FROM PARIS IV
Crying in the chapel.
“Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s a clever expression that always seems
to thwart me in my endless pursuit of reinvention.
Every day here in Paris, I pass through dew-christened parks tucked away within nests of tall buildings, with wooden benches that call out for company. I watch couples mooning over one another, laughing gaggles of girlfriends, and solitary travelers too, making the most of river banks and street-facing bistros. Sitting in stillness amidst the hustle and bustle of life seems romantic, but I have to keep moving. If I pause, even for a moment, I’m confronted with the uncomfortable reality that while I may be able to change the scene, the underlying plot will always remain the same.
A thematic loneliness has followed me, hidden in my pockets like that summer sand you find months after your last trip to the beach. The flavor of it is delicately nuanced—notes of heartsickness, undertones of existential fear, and whispers of failure—all hidden under the overwhelming taste of discomfort with the very person I came here to escape: myself.
I woke up today in particular with a headache and an anvil on my chest—the penance one in my position pays for a night of debauchery. I don’t believe in rest for hangovers—I believe in self-inflicted punishment followed by reward, so I decided to make the twenty-minute pilgrimage on foot to my favorite boulangerie. The cold felt especially unfriendly, with a steely wind that whispered of the rain to come in the evening—bitter to match my dour countenance as I pushed along.
Crossing from a narrow side street onto the main boulevard, I looked up to see the twin spires of Église Saint-Ambroise. Since my arrival, I have passed this way almost daily, feeling a sense of calm in the presence of the Goliath gothic church, but never feeling called to enter. Today however was different—maybe it was my feeling of despair or the fact that California Dreamin’ had inexplicably been stuck in my head for the better part of the morning, and I’d been running an unintentional psyop on myself by playing it on repeat. Whatever it was, I felt the need to go inside.
As soon as I crossed the threshold, a lump formed in my throat. I stood at the back of the pews for a moment, craning my neck to take in the majesty of the intricate ceiling and stained glass windows, before making my way to a seat midway down the aisle and off to the side. I like to sit slightly to the left in churches—aligned like the human heart in the body of the chapel.
Clasping my hands modestly in my lap, I tried to loosen my shoulders in an appearance of contrition. There was no pretending as I began to pray—my eyes welled with tears and within moments, my shoulders were shaking.
“God,” I spoke aloud, but quietly, under my breath so as not to disturb the one other parishioner, kneeling in her own silent prayer before a likeness of the Virgin Mary.
“Please allow me to forgive those I must forgive. Please allow me to forgive myself—” I paused, imagining Jesus sitting in the rafters above me, watching as I struggled under the weight of a burden I have carried in my arms every day for far too long. Suddenly I felt embarrassed by the size of it—like I had shown up to a dinner party empty-handed with the appetite of ten grown men.
“I have nothing to give you in return—I’m not giving up drinking, or smoking or any of my unholier vices,” I continued, deciding that honesty was better than empty promises.
“But please—allow me to forgive myself, allow me to forgive myself, allow me to forgive myself...” My voice devolved into ragged, pleading squeaks as I forgot
momentarily that I wasn’t alone.
“Please, it’s all I ask—and thank you—in advance. Amen.” The last of my tears fell, and I realized my woolen coat had become wet with them, forming a small circle. I looked at the shape, cocking my head from side to side as I wondered briefly if God could be communicating with me in the pattern of dampness. Decidedly, he wasn’t.
I gathered my belongings and rose from my seat, the comically echoing squeak of my sneakers announcing my departure. My face was dry with salty brine, but I felt a faint sense of unburdening. I half expected the sun to be shining when I opened the large wooden doors to the outside, but instead, I was met with the same dove grey and bitter wind as before.
I noticed for the first time as I descended the steps, that the small square in front of Saint-Ambroise was filled with figures—men bundled in rags sleeping on benches, unsavory-looking characters in dirty clothes pacing and smoking with wild eyes and tattered shoes. I watched as one of them marched back and forth, muttering and gesticulating wildly, as if conducting an orchestra only he could see. The sight of him parted my briefly solipsistic veil, as I realized he was probably speaking with God as well—and from the looks of it, he seemed to be receiving an answer too.
I looked down at the wet splotch on my coat again, giving it just one more opportunity to form a sign or symbol of the divine. God is busy delivering sermons to every lost soul in Paris today, and there’s a pecking order. I’m sure mine is on the way—he’ll appear in the flaky spirals of a chocolate croissant, or between scrawled obscenities on the walls of some bar bathroom stall later tonight. It’s true, you cannot petition the Lord with prayer, but perhaps he would be more inclined to oblige if I had promised him my vices after all.