12 May 2008

Paris’s Best-Kept Secret

As no one reads this blog, I surmise it will remain a secret… Ephrem, la maison d’accueil, or retreat house, of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre, is run by the Benedectine Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and welcomes pilgrims to the heart of Paris for a mere thirteen euros per person.


C’est vrai, mes chers amis; for a piddling thirteen euros (equal to about $20 US), you can have a nice, clean, comfortable, private room with all-day, all-night access to the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur on the holiest hill in all of la Ville-lumière. If you are familiar with prices for Paris lodgings, you will realize this is more than a steal; it is downright immoral--except for the fact that the retreat center welcomes only pilgrims, and usually only those committed to spending some time in adoration in the basilica (where Our Lord has been adored exposed on the gorgeous High Altar for over a century, since 1885). But for Catholics, this is no burden.

Basilica gargoyles

Here is where we recently spent several days on our pilgrimage to the City of lights. Nine years ago, my husband proposed to me on this very hill, before this very church; as we were yet unconverted, we knew nothing of the sacred history of Montmartre--the hill of martyrs, where the first bishop of Paris, St. Denis, was beheaded for the faith, and numerous martyrs followed in his footsteps through the centuries--neither did we know Our Eucharistic Lord just a few yards away within, keeping watch over the city, and over us.

Marie standing on the very spot overlooking Paris where my husband proposed

Who would have known we would return to this place nine years later, married, Catholic, with children who will be raised in the faith we have come to love? A strange coincidence related to our nuptials occurred during our stay: the pastor who married us passed away. If you could kindly offer up a prayer or two for the repose of his soul...

Michael struggling up the thousand steps to the Basilica

View from Ephrem's entrance, with the connecting passage to the sanctuary visible

After my little ones were soundly slumbering, I stole off at midnight to spend some time in adoration. All was dark and silent in the hallways and the stairwell, and the only light in the third-floor passage connecting the retreat house to the Basilica came from the moon and the streetlamps outside. Everything was shadows, including the immense sanctuary. Anyone who has ever visited the basilica knows how expansive, ornate, and luminous is its mosaic interior, and always, always full of tourists (though crowds aren’t as circus-like as at Notre-Dame Cathedral). Imagine now entering the Basilica in the dead of night, entirely alone, with all the lights off and everything dark except for the little candles flickering in the side chapels, and the sole light left on is above the High Altar, shining softly on the gold monstrance, blending with the lights of the six gargantuan candles flanking both sides. Ah, an overwhelming and lovely experience!

Another view from Ephrem


Right across the street from the Basilica, directly behind it, is the little Carmel of Montmartre, built with the same white travertine. Unlike the uncloistered Benedictines, whom you will see all over the Basilica, the Carmelites live in quiet contemplation shut behind its high stone walls, praying, sacrificing, and loving hidden from the world.


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