I had forgotten how lovely their singing is.
The temperatures have dropped suddenly here in Paris, from warm, balmy, sunny seventies, to cold, biting, windy fifties. We wrapped ourselves in our wool scarves and gloves and set out for Saint-Gervais-Protais, a seventeenth-century Flamboyant Gothic church of white stone and stained glass.
Located on the Right Bank across the Seine from Notre-Dame, the sixth-century church was dedicated to the first-century Roman martyrs Gervais and Protais, whose relics were brought to Paris by St. Germain.
Today, St. Gervais-Protais is home to the Brothers and Sisters of Jerusalem, an order serving the local community. Founded in 1975 by Fr. Pierre-Marie Delfieux and Cardinal Francois Marty, the order seeks to bring the contemplative spirituality of the desert into the heart of the city, particularly for the working populace. Monks and nuns hold part-time jobs in the secular world, but sing the morning, noon, and evening offices in the church. A daily Mass is offered. They follow rules of love, prayer, work, hospitality, and silence as well the traditional ones – chastity, obedience, and poverty.
Today we entered the nave of white stone columns and took seats on low wooden stools. The Sisters and Brothers had already taken their places in the chancel, kneeling in their flowing white robes. The figures blended into the white space, unobtrusive, so that my eye was naturally drawn to the colorful Christ icon placed at the center of the white marble altar. Above the image, rose a gilded crucifix, framed by six tall golden candlesticks. The white columns of the ambulatory curved behind the altar, and between the columns I glimpsed the glimmering reds and blues of stained glass in the apsidal chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The white columns rose higher to stained glass that caught and transformed the outer light, and beyond, the stained glass touched the fanned vaults. The verticality of the space, the brilliant glimmering colors splashing the creamy white stone, filled me with happiness.
And then these white-robed monks and nuns, facing the altar,rising and kneeling and rising, began to sing the Psalms of the noon office in French.
Their voices soared between the columns and high into the vaults, and for this short midday service of prayers and lessons, peace came upon us, those fortunate enough to be there or perhaps careful enough to take the time. I gave thanks for the witness of this desert community in the heart of Paris.
It is one of the most beautiful experiences in this Cty of Light.
Sts-Gervais-et-Protais, The Monastic Communities of Jerusalem
13, rue des Barres, Paris
Open daily; Tuesday – Saturday: Morning Prayer 7 a.m. (Saturday 8 a.m.); Midday Prayer 12:30; Evening Prayer and Mass 6 p.m.; Sunday: Office of the Resurrection 8 a.m., Mass 11 a.m.
All services preceded by 30 minutes of silent prayer and adoration. No public liturgies are offered on Mondays, but the church is open.