Wednesday, November 10, 2010


In the process of listening to myself
I came to the conclusion that my soul or my heart
was always yearning for something new.
I was constantly hoping for some new event,
some new information, some renewed courage.
(Isaac Bashevis Singer)

It still seems weird to me to write that: "Paris." A woman named Julia Thompson ran into my name and music at Shantivanam and through mutual friends in India, and when she somehow found out that I was going to be in the area--on my way to England from Lebanon--she invited me to stop by Paris and do one, maybe two, concerts here. I readily agreed, partially because I knew I was going to have some time between engagements, and of course because I would have loved to see Paris. I had studied French in high school and our wonderful French teacher, Suzanne Kosmerl, who was a Parisienne herself, had steeped us in French culture, including trips to the Art Institute in Chicago, as part of our French class. I had had visions of myself as a turn of the century artiste of sorts for years (turn of the 19th century, that is). I had read biographies of many of the Impressionist artists, and the French music of that era was my entre into legitimate "classical" music--Debussy, Ravel, and Eric Satie (whom I emulated), later Messiaen and some of the great sacred literature of that period. And then, of course, in later years I have had dreams of doing a monastic tour of France, not only the great Benedictine and Cistercian spots, but also Taize, Paray le Monial and Thich Nhat Hahn's Plum Village. That latter will have to wait, but at least I have these few days here, mostly in Paris.

I had a red-eye out of Lebanon Sunday morning at 3:45. Fadi picked me up from Saint Mouron and drove me into Beirut one last time, where we headed straight for Nayla's house, who prepared one last simple meal for us all. We had one last intense conversation as well, about some questions I had yet unresolved about Islamic philosophy. I urged Fadi to get me to the airport good and early so he didn't have to sit up and lose sleep waiting, so I had a good long time at the airport before my flight. It was kind of a time warp; they oddly served breakfast on the plane right away (at 4:30 AM) and then turned out the lights, at which point I went into an unusually deep sleep for an airplane. When we finally got to Paris via Frankfurt, six or so hours later, Julia thought I would take longer than I did getting through baggage and customs, so by the time she got there I had already installed myself at the first coffee bar and had mustered enough French to begin my comparative tests between Italian and French coffee and pastries.

Julia is British, but has been living here in Paris over six years now. She knows the city well, is used to acting as tour guide and trip planner for guests, and of course has a seemingly perfect command of the language. Through another friend Julia had managed to procure for me the use of a flat right off the Champs Elysee, midway between the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. By the time we arrived at the apartment it was pouring down a very cold rain, which boded the same for rest of my stay here, by the way. The apartment is owned by an American woman who uses it only rarely, and it is pretty near what I imagined an apartment in Paris to be like, a small kitchen and bathroom, but a generous living-dining room and bedroom. There is a large photgraph of an elderly Pablo Picasso on the wall in the living room and assorted prints of his drawing on the walls around. Julia supplied me with more than enough food, and in those first few hours of just taking a nap and settling in I thought for a moment that it would be enough to sit in this flat off the Champs Elysee with my guitar, books, laptop and Yoga mat for the next four days. But Julia came back for me in the mid-afternoon and we set off on foot across town. Even more than London, it did feel as if one could at least see the major sections and sites of the city on foot in one day. We walked up along the Seine, past the Palais and exhibition hall, through the Louvre (without stopping since the lines were so long--the first Sunday of the month is free admission), and then the Tulieries Gardens, straight up to Notre Dame. Notre Dame was also very crowded--tourists plus an organ recital going on--so we only stayed long enough to make a slow walk around the entire nave and sanctuary past all the side altars, wonderful organ music playing throughout, with a promise to come back for more later. Then across the river for a delicious bowl of (what we would call "French") onion soup and a cup of tea before heading back to my part of town on the Metro for an early night's sleep.

Yesterday, Monday, was pretty much my only work day, so after most of the morning to myself and a nice easy run along the Seine, Julia met me again and ushered me over to Forum 104, the site and organization that sponsored and hosted the concert. Forum 104 is the brainchild of the Marist missionary congregation. This particular large building in which they are housed at one time was the home of a thriving community of Marist brothers and fathers, but as their numbers there dwindled and aged, some year ago they decided to do something different with the space. So they created Forum 104, and center that hosts all types of cultural and spiritual exchanges, round tables, conferences, study sessions, artistic endeavors and meditation groups. They also rent the space out to all kinds of groups as well, and the flyers that are posted advertising the upcoming events were pretty impressive in their variety--dance and Tibetan meditation, Yoga and music events. From what I understand, the only stipulation is that any group that uses the space be open to people from other groups taking part in their activities and an exchange of ideas. It's really marvelous. Here is a sample of some of soirees coming up: "The Notion of Energy in Hinduism and Christianity," The Recognition of Life in the Face of the Aggression of Inequality and Discrimination," led by a Buddhistm a Jew, a Muslim and a Chrsitian, "The Poems of Ramana Maharshi," "Philosophy and Spirituality: Is Dialogue Pssible?," "The Consciousness of the Heart in Energetic Chinese Arts," "The Bhagavad Gita: What is Right Action?" Given the theological climate in the US right now, I can almost not imagine such an exchange of ideas going on there led by a Catholic group, except at an occasional Franciscan retreat house.

We met with Pere Bernard, a tall friendly Frenchman who is the director of the place. He was quite gracious and kind to me from the start, joking with me either in halting but good English or speaking very slowly and deliberately to me in French. I get a lot of it, especially is someone really wants me to understand, though I get a little frustrated that I can't respond in French. The concert that evening was in the adjoining small but high ceilinged church of Notre Dame des Anges. It was well attended and, with Julia's help both translating and singing along, we even got good audience participation. It was one of those buildings where the guitar sounds like an orchestra. The audience was quite a mixed group, as is drawn to the Forum. There was a good handful of Anglophones there as well, Americans, Australians and British, and afterward I spoke mainly with them. One couple in particular had just returned from Armenia, and was trying to convince me both of its beauty--"the oldest Christian country," they told me--and of my need to go there and sing my songs for them. We'll see about that... right now, a lot of California sounds like the right next move.

Today was pretty much a free day, though Julia had scheduled for us to have lunch with and meet the brothers of the Community of Jerusalem here in Paris. I had met their confreres in Florence and attended their liturgies of the hours a number of time at the Badia Fiorentina. This is the mixed community that started here in Paris in 1975 (as a matter of fact I met the founder today at lunch!). The men and women live in separate communities but quite near each other so that they pray and sing together publicly three times a day. It is beautiful Byzantine styled part singing, as far as I know all written by the French comper Andre Gouzes, and it is stunningly beautiful, especially when you hear it for the first time. (Like anything, I suppose you get used to it...) As in Florence, the community sits on the ground on prayer benches in their choir robes, men on the left, women on the right, with the assembly behind on stools. They are at Saint Gervais here in Paris, a dark and drafty space with a generous acoustic, very much like the Badia Fiorentina. They are also at Vezelay and have been given custody of the famous monastery at Mont Saint Michel as well. I was told today that they still only have about 200 women and men, but still, I think they are a great success story in the Roman church. Many of them work outside the community during the day, in full habit, but they are pretty strict about not going out outside of that. Actually originally Julia was trying to have me stay there with them, which would have been nice as well, but they would not have been able to allow me to come and go for the concert or for any sight-seeing. But they were very welcoming at lunch, and afterward during recreation and coffee in the sunroom (meals are silent with table reading) two of the brothers, one Spanish and one French, who spoke excellent English, came and spoke with me the whole time, asking lots of questions and answering mine. The young French brother, Marc Abraham, actually spoke English with an Irish brogue, having lived at a monastery in Ireland before joining the Jerusalem community.

In the morning, before Julia came for me, I had already taken a long walk in the light but steady rain, basically in the same direction as we had gone on Sunday but a little deeper away from the river. I was mainly in search of a pastry and a quiet church to say morning prayers, and I found both, the latter being the beautiful Eglise Saint Roche. Then after lunch with the brothers, I headed out on my own, armed with a good map and an umbrella, some general directions from Julia and two pair of socks under my walking shoes. I first went once more for a quick visit to Notre Dame, and then I headed up to the Gare de l'Est to buy my train ticket to Reims for tomorrow. (More on that later.) It was fun figuring out the Metro and, like Roma Termini, I felt like I could have spent all day in the train station. But I resisted and headed back down to my main event of the day--a visit to the Musee D'Orsay. Of all the museums to choose from, this is the one I wanted to see. This is the converted train station that became the home of the Impressionists and mainly still concentrates on work from the turn of the 19th century. What might have at first seemed like unfortunate timing, they are doing major rennovation of some of the major galleries, but that meant that had set up temporary galleries of the most famous artists down at the first and second level. One whole section was devoted just to Gaugin and Van Gogh, during the tumultuous period when they lived together. Some of the most famous Van Gogh's are there, including one self-portrait, the portrait of his doctor patron and the well known painting of the Cathedral at Auverns with its deep blue sky, that he painted just a month before he suicided. The other side of the gallery was amazing: Renoir, Cezzane, Degas Toulouse-Latrec, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Seurat, and many lesser known names. It was quite a visual feast, more gourmand than gourmet perhaps, but I felt like I had fulfilled a thirty year old dream. I then spent the rest of the evening wandering the Latin Quarter, past the Sorbonne and the Curie Centre, the Pantheon and the Cluny Museum with its excavated Roman baths, with a short stop in at the beautiful church of Saint Severin. I must admit, I don't know anything about either Saint Roche or Saint Severin, except that the latter was a hermit, but as soon as I get some internet acess I'll look 'em up. The artist's name wasn't listed but I am quite sure that the stunning numbered black and white prints of the life of Christ that hung around the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament were by Roualt. I treated myself to crepes for dinner at a creperie off on a side street--one with spinach, egg and Emmental cheese, and a second with just butter and burnt sugar. After a long cold day of walking, they were as delicious as anything I've ever eaten.

Tomorrow I head up to Reims on the train for the day to visit a young friend studying there, and an excuse to see a little but more of France, and then on to England and back to work on Thursday.