L’Eglise Saints Gervais-Protais is a soaring Gothic jewel of a church in the heart of Paris.
We visited on Saturday for the midday office, sitting on low wooden stools under pale fan vaulting and jeweled stained-glass in the apse. The Sisters and Brothers of Jerusalem, an order of monks and nuns who take simple vows, work regular jobs in the community, care for this stunning sixteenth-century church near Paris’s Town Hall. They entered the sanctuary one at a time, each having covered their pale blue cottas with long white robes. Each carried a small wooden bench and found a place before the altar, then knelt in prayer. Soon these other-worldly creatures settled like white clouds descending, their robes falling like tents and softly folding upon the rush matting.
They sang the psalms in French, their voices weaving and soaring through the vaults. They read the lessons, one preached a short homily, and another played an ethereal tune on an alto flute.
We prayed too, standing, touching the floor and making the Sign of the Cross, as though our prayers would be given weight by theirs, that the Body was more than the sum of the individuals.
Madeleine and Elena in my novel Offerings visit St. Gervais:
They stepped inside the soaring Gothic basilica. Massive columns rose to fan vaulting. Far beyond the high altar, in the apse above the ambulatory, stained glass glimmered. Low wooden stools filled the long narrow nave. Unusual, thought Madeleine, no pews or chairs, but stools. Madeleine and Elena joined the congregation of forty or fifty faithful that waited for the next office to begin. Madeleine focused her eyes on the golden icon of Christ on the altar.
Elena shared with Madeleine an English brochure she had found by the door.
The six-century church on this site was dedicated to the Roman martyrs Gervais and Protais, whose relics were brought to Paris by Saint Germaine. Today’s building is seventeenth century. In the Middle Ages, public trials were held in the square in front of the church.
Today the church is home to the Brothers and Sisters of Jerusalem, a monastic order serving the community, founded in 1975 by Fr. Pierre-Marie Delfieux and Cardinal Francois Marty. Their mission is to bring the contemplative spirituality of the desert into the heart of the city.
The brothers and sisters hold part-time jobs and rent housing. They offer daily mass and sing the morning, noon, and evening offices. They follow rules of love, prayer, work, hospitality, and silence as well as chastity, obedience, and poverty. Lay orders, defined by interest, age, and profession, form the Family of Jerusalem. The order has communities at Vézeley, Blois, Strasbourg, and Magdala.
Services are open to the public daily except Mondays. A shop sells books, crafts, icons, honey, and jams.
Madeleine looked up from the glossy leaflet as young monks and nuns processed silently in, their white robes dusting the stone floor. Their hoods were raised, framing expectant faces. They took their places in the choir and began to sing. The notes soared in four-part harmony through the vaulted stone. They sang with purpose and joy, bowing from the waist and touching the ground during the Gloria Patri, as if dancing. Lessons were read and more prayers sung.
As the young people filed out, Madeleine was thankful, for she had been pulled into their worship; she had soared on the wings of their melodies like a bird riding the wind. For the time she had escaped her prison of worry. So this was their desert in the city; this was their peace in God. She would cultivate her own desert garden with her own flowers of prayer. She would learn to fly too. Offerings (OakTara 2009)
It was good, this last Saturday in April, to return to St. Gervais, to experience once again the joy of these young men and women, to know they are praying for this great city of Paris. They are a witness, a true flowering in the desert, a light in the dark of this urban world.
One of the nuns had placed a large golden icon of Christ on the altar in front of the tabernacle. The Reserved Sacrament was, I knew, in the apsidal chapel behind the ambulatory in the chevet, where Exposition and Adoration is observed for thirty minutes prior to every service. As I rose to leave I could see the red candle flickering in the far distance between the columns and the warm image of Christ on the altar seemed to be alongside, reassuring. Beauty reflecting truth heals and salves as well as saves. When we find the two together, the harmonies are exquisite.
We stepped outside into the cold wind and headed for a bowl of soupe de poissons on the Isle Saint-Louis and maybe an ice cream sundae. As we meandered through the thickening Saturday crowds, I could still hear the soaring song in my ears. I could still see the white robes rising and falling to the floor like swans or petals and the golden Christ, so pleased. He was, I considered, also in the faces that passed me as we walked. He was in the wind on my face. He held me so very close here in the heart of this city.