Dispatches from Europe #4 (Paris): Beauty and Our Delusion of Ownership


Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris, France.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris, France.

Tonight is our last night in Paris. And I am gasping.

I have been trying to inhale as much beauty as possible since I arrived, filled with an anticipation that has hardly dissipated over the last eight days for some rare beauty, available only in this magical city.

Paris knows she's beautiful. She moves like it. She flirts as though she's never known rejection.

Everything is beautiful here: the people, the food, the buildings, the parks, the rain, the music, the art. The churches. 

And I am stuck on these churches. Because unlike the cities of Italy, Paris does not seem to honor its churches (with the exception of Sacre-Couer, perhaps). Instead, Paris shouts that she has found her own beauty, proclaims that she makes it, and demands of us that we worship her for it. 

***

As I have learned more about myself over the last few years, I have become increasingly aware of my strong romantic inclinations--a proclivity for sentimentality and nostalgia. At the same time, the idea that there is a Christian case against sentimentalism--a sort of attachment to things of this world. I have been troubled by the idea that there is a conflict from what is a clear aspect of my personality, and an ideological demand of my faith.

Is a passion for music, for words, for relationships a choice against God? If I find beauty in the here and now, does it suggest some disdain for eternity? How must we live?

***

I sometimes here American evangelicals critique the grand churches of Europe, and even the cathedrals of the United States. The inference is made that somehow these buildings alone are not just symbols of misplaced faith, but that the kind of effort and money placed into building those houses of worship are antithetical to faith. That it is no wonder these churches are filled with tourists rather than worshipers today.

But I don't believe that is the case. I read scripture and see chapters filled with instructions on building tabernacles. I read scripture and read of Jesus rebuking those who suggested to a woman that anointing Jesus was oil and fragrance was some heretical rejection of the poor. 

You can look at the cathedrals of Europe as symbols of religious decline, but I think they tell a different story: the story of faithful ancestors building an enduring testament to the beauty and power of their God. As much our modern societies move on from faith, as much as we scream that the beauty is ours and that we make it, the churches and the artwork that draw tourists to our cities reject our arrogance. They remind us that beauty is from God and for God and His Glory. 

Abraham Kuyper wrote that, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'"

This quote used to conjure in my mind an image of God reaching out His hand to that which was outside of Himself, and claiming it as His. What I realize now is that God's claim of "mine" is not a new statement, a statement of acquisition, but rather it is a statement of creative license. Everything is God's, and He is drawing all things to Himself, restoring their true beauty and purpose.

When I realized this, I walked around the streets of Paris seeing beauty not just in the churches and the artwork, but in the parks, in the food, in the people. A beauty that comes from God, is God's, and is returning to Him.

***

I went to Paris expecting some rare beauty that only she could create. This is a dangerous romanticism. It is a subtle lie that is not far removed from the Big Lie: that there is no God, that our lives are our own, that our responsibility is only to ourselves, and that we are responsible for all that is around us. 

But this is not to condemn all romanticism, all sentimentalism, all nostalgia. God proclaims "mine" not to keep these things from us, but to remind us of their origins so we might truly appreciate their value. You can love Paris for its beauty, but its beauty does not belong to Paris. I am and want to be most passionate about those things that remind me the most of God's love, His grace, His creative brilliance, His beauty.  

***

Melissa and I returned from Paris on Saturday at about 5 PM. We were hungry, but did not want to cook, and so I decided I would leave our apartment to quickly pick up some food, before we settled in to try to recover from jet lag.

 As I walked outside, dreaming of the parks of Paris, I found myself wandering into this courtyard I have ignored for years directly across from our building. I noticed three proud Robin's heralding in Washington's Spring; a statue of a girl reading a book beside a fountain; flowers blooming in the glowing light of a setting Sun, and I realized that I had been missing so much beauty in the familiar. In the very place God has placed me and my family, I had missed so many opportunities to find Him, and thank Him and relate to Him.

I went to Paris, like so many others, to find beauty. And I did.

But somehow, Paris' monuments, her parks, her churches, her beauty--all of God's gifts to that city--reminded me that I can find beauty right here, right now, where God surrounds me even in this place, reaching His hand over me, with a gentle reminder: "Mine."