Pesach began on the first of April in 1999. Siobhan was going to Eretz Florida for Passover. When you consider the enormity of the responsibility of caring for her around the clock this was a very big deal. True respite really seems like a miracle. Siobhan was traveling with a family that has been a part of her life since preschool. They have been wonderful to Siobhan, even including her in a few of their family trips like the time in 2001 they went to New York and they saw The Producers with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. To this day Siobhan has The Producers soundtrack at the top of her playlist. Who knew it would turn out to be true. But in 1999 they were going to Florida to join in celebrating Passover with other family members. That gave Linda and I a few days to do something. Our Passover miracle was a three and a half day stay in Paris, France.
Churches and Museums
I studied French for many years. Linda never ceases to remind me of this because I have a marked inability to speak French. I can read fairly well, and with some looking up I can write, but when it comes to having a conversation in French I’m at a loss. Come to think of it, this is also evident in English. My vision of France, imparted to me by a few very good French teachers, was heavily informed by movies and restaurants. At that point in 1999 I have seen the good French movies (the ones without Gerard Depardieu) and I believe that the French, well, they see things marvelously differently so I was looking forward to experiencing the marvelous cultural differences. And from the French restaurants we visited in Manhattan I had a distinct impression that fine dining is a French national glory not to be missed, and I was looking forward to the glorious food. Linda was thinking churches and museums. And that is what we saw, churches and museums.
Since we were on the mostly church tour, and since I knew the story of The Relics, and because legend has it that the crucifixion of Jesus started at nine o’clock and that he died at two I made sure that we visited Notre-Dame Cathedral the afternoon of Good Friday for maximum effect. The Relics are only out of the crypt each Friday of Lent and for three days at Easter. But wait, what are The Relics, and what do they have to do with Notre-Dame? The Relics of the Passion at Notre-Dame de Paris are a piece of the one true cross, a nail of the passion, and (timpani booming) the crown of thorns. If you have questions at this point about the provenance of these objects I refer you to Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine; Baldwin the II, the Latin Emperor of the East; and the holy King of France, St. Louis. That is the chain of evidence. Look, either you believe in this or you don’t. I don’t, and that figures in our story.
Ah, but there is one more link in the chain. After the little matter of the Revolution in France the churches were hey presto no longer owned by religious orders, they became the property of the people. The Relics of the Passion were handed over to the Dean and Chapter of Notre-Dame Cathedral and given to the statutory care of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem part has me shaking my head but this is why two Knights are always in attendance when the Relics are presented to the faithful, and in the faithful part lies the rub.
Pas de Visite!
So the scene now set we join the queue in Notre-Dame Cathedral on Good Friday, the second of April 1999, at approximately the hour of the death of Jesus. Way up at the head of the queue is a man in the uniform of a Knight wearing rather incongruously thick white gloves. He has a pole in one hand, and at the top of the pole is a signboard. From time to time he thumps the sign board and calls out loudly pas de visite! pas de visite! and each time he performs this ritual some people peel off from the line and walk away. I am curious, but perhaps this is the marvelous French culture that I want to see in action, so I continue looking around and talking with Linda. Again the Knight thumps the sign board and calls out loudly pas de visite! pas de visite! and several people peel off the line never to be seen again.
It is not until we get up rather close that I read the sign. It is an admonishment! I had heard about the bristly nature of the French when you cross their cultural lines, such as ordering the cheese plate up front, horrors! The admonishment is very clear. As I’m reading it the Knight thumps the sign board and calls out loudly pas de visite! pas de visite! and several people peel off the line ahead of us and we only have about eight feet to go. The sign says that the Relics are not for visiting. No. The Relics are for veneration! And then we are even with the Knight and he is extending to me some sort of holy card for which he clearly expects an emolument. Not expecting this I fumble in my pockets for money. I come up with something that from his look is not enough and we break free into the main altar area of Notre-Dame, joining the line of venerators. And there they are, the Relics, ensconced in gold and crystal reliquaries laid out on velvet cushions with the Knights in attendance to make sure that you exhibit veneration and not visitation. There is a clear sign of your compliance. You are expected to bow and kiss the relics.
Remember I mentioned that either you believe in this or you don’t and I don’t? Proving that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, I was, how you say, conflicted but not by disbelief. I was immediately overtaken by the image of all those who had come before me and who had slobbered their lips all over the Relics. No time to think at that point. I just pressed my lips as shut as I could and barely grazed the Relics and joined the exit queue. Next time, I vowed, we would go to an atheist country. It took us a while, but after that we all went to Ireland so that idea was right out!
You might also remember that up front I said that Siobhan was going to Eretz Florida for Passover. Excluding travel we had about three and a half days on the ground in Paris. When you really think about this it boggles the mind. We did make it back to Los Angeles just in time to get our car and hightail it back to the airport to pick them up. Such is the life of a parent, especially a parent of a child who needs round the clock care. Any period of respite is usually very brief, and during that time there are taxes to do, or the wash, or writing a scholarly paper or even this story or any number of things that are next to impossible to do when Siobhan is here. We were very grateful to have three and a half days to experience Paris and visit churches and venerate the Relics. I will never be the better of it.