We drove up Montmartre to Sacre-Coeur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As the taxi wound through the neighborhoods of shops and cafes and apartments, along the Rue des Abbesses, I thought of those forty-three Benedictine abbesses who lost their lives in the Revolution. The only surviving building of their twelfth-century convent is the Église St-Pierre, the abbey church, which stands on the busy Place du Tertre, in the shadow of Sacré-Coeur.
Arriving at the towering domed basilica, we walked to the terrace to see the view of Paris, but today was cloudy, the sky hovering low over the city, turning the landscape a wash of silvers and grays. We turned to the stairs and ascended to the columned porch and entered the brilliant nave.
The Basilique du Sacré-Coeur rose from Montmartre, the Roman “Mound of Mercury,” the medieval “Mount of Martyrs.” Legend claims 3rd-century St. Denis was martyred here. The feeble bishop, over one hundred years old, was beaten, grilled on an iron grate, hung on a cross, and decapitated. He washed his head, then carried it down the hill to the village of Catalliacus to be buried, and where, two hundred years later, Genevieve erected his basilica. In the centuries following, wave upon wave of persecution spilled the blood of many others on this hill overlooking Paris.
The Franco-Prussian War and the Commune Rising of 1871 devastated Paris, particularly Montmartre. Catholic Parisians, in an offering of grief, thanksgiving, and intercessory petition, built a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that icon of love, life, and blood. The white Romanesque basilica ascended over the martyrs’ mound with Byzantine domes that fused East and West, a home to perpetual prayer. Through the last century, through two world wars, the vigil has continued as the faithful pray before the golden monstrance holding the Real Presence of Christ. They pray for peace, and they pray for those who suffer, as they meditate on the love of God in the sacred and suffering heart of Jesus.
We happened upon the noon office, the round of prayers sung periodically throughout the day, in glory to God. Benedictine nuns, robed in white, were kneeling in the chancel, and their ethereal voices wove through the air as they sang the Psalms. We moved to a pew halfway down the nave and knelt to pray our thanksgivings for this church in this beautiful city. I looked up at the great lit chancel and the magnificent apse. Above the altar, the Host was exposed for adoration and prayer in a golden-rayed monstrance. Pillars rose to the high, curved apse where a brilliant blue-and-gold fresco of the resurrected Christ in white robes, his sacred heart encircled by a crown of thorns, his arms outstretched in the form of a cross, embraced and welcomed us. The Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon him; God the Father was above the dove – or coursing through the dove to His Son – forming the Holy Trinity. The fresco expresses the belief of catholic Christians, the mystery of the Host in the monstrance, the mystery of the Real Presence and of the Trinity, the three persons of God.
The sisters ended the noon office and processed out. We rose and followed the ambulatory around the back of the apse, looking up between the white columns to the brilliant frescoes, stepping past mosaic Stations of the Cross and frescoed bay-chapels. A bronze St. Peter, a replica of the sculpture in the Rome basilica, stands in the center of the ambulatory behind the high altar, and pilgrims touch his foot as they pray, following the Roman tradition.
I approached a nun who was moving toward a side door and asked if one of the sisters spoke English. She pointed to an British sister who turned to us, her friendly face glowing, her eyes sparkling. Like the others in her community, she wore a white habit and a black headscarf. Her name was Sister Marie Elie.
I explained how my novel Offerings is partially set in the basilica and I wanted to give her a copy as a thanksgiving for its publication. She seemed happy to receive it and led us to an office where she told us about the upcoming celebration at Sacré-Coeur. 2010 is their 125-year anniversary of perpetual adoration, she explained. Would we return on pilgrimage? And invite others? There was a guesthouse, and there would be special services throughout the year, soon to be announced. I hoped we could indeed return, for it would be a great blessing.
We were glad to have met Sister Marie Elie, to have been in her warm company, and to have chatted for a few minutes. We left thankful, through the great porch, down the massive white steps, to the broad terrace, Paris spread before us. We meandered through a wine and art festival congregating in rows of white tents, up to the famous Place du Tertre, found a taxi and wound down the hill of the martyrs, full of the welcoming Christ in the apse and the Host and his welcoming Benedictine Sister of Sacré Coeur.
Basilique du Sacré Cœur; Open daily; www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com
Resident Community: the Benedictine Sisters of Sacré Coeur of Montmartre.
Weekday Masses: 11:15 a.m., 6:30 p.m., 10 p.m., 3 p.m. (Fridays); Saturday: 10 p.m.; Weekday Offices: Monday, Vespers, 6 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday: 8 a.m., 12:00, 6 p.m., 9:30 p.m.; Complines; Saturday: 6 p.m., Vigils, 9:30 p.m.; Sunday Masses: 11:00 a.m. (Solemn), 6 p.m., 10 p.m.; Sunday Offices: 8:00, 4 p.m. (Solemn Vespers), 9:30 p.m.