Long ago, not in cathedral years but in meagre human ones, I stood in the supernal glow of Chartres and thought, It might not be so bad to be a Christian.
Such an infatuation might seem unremarkable except for this: I'm Jewish.
Every French cathedral is an accumulation of centuries of fidelity, a majestic warehouse of faith that rises as high as its roof. We Jews have nothing similar. We are not about omnipotence. We are about suffering and running from whichever oafish country wants us gone. We rarely build anything lasting because we're rarely around long enough to get it off the ground. "No assembly required" should be our credo. The signature structure of my faith is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which is a fragment of a holy structure. It's taller than the Jews who press prayer notes into its crevices, but not by much.
The eye-opening insight that occurred at Chartres nearly 40 years ago has not diminished my affection for Judaism. Nor have my other failings, which include a love of smoked pork and German rieslings. Now I am about to revisit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres as well as other landmarks of Catholicism: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and one of the wonders of modern architecture, the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, designed and built by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s. Of course, it's not just about the destinations. It's also about the journey, for no country is better suited for driving than France, where every byway leads to croissants.
Another motive for undertaking this quest: to learn why so many cathedrals are named for the Virgin Mary. It didn't take me long to find out. A tour guide explained that the woman decreed to be the mother of God was for centuries as venerated as Jesus Christ himself, at least until Vatican II diminished her importance in the name of ecumenism. That made me a little sad. After all, who among us feels closer to a mother than a Jewish boy?
On the first full day of travel, my companion and I encounter an irresistible diversion. Towering not far off the motorway to Strasbourg is Basilique Notre-Dame de l'Épine, which took most of the 15th century and a little of the 16th to build. France has nearly as many great old churches as it has great old wines, and one that took more than a century to put up deserves at least a peek. Long before we reach the village of L'Épine, the basilica appears on the horizon, eerily set amid windswept plains. It reminds me of a church in a Clint Eastwood western. He's always in the middle of nowhere, and then something looms.
Notre-Dame de l'Épine seems huge from a distance, but it's essentially a Gothic masterpiece in miniature. Whatever it once meant to the region, it now serves as the village church. We walk inside and hear not organ music but a perky ensemble of guitar and flute – instruments more suited to a hoedown than a holy ceremony – rehearsing for a wedding later in the day. The buildings that surround L'Épine are modest and modern, and a fellow in a bar down the block explains that most of the original village structures were destroyed in World War II. Over the centuries, all manner of edifices, including virtually every castle, has crumbled from age or conflict, but cathedrals tend to remain upright, pretty much whole. That even the bitterest of enemies would show restraint and stop short of annihilating these supreme places of worship is, in my opinion, a testament to the aura, and possibly even the merits, of religion.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is not as breathtaking as Chartres, but the accoutrements are superior. The astronomical clock, one of the most famous on earth, comes with a pitiless tale: The clockmaker's eyes were put out after it was installed so that he could never make another. The clock remains faultless, and the once-tormented clockmaker is not to be blamed that the mechanized procession of Jesus and the Apostles now occurs at 12:30 rather than at noon, when he intended it to take place. According to my guide, officials had the procession moved to a later time to better accommodate tour groups.
I planned ahead so we would arrive in Strasbourg at precisely 9:30 on a Sunday morning to experience a Gregorian Mass. Gregorian chants are, to me, the first meaningful church music. They predate by centuries the cathedral organ music I also love, although in present times these soothing chants are most often heard in health spas. I sit on a hard wooden chair with a few hundred other congregants in the cathedral nave, which is large enough to hold an army of crusaders. (For all I know, it once did.)
The celebrant, robed in pale green, stands at the altar and reads passionately from the liturgy of the Mass as a limber fellow, young enough to be an altar boy, climbs the steps and drops to his knees while rapturously swinging a gold vessel containing incense. The incense continues to sway as the celebrant's voice rises in timbre until finally the great bells of the cathedral ring out with exquisite timing – clanging, rolling, rumbling. Religious services don't get more rapturous than this.
That evening, I dine at Chez Yvonne, one of those incomparable local establishments that no city with a dining culture can do without. There I have foie gras d'oie, a terrine of fattened-goose liver that's much richer than the fattened-duck liver commonplace in North America. Sitting in a booth next to my friend and me are three priests dining with the gusto associated with friars in Robin Hood films. They are speaking French but suddenly switch to English for a discussion of Frank Sinatra. I strain to hear. They say that Frank understood the difference between merely working and living a meaningful life, which is what they do. It makes sense, although Frank punched out a lot of people too.
My fascination with cathedral organs is partly due, I think, to the scarcity of musical instruments in Jewish services. The shofar, a hollow ram's horn blown on the Jewish New Year, is moving but you could hardly call it melodious. Dominique Debès, chapel master and choir director for the cathedral, brings me to the side of the building and takes out a key to a metal gate that leads to a staircase rising just inside the walls. I feel as though I am in a secret passage.
We climb about 20 metres and enter a large room containing the bellows that supply wind to the pipes. Today they are operated by electricity. Much earlier, the bellows were powered by human labour in a process similar to exercising on a StairMaster. Then we move to the "swallow's nest," which is the compartment that seems to hang in the air over every cathedral, tenaciously clinging to a wall.
He arranges the stops. His hands go to the keyboard. He tells me that some cathedral tour guides are distressed whenever he practises because their speeches cannot be heard above the music. It seems short-sighted, like complaining during a tour of La Scala that Plácido Domingo's rehearsals are a distraction.
His cellphone rings. He listens, then says to me apologetically, "A service is beginning, and I have been told to play softly." He does so. It is pleasant, but I had hoped for more; the role of a cathedral organ is not to be hushed. He smiles wickedly and pulls out Offertoire sur les grands jeux by François Couperin.
"They're just going to have to pray a little louder," he says.