How the Notre Dame Cathedral Lifted Her Grief

Author Carol Flake Chapman shares how a concert at the famous cathedral helped her cope with her husband's passing.

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- Posted on Apr 16, 2019

The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Paris was one of the first places on my pilgrimage of healing following my husband’s sudden death on a wild river in Guatemala. Paris had always been a place of solace, and I thought that it would be a good place to experience my first Easter after Gary’s death. 

On the day before Easter I asked my friends Don and Annie Hudson to join me for a concert of sacred music at Notre Dame, though I had hesitated briefly when I saw from the program that the theme would be “Les mysteres douloureux,” the sorrowful mysteries, with Gregorian chants and medieval polyphonies and pieces and improvisations played on the grand orgue. 

We would hear the passion of Christ acted out in sorrowful chants, amplified by the swelling sublimity of the grand organ, with its more than 7,000 pipes. The tableaus began with the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, followed by the flagellation, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, ending with the crucifixion. I wasn’t to escape the sorrows of Easter, after all, but where better to experience them than Notre Dame, where even the most prosaic prayers seem to take on an exalted resonance.

As the six robed men of the Ensemble Gregorien de Notre Dame de Paris chanted the melodious words from centuries-old codexes and manuscripts, I was struck by the depiction of Jesus’s sense of injustice at what was happening and by his very human questioning of this anguish. “Moi, je t’ai donne an scepter royal; mais toi tu as place sur ma tete une couronne d’epines.” Me, I gave you a royal scepter; but you, you placed on my head a crown of thorns. Again and again, he repeats, O mon people, que t’ai-je fait? En quoi t’ai-je contriste? O my people, what did I do to you? In what did I sadden you? Reponds-moi. Answer me. Jesus appears to be resisting his fate, calling out to his tormentors and to God. But then he lets go. “Tout est consommé.” It is finished. It is accomplished.

As I listened to the words of Jesus struggling against his destiny, I couldn’t help but think of Gary’s battle on the river, as he realized that he was facing his death. Gary’s struggle and his death had somehow become entwined in my psyche with the passion story of Jesus. I knew that Gary must have fought mightily. He must have resisted his fate with everything in his mind, body and soul. And then there was a point at which he let go. It was finished. Tout est consommé. A universal story, really. As Joseph Campbell and others have told us, there is only one story, with many faces, of the hero whose quest ends finally in sacrifice.

Resisting tears, I wrote a note to Annie Hudson, for whom I was translating: “The next part is about the suffering of Mary, sung by men.” And the tenors and baritones did their best. “Moi qui ne connaissais pas auparavant la peine, je suis fatigue de ma peine, je sui crucifee par ma douleur.” Grief I did not know before, but now I am worn out by grief and tortured by sorrow.

So many songs of love and death. So much sorrow. For a moment I was Mary and all women who have lost their men to a fate they didn’t choose. In this 12th-century recitation of her suffering, written by Godefroy de Saint-Victor, Mary resists consolation and asks that she take her son’s place in death. “Mon unique consolation est de vous plaindre.” My only consolation is to weep for you. 

On the final page of the program, following the text of Saint-Victor’s Planctus, was a photo of Nicholas Coustou’s pieta, one of the glories of Notre Dame. Coustou’s rendering of Mary cradling the body of her son, her arms raised in supplication to the heavens, isn’t as powerful as Michelangelo’s, but Mary’s questioning anguish, captured at its peak, is eloquent enough. Like Mary, I had yet to be consoled, nor did I understand why Gary had to die. But I did feel another small bundle of grief lifted away by the music as it passed through glass and stone on its way upward.

Excerpted from Written in Water: A Memoir of Love, Death and Resurrection by Carol Flake Chapman, 2nd Tier Publishing © 2015.

Written in Water

In this moving memoir, veteran journalist Carol Flake Chapman loses her husband suddenly in a kayaking accident on a remote Guatemalan river, she is thrust without warning into a time of grief and shock. But in her altered state, she soon realizes that grief has opened the doors to possibilities of consolation that she could never have imagined.

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