October 2, 2016 – Sunday
It’s Sunday, the “Lord’s Day.” Sunday in Paris has a special, relaxed rhythm, as I’ve mentioned before. When one has interacted with someone, instead of ending with generic greetings, such as “Bonne journee!,” “Bonne Fin de Journee!,” “Bonne soiree!,” Bonne fin de soiree!,”, “Bon appetite!,” “Bonne route!,” or Bon whatever is coming next for you, on Sunday, everyone says “Bon dimanche!” “Good Sunday!” It’s special enough to merit its own farewell salute.
Most Sunday morning religious services in Paris are Catholic, and it felt right this morning to attend Catholic Mass. I opted for the local parish church, St. Jacques du Haut Pas, right down the street and around the corner. This church started as a hospice for pilgrims on the road to St. James of Compostelo in Spain, in the 1000s. The hospice, or place of rest and recovery, was run by a medieval order of Italian brothers founded for the sole purpose of caring for the needs of pilgrims to St. James or Jacques or Iago or Giacomo, from all over Western Europe.
The grave of the apostle St. James was discovered in western Spain, at Compostelo, around the year 1000, and people who made the walk to visit that spot were said to be granted immediate entry into Heaven after their death. For three or four centuries, until the Black Death, in the 1400s, many, many individuals pledged to visit Compostelo, and major pilgrimage routes studded with hostels and hospices were established across France. The road on which the present day St. Jacques du Haut Pas stands is the same route as that followed by pilgrims from the early years of the common era.
Interestingly, however, aside from the hospice chapel, a parish church was not erected on the site till the early 1700s. The reason is simple. Very few people at that time actually lived in houses in this area. The earlier thriving Roman city had fallen into ruins and given way to fields and farms (pre’s, or champs). From the 1400s to the 1600s, monasteries and convents moved into these open spaces, one next to the other. Many orders were represented: Augustinians, Carthusians, Carmelites, Feuillantines, Ursulines, Dominicans, Jesuits, Benedictines, Oratorians, Mathurins, and even an abbey of English Benedictine brothers and priests. So there wasn’t much of a lay population to create a parish.
By the early 1700s (18th century) enough people were interspersed among the convents to begin thinking of pulling together a neighborhood spiritual community, and at that time a very simple, classically designed church was built. The builders were affiliated with the monastery of Port Royal (Catholic Jansenists or Calvinists strongly influenced by the Reformation), so the church is plain, without stained glass or interior ornamentation, and for a time it was actually used as a Protestant place of worship.
Today’s Mass, therefore, unlike many celebrated in Parisian Catholic churches, with their Gothic or neo-Gothic ornamentation, felt very simple and down to earth – an experience I found agreeable. The Mass started at 11:30, and it was a High Mass, with organ music and singing. The organ and the organist were both excellent. I felt my heart melting with the mysticism and ritual of the Mass and its prayers, combined with the majestic music through which I could hear the church’s bells tolling the midday hour. I was appreciating the deep traditions represented in these different sensory perceptions, and, through them, feeling gratitude for this moment of oneness with the parishioners present, and with the neighborhood of which they are today’s representatives. It was a beautiful, heartfelt moment.
I had promised Nancy I’d find her a croissant, and so after the Mass, I walked back up Rue St. Jacques to a bakery I hoped would be open, where I’d previously found lovely pastries as well as tasty bread. It was open, and very lively, since a lot of bakeries do not open on Sunday (with others closed on Monday or Tuesday, so that all the bakers have a day of rest without depriving people of their daily bread – fresh bread being a crucial basis of the French diet.) Two dogs were already tied to posts outside the bakery — a bichon and a small terrier — and a line of chattering neighbors had formed out the door and around the corner. The line moved quickly, as each person selected his or her pastry or loaf, paid, and wished everyone “Bon dimanche!” When my turn came, I got a marzipan fig, a strawberry tart, an apple turnover, and a croissant for Nancy. This bakery will be closed tomorrow, but we’ll be well provided for till Tuesday.
I’m now enjoying my Sunday afternoon rest, feeling well nourished with daily bread, both spiritually and physically.