The morning was warm and sunny, a perfect day to taxi to the top of Montmartre to visit the stunning multi-domed Romanesque church of Sacré-Coeur. Winding through the neighborhoods so layered with art history, religious history, and political ferment, I recalled that here on these slopes Ignatius Loyola assembled his first group of followers, searching for the best way to seek the will of God, and creating the Spiritual Exercises. Here also the Revolution of 1789, in their hatred of the Church, martyred nuns and abbesses. Then in the late nineteenth century, after years of bloodshed throughout France, revolution after revolution, Parisians built a white basilica of peace. It was to be a sanctuary of perpetual prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a golden monstrance. Nuns would pray continually for peace, peace between nations, peace between men. They called the church the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the sacred heart of love.
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.
We left our taxi in the colorful and artsy Place du Tertre and walked half a block to the white steps leading to the columned porch. Entering the massive space, I was struck as always by the apsidal dome which rises triumphantly over the high altar and the Blessed Sacrament in the golden-rayed monstrance. The curved apse is covered in a brilliant blue-and-gold mosaic telling the story of Christ’s love and redemption. The white-robed risen Christ opens his arms wide in welcome and blessing. The Holy Spirit descends as a dove upon him; God the Father is above the dove – or coursing through the dove to His Son – forming the Holy Trinity. The mosaic 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 church this day was sweetly quiet, although crowds milled through the side aisles and around the ambulatory. After praying before the Blessed Sacrament raised over the high altar, we too stepped under along the side aisle, followng the ambulatory under the dome, gazing up through window archways to the apsidal mosaic. From this position so close to the chancel and apse, the images are far larger, and now one sees the Holy Ghost descending as a white dove, now we see God the Father, now we see the face of Christ. I thought how our own journeys are like that. We catch glimpses of reality as eternity draws nearer. We are blind but see in moments of glory. I love the ambulatory walk behind the sanctuary of Sacre-Coeur and I paused often along the way before each Station of the Cross this holy season of Lent. I paused, saw the image of Christ falling, Christ being crucified, and then looked up to the glorious glittering triumphant mosaic of our faith. Through the suffering images of the Way of the Cross, Christ himself smiles upon us as God redeems us through his son.
Before leaving the church we visited the shop off the north aisle and found icons hand-made by the resident Benedictine nuns. One was an image of Mary Magdalene seeing the risen Christ in the garden. Since my current novel-in-progress is about Mary Magdalene, this was a particularly appreciated gift. We also learned that the basilica was celebrating 125 years of Perpetual Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament raised high in that golden monstrance. Retreats and pilgrimages were planned, and the nuns busy with housing and hosting folks in their residence. This weekend the Archbishop of Spoleto-Norcia in Italy would be presiding over many events, including a Way of the Cross for young people and a Mass honoring the upcoming beatificaton of Jean-Paul II.
As I descended the white steps I looked over the city of Paris where a soft haze had settled. I turned and looked up to the towering white domes of Sacre-Coeur. I gave thanks for this perpetual witness to the immense gifts of God. I gave thanks for the perpetual prayers of peace.