Ordinarily, I worship God in a storefront church. We are über casual. There is no liturgy to speak of—we are an informal bunch. If people want coffee during the service, they get up and get it. And if they have an opinion about what the pastor is saying, they may express it right there, on the spot. In fact, he often encourages such participation. Oh, and by the way, we all speak English at my church.
So it probably won’t surprise you that worshiping at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier this month represented quite a change for me. My French is rusty, and my Latin non-existent. I am unfamiliar with the traditions of a Roman Catholic mass. The 12th-century church is huge and ornate, the atmosphere formal and quiet, and there is no coffee anywhere to be seen.
I anticipated feeling out of place. I expected not to know what was going on. And, frankly, I didn’t envision encountering God there.
But I was wrong—at least about the encountering God part.
As I sat down a few minutes before the service began, I was awed by the beauty. As I gazed at the magnificent stained glass, gilding, pillars, and soaring arches, I was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s majesty. I felt drawn right into the courts of heaven. Psalm 46:9 came to mind: “O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: tremble before him, all the earth.”
This church was built for Your glory, my heart prayed. It was built to reflect Your splendor. Holy, holy are You Lord!
I should have just stayed in that attitude of worship. But I also wanted to capture the moment, so I did the touristy thing: I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo. Instantly, it seemed, an older gentleman sat down next to me and started a stern lecture, in French! I could barely understand the words, but his meaning was very clear: I was not to take photos while seated in the nave. Either I was there as a tourist (not seated in the service, taking photos at will) or I was there as a worshiper. Which was it?*
I meekly apologized, put my phone in my purse, and waited quietly for the service to begin. As other worshipers entered, many faced the altar and genuflected before taking their seats. They were hushed and, unlike me, did not take pictures.
I was impressed by how reverent everyone was. The atmosphere seemed saturated with God’s holiness.
The priest, cantor, and altar boy started their procession down the aisle toward the front of the nave. The cross was lifted high, as was the Word of God. Incense filled the air. The symbolism of this trio of simple, beautiful acts stirred my heart to honor and praise God.
When the service began, there were no upbeat choruses. There was no good-good-Father-Jesus-calls-me-friend vibe. But there were majesty, splendor, and holiness. And there was singing—of Psalms, in French. I didn’t know all the words, but some did stand out to me: Seigneur, souverain, grand et puissant, majestueux, glorieux (Lord, sovereign, great and mighty, majestic, glorious). And they were enough. My soul worshiped along with the assembly and, dare I say? with the angels, too.
My imagination wandered to Isaiah 6 and Revelation 5—scenes before God’s throne in heaven. I could imagine, in a way I usually cannot at my casual, storefront church, what it might be like to be overcome by God’s holy presence.
Hebrews 8:5 says that the earthly tabernacle (later temple) is “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.” A lot of that has been lost in on modern places and forms of worship. Which is not to say we all need to start new cathedral building programs. All I am saying is that for me at least, a visit to a cathedral once in a while is good for my soul. It reconnects me with the majesty of God and renews my reverence for Him. At least that’s what happened a Sunday at Notre Dame a week and a half ago.
*With a little embarrassment, I am sharing with you the solitary picture I took before the French gentleman’s rebuke. However, my out-of-focus, stolen photograph cannot begin to do it justice!