3) TOUR SAINT-JACQUES
Tour Saint-Jacques is a beautifully preserved and lovingly restored bell tower that is all that remains of a 16th century church, the rest of which was destroyed in 1793; shortly after the French Revolution. The church was dismantled, stone by stone, to be used on new building projects that were springing up rapidly in a city that was undergoing tumultuous change.
The church had been built by wealthy butchers of the nearby Les Halles markets, and during its life was a place of shelter for pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine of the apostle, Saint James, in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Today it is recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
The tower stands, silent and majestic, beside the hectic and noisy commercial district of Rue de Rivoli, near Châtelet. Cars and taxis hoot and honk. Ambulance and police sirens regularly pierce the air. From this location it's only one block to rive droite, the right bank of the Seine, the exquisite Hôtel de Ville is just two blocks to the east, and from there it’s a mere stone’s throw to the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
Around the base of Tour Saint-Jacques is a surprisingly serene park that today is exuberantly displaying mother nature's beauty as she puts on her fall mantle: burnt umber, russet, tangerine and mustard spill onto the gravel walkways and manicured lawns that wind under the trees.
People sit on benches around the perimeter of the park, facing the tower. Each is engrossed in his or her particular life story, but each is also touched in some magical way by the beauty of this place at this particular moment in time.
A homeless gypsy woman sleeps on a bench. She's curled into a ball, her hands crumpled inside mittens. Shopping bags, bulging to overflowing with her life’s possessions, surround her. She sleeps soundly, oblivious to her neighbours merriment. To her right, two jovial eastern European men—most likely Romanian, but they could be Hungarian or Czech—are sharing a story which is giving rise to mirth and delight in both parties. One of the men chokes mid laugh. He coughs hesitantly a few times, then, a look of terror flitting across his face, he inhales deeply, stands, arches his body backwards, then throws himself forward exhaling and coughing forcefully. This, his last desperate attempt to clear his compromised airway and thus restore the likelihood that he will live to experience the next moment, rather than this moment being his last.
An exquisitely attired young woman, accessorized thoughtfully with cashmere and silk, walks slowly through the park holding a camera loosely in one hand, its strap trailing in a manner indicating recent use. She pauses, backs up two paces, squats, turns her head at an angle, then brings the camera down to the same level and angle as her eyes and takes a series of photographs.
A beam of sunlight is piercing acutely, from the low-in-the-sky northern autumn sun, through the leaves of chestnuts and elms. It shines on fallen leaves of an oak tree that has progressed more quickly in shedding its annual garb into winter minimalism than its neighbours. Deep chocolate browns are mixed with bright saffron yellow and pumpkin orange; the sunlight dances over the leaves on the grass.
The beauty of this moment is seen and acknowledged, on some level, by everyone present. The artist’s photograph may well capture a representation of the beauty that is here, but it can never be fully caught.
It's possible for the thinking mind, that which we all know so well, whose natural mode of functioning is to judge, rank, compare, and then to divide the world into smaller and smaller pieces, to stop and be quiet. In that quietness it's possible to simply perceive life as it is: free of divisions and levels, everything interconnected, everyone equal, peace and love infusing everything in existence.
This momentary cessation of thinking occurs in extreme life-or-death situations, and in the presence of extreme beauty. It is also a choice in every moment. What do you choose this moment? And this moment? And this moment?
The metaphor of Original Sin—the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—points to the development of the dualistic mind in humans; the stage of evolution where we currently find ourselves. The stories of Jesus, Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, and many other great beings, as well as simple stories of gratitude, generosity, and kindness of ordinary human beings, give us hope that humanity can transcend this stage, and enter a new phase where peace, equality, freedom, and happiness are the cornerstones of life . . .
October 30th, 2014.