In the winter of 2001, my French-speaking daughter, Lauren, suggested she and I take a trip before she graduated college, went on a mission, got married and whatever else would follow. She had been to Europe during high school and longed to return to Paris. Flights were cheap and hotels aplenty that year because terrorists in jet planes had destroyed the World Trade Center and everyone hated the French. I was a struggling single mom, but the possibility of Paris in the spring was so compelling I postponed a few home repairs and used the funds to help pay for our travel. It’s the only way I could manage it. We both thought we might not have the chance again, so off we went. I’ve never regretted it. In fact, one of my personal mantras has become: Go to Paris. Always. No matter what.
Today a particular memory from that trip made an unexpected appearance in my mind. I haven’t thought about it for years. I desperately wanted to write about this memory, but needed to find my journal—the small black and brown striped book with the Eiffel tower on the cover—where I jotted phrases and impressions during our time in Paris and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found. I’m sure it will turn up eventually and for a few minutes I thought I might wait to write until then. But instead I’ll just tell you what I would say if I had the journal in hand.
I would transcribe the words of a poem I wrote about how I caught my breath and almost wept as Lauren and I stepped from the bustling plaza into the refuge of Notre Dame Cathedral. I would write about how the image of the Catholic Church as the Whore of All the Earth (an image I was raised with in my Utah County upbringing) instantly evaporated in the peace I felt. I would tell you how a particular part of the cathedral seemed to speak to me. I approached this space and lit a candle there, then discovered it was the chapel of St. Paul – the patron saint of writers. I reverently crossed myself and offered silent prayer among other faithful worshipers. Yes, I—a devout Mormon mom—made the sign of the cross and felt no shame in it. I felt only peace. And holiness to the Lord.
Looking back now, I wonder if that trip was an unconscious pilgrimage to a place I had never seen, nonetheless, a familiar place, made holy by those who came there to commune with God. This is where the spirit would teach me a lesson I couldn’t learn in the chapel pews back home; a lesson about who we are, how we worship and why.
As I quietly watched my tea-light glow with others on the shelves, I thought about my family and friends and of the distinctive burdens they each bore. I offered up another prayer and felt my faith rise heavenward with the candle vapors. I thought about how God could see my loved ones and me wherever we were in the world and how we became united by Him through this simple act of prayer.
To my left stood a woman with grey hair, a shawl draped across her shoulders. On my right, a young man wearing jeans and a t-shirt lit a candle and bowed his head. I do not know what religion these two people practiced. But in that moment I realized there was no difference between them and me. We were one in our desire to seek God. (2 Nephi 26:33) We loved our families and came into the Cathedral to feel the spirit there. I felt no distance in my heart between the temple on the hill in Provo and this quiet sanctuary in the heart of Paris. Both structures brought me to the same holy alter within my own soul and I realized the doctrine of Christ and the tenets of my LDS faith had never included a rationale for judging others for the way in which they commune with their Lord and Savior.
Lauren happened to stop by while I composed this post, so I talked with her about my feelings and this experience. She said, “You know, I remember hearing that idea about the Catholic Church, but it seems more and more general authorities talk about inclusion and acceptance of all people, no matter what their religion.” I think she’s right. She is much more free from messages of exclusion and religious superiority than I was while growing up. I’m grateful for this.
And I’m grateful for that day in Paris where I found God—as I had many times before in my hometown—with faithful Christians beside me. More importantly, God found me, with new understanding and love for my brothers and sisters on the earth where each of us, in unique and personal ways, are doing our best to come unto Christ.
How about you? Have you found God in unexpected places or ways?