I was tired and jet lagged, and I was unimpressed at the number of people waiting in line to enter the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I had arrived in France from an overnight flight, stowed my backpack in a locker in the train station, and immediately headed over to the island that I have considered one of my favourite places in the world since first visiting at 20 years old. As I meandered down crowded sidewalks from the train station to Île de la Cité, the first glimpse of the familiar flying buttresses made my heart sing with joy. But the lack of sleep from the flight, the greater fatigue from leaving for a trip the day after my school year finished, and the claustrophobia of jostling crowds waiting outside was taking the shine off of visiting the site of beloved memories.
I eventually shuffled along with the rest of the line through the front door of the cathedral, passing a sign reminding people that this was a place of worship and to be respectful. But almost everyone around me seemed to be taking in the church through a camera lens. Annoyed, I stepped out of the flow of traffic moving down the aisle around the edges of the cathedral and sat in a chair near the back of the nave.
I thought of this cathedral being built to the glory of God over two centuries, finally being finished some six centuries earlier. I thought of how many people had worshipped there, how each part of the cathedral was crafted with symbolism to remind people of God, from the floor plan being laid out in the shape of a cross to the pictures of Bible stories in the stained glass windows. I thought of the medieval townspeople who must have entered its hallowed walls with an overwhelming sense of God’s grandeur and their own smallness in comparison.
And now, I thought rather self-righteously, the cathedral was nothing more than a tourist trap, filled with people more interested in taking Instagram-worthy pictures than being inspired by God in this space. It’s finished its work as a place of worship, I thought sadly.
After a few minutes of feeling sorry for the current state of the cathedral, I got back up and continued down the aisle, stopping to light a candle and to admire Notre Dame’s famous rose windows in the transepts. Then I wandered back through the ambulatory, around behind the choir at the very front of the cathedral. There I stumbled on a series of panels which outlined the history of the cathedral, starting from the first stone being laid in the 12th century and continuing through the cathedral’s use today. I followed along, reading about the cathedral being built over a 200 year span, and then the work of the church through the medieval period, the Renaissance, and all the way around the choir, until I came to a panel that talked about the work of the church in the 2000s. To my surprise, it listed numerous outreach programs and ministries that the cathedral undertakes. And then there was this quote from a recent Arch-Priest: …the cathedral is more than an historic monument: it is above all else the house of God and the house of people, alive with faith and prayer… the cathedral is the witness to the life of the people of God, of the radiance of their love, of their fervent hope.
I continued out of the back and turned the corner to face the altar, and there, hanging directly in front of me, was a banner that read Saint Esprit, Holy Spirit, imploring people to be listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
And as I stood staring at this banner that I hadn’t been able to see from the back of the cathedral, the Holy Spirit whispered to me, I’m here. I’m at work. You don’t know where I’m working and where I’m not. My work is not done in this place. Even if it looks like I’m not there, I’m still at work. Especially then, I’m still at work.
Our lives can be messy and painful. Loss, loneliness, broken families, disease, crises of mental health, political uncertainty, poverty, food insecurity, war. As individuals we see and experience these things, we see the brokenness in the world around us, and even as the church we see and experience this same brokenness in a place where we long to experience God’s goodness. But the Holy Spirit whispers to us, I’m here. I’m at work. You don’t know where I’m working and where I’m not. My work is not done in this place. Even if it looks like I’m not there, I’m still at work. Especially then, I’m still at work.
King David knew this same truth. He experienced incredible times of tumult and trouble, uncertainty, even the threat of death, and yet he wrote,
Lord, even when your path takes me through
the valley of deepest darkness,
fear will never conquer me, for you already have!
You remain close to me and lead me through it all the way.
Your authority is my strength and my peace.
The comfort of your love takes away my fear.
I’ll never be lonely, for you are near.
You become my delicious feast
even when my enemies dare to fight.
You anoint me with the fragrance of your Holy Spirit;
you give me all I can drink of you until my heart overflows.
So why would I fear the future?
For your goodness and love pursue me all the days of my life.
Then afterward, when my life is through,
I’ll return to your glorious presence to be forever with you!
Psalm 23 (The Passion Translation)