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Croissants and Cathedrals

The sun slanted gently over the steps of Chartres Cathedral and as I sat there enjoying my croissant and coffee I lifted my face to bask in its glow. Soon the massive church bells would be calling people to mass and this quiet moment of peace would be over. Soon it would be time to join the other people in my class for a day of studying the mysteries of this beautiful ancient celebration of the Divine. Soon enough, I would be back home with just the memories of this magical visit behind me.

I had been to Chartres Cathedral years earlier, back in the days before I felt something I could label “Faith” had much of a role to play in my life. I had been young and cheerful and blessedly ignorant of the bumps waiting beyond the next bend in the road. I had admired the gothic architecture, and the stone carvings of biblical people presiding over the great imposing entrances. I had gasped in wonder at the cathedral’s stained glass windows and the stunning pillars. And I had passed on to the next town, the next cathedral, the next picnic and the next fabulous dinner enjoyed in a quaint restaurant.

During my first trip to Chartres, I hadn’t sat in the sunshine and felt the feminine energy pouring off the building’s walls, or walked the labyrinth, step by meditative step. I hadn’t known to pick a favourite Rose Window and meditate before its majesty for an hour or two. I didn’t descend to the crypt, or light a candle for love. I hadn’t known these things were even options, or even that they might add value to my life. It hadn’t been the season in my life for all those things.

A Fresh Set of Eyes

So the trip I took last summer was a return to Chartres in some ways, but I was looking at it with totally new eyes and with a greater level of attention. I noticed the quality of the air and the resonance of the music the organ played as I wandered timelessly through this ancient place of worship. I caught the way the light sifted through the windows and made shadows on the floor. I lit candles and said prayers, laid my hands on the ancient wood of the doors and marveled at the sculptures lovingly carved by masterful hands.

I was in Chartres last summer to study the Cathedral as a Storybook.  The building’s stories are told through the orientation of the building and the carvings on the transepts. They speak to us today through the stained glass windows and floor stones laid to slant ever-so-slightly towards the doors so that when the floors were sluiced off every morning, the grime that fell off the bodies of pilgrims who had slept there for the night could be washed away. Some say the Cathedral was built to resonate vibrationally, and that when the wind blows the building resonates much as a musical instrument does.

But as I sat each morning on the cathedral steps with the strong smell of a good French coffee and the heavenly scent of a fresh-baked croissant wafting towards me in the morning sun, I felt a peace I rarely get to experience in an urban area. It wasn’t just the stories this 1000-year-old cathedral has to tell that make a visit memorable; it’s also the stillness and beauty that permeate its walls that stay in the minds and hearts of those with eyes to see such things. Together they contribute to a lasting sense of wonder and harmony that is with me even today, months after my visit.

I’ve come to realize all these years after my first visit to Chartres that travelling isn’t at all about crossing cities off a list to add to one’s collection. It’s about opening to the experiences a place can offer, and tasting the lasting richness of what you can learn about it. Travelling is about discovery. And Chartres, for me, is about the memory of a daily coffee savoured on the steps of a cathedral drenched in sunlight, and feeling blessed.

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