Heaven on Earth
What a classical concert in a 13th century chapel can teach an atheist
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This concert I am about to attend in a Parisian chapel is the same to me as a concert anywhere else, or so I think to myself as I see the grand Gothic structure a bit ahead of me. A tall spire shoots into the air, stating: here I am, I still stand! It's the fifth spire that has been constructed since the 13th century, all others destroyed in fires or wars. A magnificent piece of architecture no doubt, but that's it, nothing divine about it.
We arrive at a short line of concert-goers and quickly enter through a labyrinthine path that leads us up and down stairs and to a final narrow tunnel. I peek around the corner and there it’s, all deep blues and purples from the light filtering through the stained glass that seems to cover the entire chapel. It’s much narrower and longer than I imagined, which makes my eyes go straight up, to big golden arches intertwined, as if in love, in between a sea of ocean-blue paint.
There are chairs arranged everywhere except on a hallway in the middle of two sets of seats. It can fit about 200 of us, shoulder to shoulder. At the end of the hallway is a piano, and above it a chasse with more tall stained glass windows behind it. We find seats, but I stand again dazzled by the grandness of the place and finally turn around to see a big rose window. I wonder, out loud, when was this structure built.
"Construction started in 1242 and finished in 1248", my husband reads from his phone
"What?", I reply, thinking he made a mistake
"Yeah, it was built 800 years ago", he says while looking up, as amazed as me
I try to imagine what it must have been like to live then. An extremely unequal time, the Middle Ages were tough for the regular person, focused on working the land to produce enough food to live one more year. And then there were the kings, nobles, and priests, who made the peasants build grand mystical structures they would never be able to set foot in. And now here we are, about to hear the Four Seasons of Vivaldi under the same Christ a man painted on glass 800 years ago.
The musicians take their places; there are four violinists, a pianist, and a cello player. They all look impeccably beautiful in sophisticated black attire, holding their instruments as if they were made of glass, serious as if playing them was a matter of life or death. Maybe in some way, it is.
They begin, and the mood shifts. Even though we are in the middle of Summer, you can feel Spring in the air. Hopeful, playful, possibilities abound. You can almost hear birds chirping, wind rocking the just-in-bloom flowers. The angels above the musicians seem to be encouraging them on, the Apostles statues admire them approvingly, the hundreds of figures in the glass panels dance with them.
The main violinist has short brown hair, he is bold in the back but you can’t see that if he doesn’t turn around, clean shaven but somehow looks messy from where we sit. He moves passionately with the music - a little step to the front, a little one to the back - his fingers fast, his forehead shiny.
Then summer is here. Intense and fast, my heart races. One of the violinists is sitting down and her blonde hair seems to draw all the soft light in the massive chapel, her short curls bouncing with the rhythm. I notice a girl two rows in front of me - red hair tied in a bright green hair tie matching her shirt - her wide blue eyes often look up, her mouth slightly open as if saying “what is this place?”, in her childlike wonder.
Sweet autumn arrives and I am being rocked. Soft and playful. How many houses of God I have been into, I wonder while moving my head side to side, it must be hundreds. There are always several to mark off a list at any given destination in this God-loving world. In most I go in and out, they are just a reminder of how religion still rules. But there are some that really pull at me for one reason or another; the church turned mosque turned museum turned mosque in Istanbul, the small cave in Gran Canaria, the jungle temple in the Vietnam coast. In those, I stay a little longer, maybe sit down on a bench or the floor or a rock depending on the God it’s made for. Then find peace within myself, like now.
The violinist's eyes shoot up and in my head he is saying, “this is really for you, not these mere mortals”. His mouth twitches into a slight smile. I close my eyes for a second and when I open them he is walking down the aisle, all passion and movement. He smiles at the redhead girl. The sound of his violin intensifies and then diminishes as he walks past me. I realize the instrument alone is what is creating this.
Winter. It builds up and up and up until it’s in me, in everyone, in the chapel itself. Ominous and deeply emotional. I look around; a man is at the edge of his seat, a woman has her eyes closed, the redhead is looking straight ahead. My eyes had watered at several points during the concert but it is during winter that a tear comes down my cheek. How powerful it’s to be in a room full of strangers being moved by the same string of notes, I consider and then immediately wonder, How did we build this place 800 years ago?
Then the music stops and I stand up with the crowd, clapping for the music, for the chapel, for the divine combination of the two. I leave the place in a daze. Once outside, the looming Gothic structure looks down at me, knowingly.