This recent Paris trip in specific and the last year in general have taught me many lessons. Leaving a dear friend’s ashes at his desired final resting place in France was not a possibility I had even remotely considered a year ago today when he and I were still joyfully chatting together on a Monday back in Chicago. That was two days before he died. Since then I have learned much about the Infinite Possibilities in life. My eyes are way more open than they ever have been thanks to the joy of the many new connections Christiana and I have made. My heart is way more open than it has ever been because of the things I have gained and the things I have lost.
Of those many lessons I mentioned above, I think the most powerful is this lesson:
To celebrate the obstacles and contrasts in life as you are moving through them, because they will indeed look like valuable mentors when you look back at them with distance and perspective. I never would have thought I would find a reason to say I am grateful that Richard died when he did. I still can’t quite form those words with my human lips. What I can say without a hint of hesitation though is that I never would have actualized the potential I am discovering now if I had not gone through the agonizing pain of his loss. For that I am grateful.
This morning, our last morning of this Pilgrimage, I wake without setting an alarm. I refrain from enticing Christiana out of bed sooner than she might prefer and let her rest on her own schedule. I make no plans for breakfast. I do not force myself to get a workout in just because it’s what I’m supposed to do. Instead I sleep until 8:00 a.m., by far the latest of any day on this trip. This morning I put on a pair of running shorts since it is finally spring-like in France. This morning I grab a light jacket and the same Puma tennis shoes I’ve used a few times; I’m so grateful that I threw them in my luggage at the last minute. This morning I make one final lap of Notre-Dame de Chartres as a solo pilot in preparation for my many future flights around the world with many companions.
I begin my walk up to the cathedral through the town square below. The sun is already glorious in the Chartres blue morning sky. A trinity of puffy white clouds frames the towers of the cathedral in the distance. I pause in the square and look at the bronze statue of two men sitting at a picnic table in what I know is a meaningful conversation and I wonder what this trip might look like if Richard was still in his body and that statue was he and I in our human forms. I wind through the streets of this charming, small French village that happens to be home to a cathedral magnificent enough to exist in Rome, London, Paris, or any other world-renowned destination. I pass by Le Pichet, Richard’s favorite little café in the town long ago selected as his final Home.
My first stop is the outdoor labyrinth that so joyfully enticed me to dance yesterday. This morning I do not dance. Instead I pause and drink it in slowly. I take one last look out across the French countryside below the outermost walls of the cathedral gardens. I take one last look back up at a side of the cathedral that is less viewed by the masses. It is often never seen by the tourists and busloads of visitors who spend an hour visiting this site instead of a weekend. I think this is why Richard loved this exact place so well. It took time to discover the richness of this spot. I once again climb the little hill that is home to the three stately pine trees that Rhonda, Christiana, and I adopted as our individual and collective symbols for this mission. I pause at the top of the hill and sit between the three trunks of those stately pines and look back down at the labyrinth with my eyes closed, memorizing every turn and savoring the moment in mind.
My second stop is the exact site of Richard’s final rest. The space is across from a row of climbing wisteria vines that must be hundreds of years old but are not yet in bloom for this season. This area is one small corner of a sea of gardens. This corner sits just below the belfry at the far end of the cathedral. That belfry is by coincidence the only part of the cathedral not open for tour. I wonder about that unique contrast. I notice sprinkles of Richard’s ashes still visible that encircle the solo metal cross with fleur-de-lis tips at its points. The cross in the middle of the garden marks the tomb of someone who died many years ago. I have no idea who that person is or was. I know who is there now. Despite a full day of rain Richard’s ashes won’t wash away quickly. I am not at all surprised.
I place my hands on the upright of the cross one last time but this time instead of doing it while facing the cathedral, I turn in the opposite direction and look up to find the backdrop to be the ancient wisteria vines and perfect blue skies. As I look up I notice a jet halfway across the sky leaving a long jet stream as a reminder that my flight is just beginning and there is so much more sky ahead. I leave the site for the final time. I am sad but not melancholy. It is time.
I walk out the gate of the gardens and around to the front steps to make one last visit to the inside of the glorious cathedral. I’m still not sure which body part of this worship site I am most fond of. To me the cathedral itself is the mind, full of history and art. The gardens are like the spirit, free and unencumbered to those who seek to take spiritual flight. I’m still in search of the heart of the church. It could be the garden where Richard lies at rest. I remain undecided.
My third stop is inside the church itself. The doors open at 8:30 a.m. By chance I am the first one through the doors on this quiet post-Easter Monday morning. It turns out I will have an entire half hour before another visitor enters. Immediately to the right as I enter is the altar with the ancient stone I was so drawn to on each previous visit. On Good Friday the altar was barren. On this day it is adorned with a simple crucifix. I place both of my hands on the stone. Generations of faith and hope travel through me in an instant. My heart grows.
As I walk to the back of the cathedral I notice the gate to the famous choir screen is open. This is the gated area behind the main altar where the magnificent sculpture of angels in flight is housed. At no point is public access permitted to this area except when mass is in session and even then only as directed by priests and for local worshippers. I view the open gate as an invitation. I feast my eyes. Just a bit further toward the back of the cathedral, behind an always-locked gate, is a piece of cloth between two panes of glass surrounded by a gold frame. It is said to be part of the birthing cloth that was used by Mary on the night that Jesus was born. The validity of this fact is neither confirmed nor denied by the Catholic Church. It makes no difference to me in this moment. If it brings hope and connection to the faithful it serves its purpose. In my heart I feel the story to be true. In that belief my heart grows bigger still.
On the darker side of the cathedral that has been less restored, there is a wooden carving of Mother Mary holding a young baby Jesus. The carving itself dates back to the 16th century. The carving stands at the top of a tall wooden pillar that dates back to the 13th century. To my astonishment, there are no ropes or barriers to protect this precious item, rather only a small non-distinct sign that says, “Place No Candles Here Please” in both French and English. The carving itself has been restored. The faces of Mary and young Jesus are both haunting and beautiful. I am mesmerized. My reaction is similar to that when I first saw the Mona Lisa. I see brilliance. I see simplicity. My heart feels full.
My last stop inside the cathedral is the stone labyrinth at the main entry. It is one of this site’s true highlights and it is of particular interest to me because it ties Christianity and the spirituality of ancients together. Many people who have visited Notre-Dame de Chartres in the past had warned me in advance that I should not be disappointed if I do not get a chance to walk the labyrinth. It seems that the labyrinth is often under rows and rows of wooden chairs that are left out for services and concerts that occur nearly every day. One of those who warned me said that sometimes people move all the chairs so they can walk the labyrinth. On this morning I am the only one in the entire Cathedral. Clearly that option exists. I grab one section of chairs. They are light wooden chairs woven together in groups of three of four by jute fibers. As I move the first set of chairs something doesn’t feel right inside me. It’s not so much the time it would take to move all these chairs. It’s the entire concept of moving them: the magnitude of the project perhaps. I’m no stranger to hard work, but it doesn’t feel organic. It doesn’t feel right.
Instead I find the start of the labyrinth. I walk the first four steps straight forward on the path and then bank towards the left to meet my first obstacle, a row of chairs in the middle of the sea of chairs. I keep my eyes on my spot in the labyrinth and walk around to the row in front of the row I was standing in previously. I mark my spot with my eyes and trace it a bit further until I see the first turn in the labyrinth. I dash to that spot and stand there in the moment enjoying my first finish line on the quest. So many turns yet ahead. I continue in the same format for the next five minutes. Eventually I find a clearance at the top arc of the labyrinth with no chairs and I move at a quicker pace through the top arched parts of the circular pathway only to eventually find another row of chairs. This time though my excitement is growing with such fervor that I start stepping over chairs, onto the seats of the chairs, finding gaps in between sections of the chairs and twisting through those gaps.
I can begin see that this quest to walk the labyrinth completely may just be possible even if the way is one that I might not have initially considered. I’m still alone in this giant home of worship and history. I feel light as I glide over the obstacles using my eyes to follow the path of stones and my heart to follow the way to the center. The labyrinth begins to wind back towards its center and although the chairs block my view just enough for me to not notice that I am now down to my final few turns, in my soul I know the final finish line is growing near.
The music in my ears is the playlist named Paris 2015 that I referenced in an earlier blog on this trip. I reach the center of the labyrinth with my heart full of joy. The song Home by Above and Beyond begins to play in my ears. I sit down in the center of the labyrinth in a cross-legged position and close my eyes. I use my hands first to touch the floor for a minute or two. Then I bring my hands to touch each other just in front of my heart center. I weep with grief and joy through my closed eyelids for the duration of the song. When I open my eyes the entire area is full of a busload of Asian and German tourists. Some seem to ignore me. Some seem curious. I have no attachment to either result. I have no shame. I’m in the moment.
I have found the heart of the cathedral after all. In doing so, I have found my heart on a way paved with obstacles and contrasts. My heart celebrates. I’m ready to leave Notre-Dame de Chartres now. I’m ready to fly.