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Travel can provide a religious experience

PARIS — I think the cab driver should have known there was a labor strike and that the streets leading toward Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris were clogged, but she didn't appear to. We crawled this way and then that on our way to Ile de la Cité, narrowly escaping a multitude of crashes with the motorcycles weaving through the congestion.

There might have been some cursing in French.

That city experience turned what should have been an inexpensive ride into a 35-euro (more than $45) excursion just so I could get a picture of the famed cathedral at dusk. See, it is in December when the twinkling bulbs on one of the city's tallest outdoor Christmas trees light up the 13th century towers of the cathedral. By the time we got there it was dark. And raining. Should have taken the underground Metro, I guess.

We all have obsessions when we travel. Some people scour museums, others like pub crawls and famous food markets. Runners look for interesting routes; sun-worshippers for pristine beaches. I once read an article in the New York Times about a swimmer whose first order of business when she landed in a new town was finding a pool for her daily workout.

My thing is churches and not just walking through them during the day, though I do insist on that side trip whenever I spy an open door. I like to attend a Sunday service wherever I am. I've been to Easter services at a Lutheran church in Savannah, Ga., summer worship at a Methodist Church in Chatham, Mass., and a Presbyterian service in Santa Fe., N.M., where we prayed for the safety of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, on both sides of the conflict. St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London holds special Sunday morning memories for me, as does vespers at St. Paul's Cathedral, under the spires and dome designed by Christopher Wren. I cursed an early Sunday train reservation in Salzburg, Austria, that kept me from any number of historic houses of worship.

On Sept. 11 of this year, I attended an outdoor mass near the House of the Virgin Mary, not far from the biblical ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. The young priest, who apologized several times for what I thought was very good English, honored the memory of those who had died in the Sept. 11 attacks. His words had special meaning, being uttered at the place where the Virgin Mary reportedly spent her last days.

And this month, on the second Sunday of Advent, I experienced the early morning mass at Notre Dame. The service, conducted by Father Houssou of Benin, was in French, of which I know little and mostly just when it pertains to food. I do understand the language of contemporary fashion and smiled at the site of blue jeans poking from beneath his robe.

We sat close to the front, the dank, centuries-old cathedral still dark at nearly 9 a.m. Light muddled through the exquisite stained glass of the French Gothic structure. I had a camera around my neck and got a lecture from a man who, I think, was warning me about taking photos during the service. I hadn't planned on doing that. Honestly. But because Notre Dame is one of Paris' most visited sites, the flashes were going off nonstop from tourists gawking from the areas outside the pews. My admonisher did not go after them.

It was a lovely experience, sitting through an hourlong service without really understanding much. Through the language barrier I recognized the Lord's Prayer simply from the inflection of the joint recitation. It sounded comfortingly similar to what I knew from home. There were no kneelers and I marveled when the older nun in front of us went to her knees on the cold stone floor and then hopped up without assistance.

There was no grand choir at the early service, just a young cantor singing in an impossibly high, clear voice. She waved her hand in the air when it was time for the congregation to respond. They sang and I listened.

I am not sure why I am so drawn to the world's churches, and Sunday services specifically. I don't profess to be a theological expert or the most pious person around. But I find comfort and peace in holy places. The quiet provides time for reflection in the midst of a busy travel itinerary, and the architecture also reveals much about the history of a place. The message, even when it's not in English, is an inspiration.

This time, though, I am sorry that the cab driver got more money than the Notre Dame collection plate.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.

Travel can provide a religious experience 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 5:07pm]
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