Nine years ago, Lyn and I were in Paris. I had just begun my sabbatical from Hope International University, and would be spending the entire month of April and the first part of May in Europe. (It was a fantastic trip!)
Nine years ago today was a Sunday. We went to services at Notre Dame Cathedral and it was without question one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life. It should be noted that this was strictly personal to me. It didn't do nearly as much for Lyn. For me, however, it was the convergence of several things that made it such an affecting experience.
First of all, the building itself. I knew from teaching Music History and Literature for so many years that the building of ND was a process that took hundreds of years. (Have you read Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth? Same kind of thing, only more massive.) I also knew that "harmony" as we know it in the music of western civilization had its beginnings right there in that building. So every time you hear a guitar play a "chord," remember: the concept began at Notre Dame!
Then there were the windows. There are two massive "rose" windows on either side of the altar. One depicts Old Testament themes, and the other, New Testament. When we arrived at the cathedral it was overcast. Just at the end of the mass, the sun broke through the clouds and an enormous burst of colored light came crashing through those enormous windows, filling the cathedral. It was pretty overwhelming to me.
Though not as dramatic as the visual "assault" of the stained light, there was the fragrance. Prior to the sunburst of color, the priest's assistants had been swinging their thurgibles (incense holders on chains)...3 arcs each for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Incense completely filled the cathedral with it's subtle but rich fragrance. Then, at the conclusion of the service, and the dismissal blessing by the priest (in French, of course), the pipe organ burst into a fortissimo postlude which caused your flesh to break out in massive goosebumps.
It was like God had put Cecil B. deMille in charge of the weather that morning, because it was at almost exactly the moment the thundering organ music began that the sunlight hit the windows--as if "on cue."
The timing was truly perfect.
Thus, it was the stacking of all these things--knowledge and the senses--that gave me such a rush, both aesthetically and spiritually. History, sight, sound, and smell all came together. (Had I gone to the altar as a pseudo-Catholic, taste would have been part of the equation!) Although I understood only snippets of what the priest said, I knew enough of the liturgy to be able to contemplate the mysteries of the sacrifice of Jesus, so there was also the "theological" element in the mix.
While everyone was exiting the cathedral that morning, I remained transfixed in my seat (a hard wooden bench, actually), tears rolling down my face as I studied the brilliant window, inhaled the sweet air, and listened to the earthquake-like tones of the organ. (Lyn was happily taking pictures; when she saw me, I think she was worried that I'd had a jet-lag relapse.)