NOTICE: THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT SPIRITUALITY.
Yesterday evening, I was walking in a park near my home, and as I walked under the flowering trees, for some reason I thought of an evening walk I took in Paris, not quite two years ago.
In June of 2009, I took a nine day trip to London and Paris with my son, who was then 23 and had never been to Europe before. As it turned out, someone he had known in college at Rutgers was spending the year studying in Paris, and they arranged to spend an evening together while we were there. That left me free for the evening.
What would I want to do with an evening all to myself in Paris? If you have been following my blog, you might guess, but, if you don’t know me, you’ll never get it right: I went in search of a quiet place to meditate. We had been on the go almost continually for a week, and my son is not the type to sit quietly still for more than ten seconds, so my only quiet time during the trip had been on Sunday morning in London, when my son slept late and I went to worship at Westminster Friends Meeting.
Since we were staying in the Latin Quarter, just a couple of blocks from the Seine, I walked across the bridge to L’Isle de la Cite, and went to the very old and beautiful church, L’Eglise Saint-Chapelle, expecting that, on a weekday evening, the church would be available for private prayer.
Nope. The church was locked, and the only posted hours were for sightseeing. So, I walked the short distance to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, expecting that either the main cathedral or a small room would be available. Nope again; just tourism and set hours for mass or confession. There was nothing else to do but to go for ice cream.
Paris has some of the best ice cream in the world – they tell me that Italian ice cream is better, but I haven’t been to Italy yet – and the best ice cream in Paris is from Berthillon. Fortunately, it is a short walk alongside the cathedral to the pedestrian bridge to L’Isle St. Louis, and, at the far end of the bridge, two cafes that serve Berthillon. I got some chocolate, and stood leaning against the bridge railing while I ate it. A beautiful young woman in a soft pink summer dress rode up on a red scooter, her blond hair flowing from under her white helmet. She parked on the sidewalk by the cafe and went inside.
I started walking back toward the Latin Quarter when I noticed the small, fenced park behind the cathedral. I settled on a bench, and commenced my quiet time. Sitting quietly under the flowering trees behind the ancient cathedral as the sky darkened, I felt engulfed by Spirit. In five minutes, a uniformed guard came by, rattled some keys, and made me understand that the park was to be closed, and I had to go.
I walked back alongside the cathedral, crossed the square in front of it, and went over the bridge to the busier streets of the Latin Quarter. Thinking that a cup of coffee would be just the thing to keep the ice cream company, I walked along the Seine to the Boulevard St. Michel, and made my way past the busy and noisy cafes overflowing onto the sidewalk to the Starbucks just up the block. Even though it wasn’t quite dark yet, Starbucks was closed. I continued up the boulevard to the Starbucks on the next block, just past the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was also closed.
In the middle of the sidewalk near Starbucks, a homeless man and his dog slept, while people walked around them. Back on the corner of the two boulevards, in the vestibule of a bank, a homeless woman slept.
I found a policeman nearby, whose English was better than my French, and I was able to ask him how it is that in France, a country known for providing for everyone, there are still homeless people sleeping on the streets. He told me what I already suspected: these are the mentally ill who refuse help, preferring the streets.
Still feeling Spirit, and allowing myself to be led, I crossed the two boulevards, and went into McDonald’s, where I bought two complete meals in separate bags. Returning to where the woman lay in the doorway, I called to her until she woke. “Madame? … Madame? Avez-vous faim?” (Are you hungry?)
She sat up, all smiles and a torrent of French I couldn’t hope to decipher as I gave her a bag of food. Nearby, a swarthy man, probably a Gypsy, watched and shouted something at us. I waved him away.
A few yards up the block, the man and his dog roused. “Avez-vous faim?” He took the food and opened the bag, sitting cross-legged, still in the middle of the sidewalk. Nearby, the Gypsy watched.
Being in a foreign city where I struggle to communicate even the simplest thoughts, and being a very un-intimidating, short, skinny, middle-aged man with glasses – no one would ever guess that I was a cop for many years – I moved on. It is almost certain that, as soon as I crossed the boulevard, one or both of the hungry street people was robbed of their food by the Gypsy. (It only occurs to me years later that I could have led the Gypsy to McDonald’s, and bought him a meal, also; but had I tried that, he certainly would have snatched my wallet and run off.)
And so, for two years now, I have wondered why I was led by Spirit to that small, futile gesture. In any such action, when we extend a hand with food to someone who is hungry, the hand itself – I mean the love that moves it – nourishes the person even more than the food. Mustn’t it follow that, just as the food was snatched away, the kindness, too, was snatched away by the meanness of the robbery?
No, I don’t think so. Love, being the most formidable power in the universe, must still be present, hanging in the air like the perfume of a young Parisienne passing on a scooter, even after meanness has taken what it can see. And when we are impelled to action by Divine love – moving us, leading us, working through us – no mere human cruelty can fully undo what has been done through us.
Here is something else I know, in the part of me where neither words nor arguments have meaning: Everyone and everything are one, united in the unity of The One. Love and perception of beauty are the same simple thing; recognition and awareness of our oneness. Love settles us more comfortably into our unity, moving us closer. Sin is that which defies love and tears the world asunder; sin is fear and its corollaries, greed, anger, violence, and simple indifference.
Acts may be futile, but love never is.
We can do no great things – only small things with great love. -Mother Teresa