In these troubled and unpredictable times that COVID-19 has inflicted upon us, I have longed to retreat into a safe and more predictable time. Since looking forward does not offer that possibility, at least for the foreseeable future, I was reminded today of a visit that Norm and I made to a beautiful cathedral in France. We were able to touch upon there, at least for a time, a space in which we could feel the presence with gratitude and let go of its stresses. At the same time, we were able let go of wrestling with the past or questioning the future and to be total present to an enveloping “now.”
Most tourist destinations in France tend to include some of the more popular and outstanding cathedrals in Chartres, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Sacré Coeur Basilica, to name a few. A short drive north of Paris, however, took us to an unexpected gem on our first visit to France. We made it a must on every future research trip after that: the Gothic Cathédrale Notre Dame d’Amiens.
I mention this cathedral, because I was feeling particularly restless today. I decided to go through some old photos of France trips, and came upon pictures of this magnificent space. I was reminded of how necessary silence and quiet space are to our well being and to our ability to cope with the hassles of our current uncertain times.
As I closed my eyes to move beyond the photos themselves, I recaptured the experience of being in Amiens. It came to mind that the medieval builders in fact tried to maximize the height of the space so as to “reach the heavens” and to create as much light as possible. When one first enters this space, these objectives are at once both seen and felt.
I remembered thinking, in that first visit, of the words of Lauren Harris, one of the famous Group of Seven painters. He said: “I try to get to the summit of my soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings.” The experience of sitting in that beautiful cathedral made me feel as if my soul were truly reaching for what those early builders must have somehow known and felt when they were reaching such spectacular heights with the architecture.
At the same time, in the silence of that space, there was a profound sense of what could only be described as “a wash of peace”–a sense that the questions of life had fallen silent for a time and that it was enough simply to exist in the present with gratitude.
Today, in the revisiting and remembering of those special moments in Amiens, I am reminded that the cathedral itself did not create sacred silence, but it did allow me to find it there. I was reminded also that we must be open to discovering sacred silence in the simplest places and at the most unexpected times and to give ourselves completely to those moments. They present us with an invaluable gift. They are nourishment for our well being in these difficult and uncertain times of the pandemic that has come upon us.
I am also reminded that silence is not merely the absence of noise, but a presence of something more. Silence is a necessary space for us to visit as often as possible–a place that allows us to regroup for the journey ahead, a place that renews and refreshes our spirit, and allows us to continue to live into the future with hope and resilience.