Sometimes visiting a beautiful place can be a healing experience for someone who is struggling with the Furies of one’s past and the attendant fears for one’s future. That happened to me once when I was vacationing in France in May 2005. I had wanted to visit the palace at Fontainebleau as well as the great cathedral at Chartres. It was a slightly gray Tuesday morning when I boarded a train for Fontainebleau at the Gare D’Lyon station in Paris. It’s a forty-five minute train ride to Fontainebleau and the ride passed uneventfully. I anticipated a lovely day’s visit to the great palace. When I got to the train station I took a bus to get to the palace and when I got there I found out to my great chagrin that the palace is closed to the public on Tuesdays!
I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned speechless. How did I make this mistake? I broke open my guide book and saw it written in black and white that the palace is closed on Tuesdays. That was probably the lowest moment I’ve ever had in all the vacation trips I had taken so far. I was disgusted with myself at making such a stupid bloody mistake. The only reason why I made that mistake was because I was allowing my personal problems with my family to cloud my focus and reason. I was distracted and out of focus and as George Clooney once said so eloquently in the movie Ocean’s Eleven, “you lose focus for one second and somebody gets hurt.” That’s right and that somebody was me.
There I was at the palace gates with egg on my face. The question remained what was I going to do? I scanned my guide book and checked out the info on how to get to Chartres. I had to get back to Paris quickly. I had to make my way from the Gare D’Lyon station in the southeast part of the city to the Montparnasse station in the southwest part of the city to take the train to Chartres. There was a train for Chartres leaving Montparnasse at a little past noon. I had to make that train because the next train would get me to Chartres way to late to properly visit the cathedral. It wouldn’t be easy. I would have to navigate the Paris metro system and make two changes in subway lines to get to Montparnasse. No matter how I figured it would be very thin shaving with regards to time.
I had no choice. I got back to the Fontainebleau station and caught the first train back to Paris. It was already past mid-morning and it was forty-five minutes back to Paris. During the train ride back I felt like Bruce Willis in Die Hard with a Vengeance. For me to succeed in making it on time to Chartres everything had to fall into place and in terms of confidence my self-esteem had suffered a mighty blow.
But I had to try.
I kept checking my Metro line maps, figuring out which stations to change lines. When I finally reached Gare D’Lyon, I exited the train and began the great race against the clock. If any of you could have seen me you would have seen someone not running for their life (because I knew if I ran I would fail to make the train and would have worked up an enormous sweat for nothing) but someone walking rather briskly, navigating the warrens and connecting tunnels to the Metro line. I found the subway and began making my way west by southwest to Montparnasse. The stations were crowded and everyone was out and about. Also I had never taken these subway lines before therefore I was walking through terra incognita. I made the first subway line change neatly but it was at the second subway line that I had my worst moment during this great race. To get to the subway line I had to use a ticket to go through an automatic gate. I was walking behind this African woman and she went through the gate before me. The doors closed. I put my ticket into the machine and the door opened but before I could go through the gate the African woman with a malicious grin on her face tried to go back through the gate. When she did the door closed automatically before I could get through. She saw me and started laughing hysterically at my misfortune. I had just lost a precious subway ticket (they’re not cheap) and obviously (in my eyes) she had done it on purpose. Also she looked like someone I had once worked with in America and who had caused me professional harm at my job I had a millisecond meltdown and in that millisecond I practically screamed at her at the top of my lungs causing everyone in the subway station to stop and look at me. I was that enraged. (I won’t repeat what I said. It was pretty loathsome and disgusting. I never said words like that before and I pray to God I never will again).
Meltdown complete, I fumbled for another subway ticket and made it through the gate convinced that the delay had destroyed my chances of making it to the Montparnasse train. The subway ride was long, hot, and crowded. The seconds ticked away and I was convinced that all my efforts would be in vain.
Finally the subway reached the Montparnasse station. I had two or three minutes to make my way into the station concourse, find the right platform the train was leaving from, and then find a seat on the train itself. Again, I didn’t run. I walked rapidly like an Olympic walker. I scanned the tote board and found out which platform the train was leaving and, as I expected, it was at the farthest end of the station. It was the longest walk of my life and the seconds kept ticking. I kept thinking that the train wouldn’t be there at all. I was preparing myself for the worst. I told myself this was the darkest day of my life.
I reached the platform and the train was there. I had to find a car with an empty seat. I saw a car with the side door open. I stepped in. There was empty seat. I sat down, the door closed, and the train left Montparnasse for Chartres.
It was like a scene from a bloody spy movie. For the first time all day I smiled to myself and gave way to my emotions.
It was noon and I was hungry but I decided to eat lunch at Chartres. I don’t recall how long the train was. It may have been an hour or less but it seemed long enough to take stock and figure out things. I had never been to Chartres before so this was all a new experience for me. The train ride allowed me to settle down and collect myself. The French countryside rolled by in green spring splendor, punctuated with local stops in small villages.
When the train finally pulled into Chartres, you exit the train and are confronted by the Gothic needlepoint splendor of the cathedral tower dominating the skyline of the village. My stomach was speaking loudly and I didn’t want to contemplate the wonderment of the cathedral on an empty tummy. I made my way towards to the cathedral but I was also looking for a bistro to grab a bite to eat.
I found one occupying the same square as the cathedral. It was crowded with a late lunch crowd of several Japanese tourists on a bus tour visiting the cathedral. They had just finished their tour and were eating lunch. I was about to start mine but first a meal. I indulged myself with a croque monsieur and pomme frite and washed it down with a bottle of water (the race against the clock had made me thirsty as hell). Once my belly was sated, then it was time to visit the cathedral.
Those who go to Chartres with the thought of just seeing a building will find themselves in for a great surprise. The cathedral at Chartres is not just a building: it is also an emotion, a devotion, and the doorway to a spiritual experience if you enter it in the right frame of mind and are perceptive to the forces of the universe that envelop all of us. I came to that realization the instant I stepped through its majestic gates. Although the day was warm outside the interior of the cathedral was cool and soothing. The darkness that envelopes the nave and chapels of the cathedral provide the visitor a sense of sanctuary and space for contemplation, reflection, prayer, and purgation of the maniacal bilge that suffocates the soul.
I achieved refuge in that cool darkness. I found solace in the silence. I found peace in the history of the chapel (Henry IV of France, founder of the Bourbon dynasty, was crowned king in this cathedral). I did take the guided English-speaking tour of the place but it was after the tour when I was wandering by myself that I experienced the true wonders of Chartres. I felt God’s presence strongly and I knew God was working through me as I wandered through the cathedral as a humble penitent seeking to be healed by whatever means God willed.
And I was being healed. I knew it instinctively. The rage, self-pity, and depression I felt earlier in the day were gone. I felt renewed, boundless, and infinite. If there is a purgatory, would this be what the experience is like when you reach it?
I covered every inch of space in the cathedral and even dared to ascend the narrow circular medieval stairways towards the top of the great tower. Once you’re on top the balconies the views of the village skyline and the cathedral roof itself are stunning. (A word of warning: if you suffer vertigo going to the top of the tower will make your heart flutter wildly).
If you think I’m being melodramatic about visiting a Gothic cathedral let me say this. I’m not the only person who experienced a spiritual healing while visiting the cathedral. The late Joseph Campbell (famed author on mythology) in his seven part series of conversations with Bill Moyers (which aired on PBS in 1987) talked about how he had had a similar experience like mine when visiting Chartres as a college student. (In fact it was his mentioning his spiritual experience while visiting Chartres that inspired my decision to visit the cathedral in the first place!)
Even a spiritual high must come to and end sometimes. My comedown was quiet and smooth as I made my way back to the train station. It was late afternoon. By the time I returned to Paris it would be dinner time. I remember the sense of peace and reverie as I wove my way through the narrow streets and alley ways. A few people were out and about but mostly the village was peaceful and silent—it was as it should have been.
The train ride back was uneventful and once I got back to Paris I found a lovely Italian restaurant close to the train station and had dinner there along with a bunch of American exchange students from Harvard.
It was quite a day!
(The next day I returned to Fontainebleau and the palace was open to visitors and I had what British people like to call, a smashing good time!)