I was one of the silent readers in the Salle Ovale of the Bibliotheque Nationale on Thursday morning of Holy Week a year ago. My desk was numbered 13, and the light of a green-glass-shaded lamp supplemented the illumination from the grand oval skylight. With my Moleskine journal open before me, I was a reader that morning, a student, a man probing and reflecting and putting into words some of the impressions of the previous few days in Paris.
On a break from the week’s professional duties, I had decided to head to a new and – for me – hitherto unexplored Paris. At the Richelieu site of the Bibliotheque Nationale I spent more than an hour before the haunting images of a Paris that was already being termed “old Paris” at the end of the nineteenth century when Eugene Atget was taking his famous photographs.
The sepia shots of streets and storefronts and roofs and courtyards were perfect for me that Thursday morning. With barely a human face or form in most of the images, the exhibit served to underscore the value of all that regularly goes without repair or attention or updating or cleaning or refurbishing, all that might appear outmoded or negligible or forgotten.
Again and again I found myself imagining families who had made a particular set of walls the landscape of their daily living; individuals who had found a way to make a living that might enable them to eat better, sleep easier, and dream happier dreams; even pets who had looked in hopeful contentment to human owners invested in enjoying their company.
So much human life was suggested in those still spaces caught on film over a century ago. I tried to capture that perspective in my journal as I sat in the Salle Ovale.
The other topic I could not avoid thinking about and eventually writing about that Thursday morning was a young Dutch man who had leapt to his death in the city three days earlier. All the richness of human life suggested by Atget’s photographs had not been enough, it seemed, to support and give meaning to that young man’s continued existence.
He is now part of my life, however. He is now part of the lives of all the people who were fated to be witnesses of his fall.
I cautioned myself Holy Thursday morning not to presume to know what had happened to the young man to bring him to this act. The truth I could not avoid, however, was that he had wrested from each of us who were on-lookers heartache and a significant place in the memories of our lives.
Two days later I was praying for him at the cathedral in Chartres. I was also praying to him, asking him now to do whatever he could to ease the hearts and souls of the people he had devastated by his desperate jump on Monday afternoon. I made a prayerful claim on him to work especially hard to help those who loved him, to help them find a way to healing and peace through the months and years that they would live with his absence.
Holy Week, I was reminded in the quiet spaces of the Bibliotheque Nationale, places us in the presence of that other life whose violent end was not allowed to speak finally only of devastation. The chance of recovery and the hope of heart’s ease and the dream of deep alleluias of joy are the stuff of the Easter mystery.