There are a lot of old cathedrals in France, the kind with tall, slender windows that paint the marble pillars encasing them with swathes of maroon and turquoise. They’re almost always open.
And people walk inside and take photos of the narrow ribs that vault the ceilings, always awed by the sudden height which from the outside looks impossible. Sometimes they whisper loudly and then listen as the sound meanders in and out of niches carved in bas-relief so high they can’t be read. Often they sit down and swipe their phones to figure where they are or plan where they’d like to go.
Almost always they were empty, and I could walk up to the altar. I could brush against the graceful carvings of the wooden ambries as they curled and braided cryptically like wisps of incense. I would smell the age exude from tapestries, savory and piquant, the centuries within them slowly weeping from the threads.
I entered one just as a priest began to speak his mass. I hesitated in the vestibule for quite a while, between the cold and massive columns as they kept his words entrapped. But they pulled me closer in.
And though I couldn’t understand his words, I knew some of what he said by the way the candles shuddered with the syllables, faltering beneath his rising voice and swelling up again each time he took a breath.
And when the priest had finished mass and all the people rose and left, I listened to the traffic whisper quietly between the heavy wooden doors, wreathing up the vaults and perishing, falling in a silent plume unfolding on the marble floor.
I’m not a praying man, but it’s possible I did.