We visited the historic Shakespeare and Co. bookshop on the Left Bank. The cherry trees in front of the two story shop occupying the lower floors of a townhouse were in full bloom branching over used stacked used books and benches for reading. The store is across the River Seine from Notre-Dame Cathedral, two venerable institutions presiding, I like to think, in a complimentary fashion. The mind and heart and spirit are integrally linked, woven together, and it is only in the last century that the creed of self has pushed to marginalize the creed of God.
As I looked at the two buildings, clearly Notre-Dame, in its twin-towered gothic splendor won the prize for age, size, architecture. And clearly the massive crowds stood in the forecourt of the cathedral, not the bookstore.
But I was glad to visit the folksy Shakespeare and Co. and place my copies of Offerings in the capable hands of one of the young clerks. I found the single copy of this novel set in France (and Paris) that remained in the store, wedged between Pilgrimage (Italy) and Inheritance (England), high over a doorway, so that the Trilogy formed a lintel blessing browsers as they passed below. Not a prominent location, but it was properly in the S section of fiction, and could be reached by a very tall person.
I took numerous photos of the many rooms with their nooks and crannies and narrow stairs and clever quotes and signs and old photos and stacks of books. Long an English bookstore here in Paris, the store goes in many ways back to the 1920’s, even earlier with the artist communities here, although the present location, and owner, dates to post war years. Booklovers don’t want to miss a visit to Shakespeare and Co., a true delight.
And no-one should miss Notre-Dame Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Paris, across the bridge, over eight hundred years old.
St. Germain of Paris built the first church complex here on the Île de la Cité in the sixth century, which included Notre-Dame, St. John, and St. Etienne. In 1163, Louis VII and Bishop Sully began construction of a new cathedral and Louis IX, Saint Louis, completed the church a century later, adding the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital for the poor. When Louis returned from Jerusalem with the Crown of Thorns, he housed the precious relic in Notre-Dame until Ste-Chapelle was completed specifically for the Crown. The relic has since been returned to Notre-Dame for safekeeping and veneration.
We entered the church through one of the the stunning carved portals, and found seats in the nave for the Lenten Friday afternoon service, the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns. Each Friday in Lent and all day Good Friday, the Crown of Thorns, encased in glass, is shown to the faithful. Catholic Christians see this as a way to act out their beliefs, to allow the body to reflect the soul.
Folks say that the British know how to put on a show with affairs of state, weddings, processions, etc., using full regalia, carriages, flags, sometimes mounted police. I would say that French Catholics do the same. To be sure, any parade acts in the same way – civic parades such as the Fourth of July unite patriotic fervor and assent. They are useful and necessary cultural tools, uniting the people. Just so the Church has for two thousand years acted out the creed of Christ – his birth at Christmas, his death and resurrection at Easter, his presence in the Eucharist at Corpus Christi. Many other processions and festivals mark the liturgical year in Catholic cultures, and these pull communities together in a powerful way. They also give the individual a way to live out something larger, the Body of Christ, his internalized beliefs becoming externalized and made real in another dimension.
So I was looking forward to the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns. By three o’clock the massive nave of Notre-Dame was full. The gothic windows in the far apse glimmered in reds and blues, and I could see part of the historic chancel under the modern golden cross. The main altar in the center of the transept held red roses and an icon of Christ. A large sculpture of Our Lady, the crowned Madonna of Notre-Dame, looked on from the right.
Bells rang, echoing through the soaring vaults. We could see the procession moving from the sacristy in the south aisle to the foot of the nave, then up the central aisle. Clergy and laymen in white robes, women in black veils, led the way, and the torchbearers stepped seriously before the crucifix raised high. Then came the Crown of Thorns, and I smiled. The glass sphere was carried on an ark like structure with poles just as the People of Israel had used with their early tabernacles, the Holy of Holies. The circle of glass could barely be seen for it had been set in a large golden crown, ornate and ornamented. I thought that this was a nice touch, the humble woven reeds and thorns forming Christ the Crucified’s crown were now in their proper setting, the gilded crown of Christ the King. The procession moved slowly and triumphantly up the aisle, a serious dance reflecting the ignoble death of Christ, as the people sang with feeling. When the procession reached the altar, the Crown of Thorns was removed from the golden crown and placed beneath the image of Christ. As in most liturgical worship, the matter of suffering was transformed into the matter of glory.
When it was time for the veneration, each row emptied orderly and quietly into the center aisle, and we followed the line to the altar. In turn, each of us kissed the glass that held that crown of Christ’s ordeal. As my turn came and I knelt to kiss the crown, I was glad to be part of this liturgy. I was glad to join these other faithful in this public statement of belief in God’s redeeming action of the Cross, a statement both glorious and intimate. I was humbled, and was grateful for the gift of liturgy, of sacramental, material ways to speak of the holy and spiritual. Ours was not a silent faith. We had something to say, something important to witness to.
As we left the great stone church we moved to the far side of the parvis to take photos of the lovely façade. On this sunny afternoon in Lent, I glanced across the Seine and thought of Shakespeare who was a religious man who used words to reveal things unseen. The little store named after him across the Seine so crammed with words offered a similar miracle, trying to show through this artistic medium man’s yearnings, hopes, and dreams, to ask the great questions of our culture: what is love, goodness, truth?
And here in this great cathedral man yearned, hoped and dreamed as well, only here there seemed to be more answers to those burning questions.