To understand our final sightseeing event in France, I must first take you to Shanghai.
In 2014, I taught a one-week course on Christianity and American politics to rising sophomores at Shanghai University. My host, Dean Guo, had also asked me to give two lectures to the faculty and graduate students of the Department of History. The first lecture introduced St. Augustine’s life, including his conversion. The second was on “American Christian Music from the Beginnings to the Present.”
After that lecture, a young woman came up to ask me questions about Christian aesthetics. We arranged to meet a couple of days later, when I learned that she was a student of Art History. At first, she was planning to write her thesis on musical instruments in Western art, but the paucity of materials led her to switch to Gothic architecture instead. Meanwhile, at her request I had chosen the English name Sharon for her.
When I returned to Shanghai in 2015, she was hard at work translating the writings of Abbott Suger, who basically “invented” Gothic architecture when he renovated and greatly expanded the abbey church of St. Denis, which was then outside of Paris. Naturally, I had to read Suger’s writings in order to help her. That revived my own earlier interest in Gothic architecture. She finished her thesis and obtained her degree, but went to work with the Chinese government instead of in the academy.
In planning our last few hours in Paris, therefore, I knew that we must visit the abbey church where Gothic architecture first appeared. I not only wanted to see it for myself, but to buy some books and take photographs to send to Sharon. Dori was more than happy to add this cathedral to the beautiful church buildings she had already seen in France.
As usual, Dori had bought tickets for us, so after our nap we walked to the Metro station and took the train to what is now the Basilica of St. Denis. For reasons that I’ll explain shortly, I was more than a bit nervous about going that way and would have preferred to call a taxi, but Dori is an adventurer at heart.
On our Metro ride, I counted several men of Middle Eastern appearance, almost no women, and only a few Caucasians. Emerging from the subway station, we found ourselves in a very busy market area. Actually, it was more like a North African bazaar, for the shops were run by people from North Africa and the Middle East and the wares they sold differed greatly from what you would see in the shopping area in Union Station in Washington, D.C., for example.
A short walk took us to the expansive plaza in front of the imposing basilica. Immediately, we began taking photos of the famous doors and towers. Once inside the building, we found ourselves back in the Middle Ages, when Christian ideas and images dominated much of public life. The interior of such a stone structure was much cooler than the plaza, but it was also quieter, more peaceful, and – despite the vast disparities in time and culture separating us from its Medieval builders – much more familiar to us than the ones we had just witnessed. In a strange way, we felt at home.
Though I had visited the National Cathedral in Washington a couple of times over the years, I hadn’t been in a European cathedral church since 1964. The first thing that struck and almost overwhelmed me was the sheer size. The nave was long and the ceiling amazingly high. Then we began to notice the artistry of the columns and the stunning beauty of the stained glass windows, including the rose window over the front doors.
There is no way I can describe to you the thoughts and emotions I experienced over the next two hours. For “all you need to know” about St. Denis, including hundreds of pictures, go to https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g196589-d232100-Reviews-Basilica_Cathedral_of_Saint_Denis-Saint_Denis_Seine_Saint_Denis_Ile_de_France.html.
Perhaps the most striking moment for me came after we had gained admission to the area where all but a few French kings (and many of their queens) were buried. I think it was when we came up the first group of sarcophagi.
There, in front of my stunned eyes, were tombs of Charlemagne, Pepin the Short, and – I could hardly believe it – Charles Martel, the “hammer” who broke the advance of Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in 732. His victory established the Carolingian line of kings of which he was the founder and insured that all of Western Europe north of Spain would not come under the domination of the Moors.
How times have changed.
After a thoroughly delightful – I am tempted to say wonderful – time in the basilica, we made our exit through the ancient doors, took a few more photographs, and looked for a place to savor afternoon refreshments. We soon spotted a café with tables outside amidst trees that offered cool and shade.
We ordered our drinks and were enjoying the scene when we suddenly heard shouting. To make a much longer story much shorter, for several rather fearful minutes we watched as an older man loudly excoriated people working in the café while his young companion tried to restrain him. They finally walked away, with the older man still shouting, but the incident rattled us. Why? Because the two men were obviously from North Africa – they spoke French – and they were clearly charging the restaurant people with some sort of unfair, perhaps even racist, behavior.
Now I was really anxious about our safety. The sun was declining and I wanted to get back to our hotel as soon as possible. We tried to find a taxi, but the few that we saw were engaged and others, though empty, would not stop for us. Finally, we knew we had no recourse but to retrace our steps through the bazaar to the Metro station.
On the ride home, our car was filled with a couple dozen men and only a few women or Caucasians. Clearly, this was not a European neighborhood. I was glad that the Metro station was so close to our hotel, and breathed a sigh of relief when we entered the Marriott Courtyard.
Now you see why I had been fearful of taking the Metro. I had read that St. Denis is inhabited almost entirely by immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East and that police call it a “No-Go Zone.” They enter the area only in an armored vehicle with four officers. I don’t believe we were in danger at any time. Clearly, my fears were unwarranted.
Or were they?
While searching for images of the basilica on the Internet, I stumbled upon news stories of which I had been entirely unaware. I knew, of course, about the fire that destroyed much of Notre Dame. I did not know that, according to The Times of London, in 2018 alone, 875 churches were vandalized. A fire broke out in the second-largest church in Paris, almost surely the work of radical Muslims. (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/vandalism-at-hundreds-of-french-churches-n509gwb0d)
St. Denis itself had been struck in March by a recent arrival from Pakistan who already had a record of violence and vandalism. He damaged the organ and broke several stained glass windows. He has been charged with vandalism.
We have to wonder what Charles Martel would have thought had he been able to foresee the future.
That night, however, we ate American food in an American hotel and slept in big beds in a spacious, quiet, air-conditioned room. Happily, breakfast the next morning included French crepes! Our flight home was smooth and uneventful.
I thank God for the entire trip, and am immensely grateful tor Dori’s careful planning, for our young Chinese friends who invited me to conduct their wedding, for the “angels” God sent our way, and for the prayers of God’s people. I’m sure that these intercessions made all the difference.