I grew up in a medieval part of Auxerre, in a house nestled between two churches. To the south, Saint Pierre’s church, and to the north, Saint Étienne’s cathedral. You could say I was raised in its shadow.
This cathedral is a sumptuous, gothic monument, only a few feet shorter than Notre Dame in Paris. You can spot its tower from miles around, because at 200 feet in height, it’s this medieval town’s only skyscraper.
And it’s 800 years old.
And it doesn’t care if the calendar reads 2016. It rings its bells like it’s 1216.
They ring assertively at 7 a.m., to get everyone up, at noon for lunch, and at 7 p.m. to close every shop in town. On holidays like Easter, there’s loud and glorious bell tolling.
I rely on this ancestral clock. I almost never need one when I am working, as the bells also mark time, every 15 minutes. Last bells of the day ring at 10 p.m., after that, you're on your own.
At 800 years of age, the cathedral has been through a lot: devastating fires, the plague, which turned it into a morgue, and religious wars that decapitated many of its statues. Among the prominent visitors, there’s Joan of Arc, who stopped here for mass in 1429, on her way to kick some English folk out of France.
So I have nothing but awe and deference for my hometown’s cathedral.
But for me and my family, it means a lot more. It’s where my siblings and I were baptized; It’s where as a kid, I spent hours staring at the sunlit stained glass windows during mass; where I went to confession against my will; and where my mother still goes to mass every Sunday.
The cathedral is still a gathering place in times of crises. After the Paris attacks last November, people congregated there. At the foot of the altar, someone laid out candles and a small Eiffel Tower model.
And one chilling bell tolled.
The cathedral has always been my pulse. In my teenage years, it told me when to leave for school in the morning — generally that would have been 5 minutes ago — and it offered me a strategic shortcut.
It stands on the path to high school, so I’d cross it laterally. I’d race up to the side entrance, push the heavy door, and plunge into a space where time stands still. Slowing down and holding my breath on the walk across, I’d sometimes genuflect in front of the altar, under the eye of a watchful priest. Out on the other side, I’d go flying down the stairs and down the hill to arrive at school, breathless.
My two sons and I have been using the same shortcut this year. When we enter the cathedral, we look up at the majestic 100-foot tall nave and breathe in the musty smell of damp, thousand-years-old stones. While everything has changed around it, the cathedral has remained the same. It’s a time traveler and I know it will still be here long after I am gone.
Recently, this lapsed Catholic paid a visit to the town’s current priest — Father Joël Rignault. In his office, I willingly confessed — so to speak — that I go to church to basically shorten my commute. Does he mind? No, he said, the cathedral invites inner silence and spirituality, even if you’re just walking through.
“So am I absolved?” I asked. “You certainly are!” he laughed.
I also asked Father Joël if he minds the crazy kids playing ball on the plaza in front of the cathedral. He said he welcomes that. And that’s a relief, because these are my two boys and their cousin. And I love watching those French American kids play American football beneath this graceful French monument. There’s something about the meeting of old and new, my world and my children’s world, here, that is hugely gratifying.
I imagine kids in the middle ages, running around and playing in the dirt in that same spot, alongside a few goats and chickens.
It’s not a religious thing, but I’ve always been soothed by the stillness of this monumental, cool and eternal vessel of human history.
Some may like hugging trees. I have a cathedral, and I’m in love with it.