotten, or the church had been my destination all along; Paris is full of mystery that way. The old man, dressed in the old way of working class French in a faded blue canvas jacket, and with the unfocused eyes of the mad, continued his endless dialogue with whatever force had overtaken his mind. I could not helped but be moved by him, to wonder about him, and what had brought him that afternoon to Saint-Roch. I suspected it was his usual spot – who among us, particularly the wounded, do not need refuge – but maybe he was just off his meds for a day.
Later I was to learn that the church indeed does have feminine roots, which possibly explains some of the delicacy of its sculpture. Saint-Roch has a chapel dedicated to Saint Susanna, a rather arcane figure who was beheaded by the Romans at the end of the 3rd Century. Apparently the Romans had taken a dislike to her father. Oh, the infinite complexities between women and their fathers….
When I left dusk had passed, evening revelers and wealthy perfumed women carrying bags were everywhere. It has been like this always, I thought, on these streets, here and on streets everywhere. Commerce, wealth, poverty, filth, disease, beauty, worship, hope and hope abandoned. Is this continuity or stagnation – I’ve no idea – but I want to know all of it.