Visiting Saint Sulpice

Visiting Saint Sulpice

At Saint Sulpice,
Church of mismatched towers,
A memorial Mass has just ended,
The mourners clustered in small groups
On the broad, sunlit plaza
In front of the church
Near the monumental Fountain of the Four Bishops,
The plaza bordered by tree-lined sidewalks,
Elegant shops, crowded cafes.

To enter the church is to move
From daylight outside to semi-darkness within,
Where the air is alive with organ music.
No matter that the Mass is over,
The organist continues to play,
His mammoth instrument,
With its five keyboards,
The grandest in Europe.

Beyond the entrance,
Flanking the center aisle,
Two enormous half-clamshells.
Outsized gifts from a fable city on the Adriatic,
Serving now as fonts for holy water.

Off to the right,
The Chapel of the Holy Angels.
Delacroix worked here,
Painting two giant murals,
Scenes from Genesis and Second Maccabees,
Jacob grappling with one angel,
Two others driving Heliodorus from Jerusalem’s Temple.

On the floor of the nave, the famous gnomon
The one that tourists, readers of a famous novel,
Come to see, but the brass strip leading to the obelisk,
Catching rays of sunlight,
Tells only of solstices and equinoxes,
Not Priories of Sion.

On either side of the nave,
Beneath the soaring, many-vaulted ceiling,
A museum’s worth of statuary
In front of the supporting columns.

Behind the main altar,
The Lady Chapel,
The floodlit statue of Madonna and Child
Aglow in pink marble.

Beyond the columns on both sides,
Broad aisles lead past side chapels,
A dozen or more,
Named after long-dead saints,
Some fronted by banks of flickering candles,
Evidence of lingering devotion
In the Church’s eldest daughter,
Even as the tide of secularism
Continues its inexorable advance.

At length a side chapel
So dimly-lit it is easily overlooked.
Mort pour la France,
The inscription on a wall says,
And on gray stone panel
After gray stone panel,
Beneath and beside it
As the chapel’s other walls
Wrap around the altar,
Columns of names descend,
Men of the parish, hundreds of them,
Who died for France in the War
To End All Wars.

Behind the names, of necessity
Hundreds of families,
Spouses, children, parents,
Left in desolation
As industrial-scale warfare
On the Marne, the Meuse, the Somme,
In the Artois and at Verdun,
On the Chemin des Dames,
Turned the Luxembourg Quarter
Into a vast plain of mourning.

The panels echo other names,
Those inscribed on the mass graves
That lie to the east,
Dotting the French and Belgian countrysides,
From the North Sea to Switzerland,
The Western Front,
Where the butchery took place.

The panels serve too as
Mute witness to the exhaustion
That left the nation too war-weary to resist
When the Germans marched again.

Visitors depart and the murals and clamshells,
The statuary and the gnomon,
They fade from memory,
But the panels, the long columns of names remain.
A somber reminder that
There is more to this church and its history,
More to France and its history
More to life itself,
Than Fodor’s tells the tourist.