I quietly walk down the center aisle toward the grand, towering altar with an elaborate cross above it. Sculptures of the twelve disciples stand in a semi-circle, looking down from their lofty positions near the vaulted ceiling. To my right and left are beautiful, colorful, stained glass windows depicting various scenes from the Bible. Moses holds the Ten Commandments. Jesus feeds the 5000. Mary weeps for her crucified Son. The disciples stare at the sky as Christ ascends to heaven. Vibrant pieces of glass combine in each window to tell a story. Light and dark hues manage the mood.
I'm conscious of my steps, trying not to click or shuffle on the hard stone floor. Halfway down the aisle I turn around, face the back of the church, and look up. This is my ritual when visiting these European cathedrals. I must see the pipe organ. Rising above the congregation, in the choir loft sits the large wooden instrument, but it's the massive silver and gold pipes that I care about. They vary in size from a straw to the circumference of a volleyball. While no music comes out of them on this trip, they gleam in the colored light, and I think of my favorite hymns. Angels' strains blossom over the choir loft and down to us wandering souls like a holy mist.
Everyone comes to these places for something different- to see the architecture, light a candle, sit in prayer, or simply because it's just what you're supposed to do in that city. The map/travel blog/random stranger said it was the coolest place to see while we're here, so we have to go! However, at the core of my visits to these ancient cathedrals, I wanted it to be more of a holy experience. To escape my tourist self for a little while and just be me and God in this place.
As I walk down the aisles taking in my surroundings, I look up at a column with a simple tapestry on it. Actually, it's closer to a felt banner sewn by church ladies. I see the cut out and stuck on pieces of foreign French words and would usually move on or check if there's an English pamphlet explaining what I'm looking at, but something looks familiar about these letter combinations despite knowing only a handful of words in French. From a mix of high school level Spanish and years studying opera and choral singing in many different languages, I slowly realize what I am reading.
Je crois dans Dieu, le Tout-puissant du Père, Créateur de ciel et monde;
et dans Jésus Le Christ, Son seul Fils, Notre Seigneur;
qui a été conçu par le Saint-Esprit, né de la Vierge-Marie,
In a hushed voice, I call my French friend Cyril over. "Is this the Apostle's Creed?"
He seems unfamiliar with the English title and says, "I don't know what that means. I'd maybe just call it the 'I Believe in God.'"
I stare at the banner and begin translating it aloud to English from memory. I'm suddenly grateful my pastor made us learn the main creeds in confirmation class. My parents would be so proud. I start at the beginning and recite it all the way to the end with help on a few phrases where the French is too different from anything I can relate it to. Cyril speaks the French quietly under me as he follows along.
souffert sous Pontius Pilate, été crucifié, été mort et été enterré.
Il est descendu dans enfer;
le troisième jour qu'Il a encore éveillé du mort;
"The third day he rose again from the dead?" I verify my English translation and my memory.
"Oui," Cyril says.
Oui indeed. I love that the French word for again is encore and that the English language borrows it. Jesus returned to his earthly stage and took a bow, rubbing in the devil's face the fact that he could fulfill this role perfectly. Jesus had won.
The cathedral is in a reverent silence except for the echoing footsteps and a few murmured conversations around us about the art or architecture that float up to the high rafters. I imagine the organ coming to life with a booming, triumphant Easter fanfare of "I Know That my Redeemer Lives," ushering in hundreds of French church-goers raising their voices in songs of praise.
Il est monté dans ciel,
s'assied à la main droite de Dieu, le Tout-puissant du Père;
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
de de là Lui juger le vivre viendront et le mort.
Je crois dans le Saint-Esprit,
l'Église catholique Sacrée,
la communion de saints,
le pardon de péchés,
la résurrection du corps et vie éternel.
"Amen." A word of affirmation. This I believe. This is truth.
The imagined organ and congregation go silent, and I just stand there with my friend staring at a previously unremarkable banner.
Not the grand carved columns, detailed paintings or carefully constructed stained glass, but a quiet moment of reading French is what I'll remember about that church. A simple but profound statement of common faith written probably just a few hundred years after Christ, and now translated into many languages for people across the globe.
What began as the mission of a few brave disciples spread on the wings of the Holy Spirit, crossed the land and sea, withstood persecution, and added daily to the number being saved. Somewhere along the line people came together as the Church of God and wrote a creed. It was a firm foundation that they agreed was of utmost importance to pass on.
Despite feeling like the outsider in France, at that moment I thought of the things that can draw us all together across backgrounds, countries, and centuries. The very One we need to keep us together.
With so many differences that keep us apart even within the Church, it was humbling to realize what has endured, and in so many different places. Every time I now recite the Apostle's Creed in my comfortable, contemporary, carpeted church, I remember how I am really saying it along with more than just those standing next to me.
No matter what we face, no matter what joys and tragedies surround us beyond the cathedral walls, the Word lives on.