Zensights provides a space for gentle contemplation in a world filled with hectic action and stressed-out situations.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Moment Extraodinaire

When I opened my hotel window, an audible sigh escaped my lips. Right before me towered a castle-like structure gleaming in the golden rays of an autumn sunset. I was overwhelmed! The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes)—the seat of the Roman Catholic Church built in Avignon, France, between 1334 and 1352—filled my sensibilities, and I stood awed.

In September of 2007, my choir, The Lakewood Presbyterian Chancel Choir of Jacksonville, Florida, sang its way across France. We had started in Nice and moved up to Paris through nine performances in 11 days. The highlight of our trip was to be a performance at Notre Dame de Paris; but along the way, we had so many other memorable events, that it was hard to pin one down as the best. Certainly this moment extraordinaire became one of my special memories.

I came to that moment by retiring early one evening, right after a wonderful three-course dinner with all forty members of our choir. We had enjoyed quiche, baked chicken with sauce, and crème brûlée, but I was absolutely exhausted and beginning to feel the stresses of our whirlwind singing tour of France.

I made my excuses and proceeded to my room alone after encouraging my teenaged roommate, Mary Ashley, to go on with the others. I needed to get some extra rest. When I got back to our room, I started preparing my clothes for the next day’s performance, but soon realized that the room was a little bit stuffy. Since I was having trouble figuring out the Celsius thermostat in the room, I simply opened the window just to get a little fresh air. That is when magic happened.

As the cool air swirled into the room, the Palais des Papes almost filled my window’s perimeter. The planet Venus rose over it like a jewel, and as it began to recede into the shadows of nightfall, I pulled the desk chair up to the window so that I could sit there and watch this special miracle unfold.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, the clear masculine voice of a tenor began to rise to my consciousness. This person was singing Ave Maria from somewhere in the direction of the Palais. Dim lights illuminated the stain-glass windows from the interior of the fortress, so I assumed that the voice was emanating from within the walls of the sanctuary. His voice came through pure, clear, and hauntingly beautiful. I almost wept.

The disembodied singer soon began another song that went to the tune of Away in the Manger. As he sang in French, I closed my eyes and imagined some young French priest or monk singing in the dimly lit Salle de la Grande Audience of the Palais which my window happened to face. I tried to imagine what life would have been like in the 1300’s when the Palais was new. I even imagined what it would have been like to be a medieval peasant woman stopping to rest along the way home after a hard day in the fields and getting caught up in the beauty of vespers coming from the awe-inspiring edifice. This imaginary woman would certainly have been as mystified by this scene as my modern self was.

A round of applause brought me out of my ancient reverie. I adjusted my perceptions and realized that I must be hearing a recital of some sort. Again, I closed my eyes, and I imagined a young man performing for a congregation of the faithful as another song rose to my window. Perhaps the tenor was a young music student running through his repertoire for a critical audience. It didn’t matter, though. The sound and the feeling that the invisible performance created in me was magnificent!

The recital lasted quite a while. Song after beautiful song floated up to me, and I let my weariness melt away as I meditated on this marvelous experience. Very soon, after the “recital” was finished and the final round of applause echoed away into the night, my roommate, Mary Ashley, came bounding into the room.

“Man, did you hear that guy singing?” she asked, excitement flushing her cheeks. I didn’t even move from my vantage point at the window, trying to let this memory set forever in my heart.

“Oh, yes. Wasn’t his voice beautiful?” I answered. “Don’t you suppose he was a priest in the Palais next door?”

“Oh, no,” she said as she started to remove her shoes and settle in for the night. “He was a street performer right outside the hotel.”

My mouth must have fallen open, and I looked at Mary Ashley with what I am sure was a dumbstruck stare. My mystical flight of fancy took a decidedly secular detour. The lofty music I had been so sure was a tribute to God by some cleric was just a sidewalk sideshow put on for the tourists. How deflated I felt inside!

But then, I began to laugh, much to Mary Ashley’s confusion. “What’s so funny?”

I told her about my evening and when I had finished, she chuckled as well.

“I guess, nothing is what it appears to be,” she told me with a philosophical air. And I had to agree.

I have often been accused of seeing the world through rose colored glasses, and this incident is a case study in my gullibility. Since I was predisposed to see ancient French history come to life as I listened to the singing, it certainly set itself in my mind that way; that is until I was presented with the real image of what I had experienced.

Later as I lay in bed in the dark giving it some thought, I had to ask myself, “Was the singer any less wonderful because he was a street performer?”


“And was my window’s view any less spectacular because I had misjudged the participants in and around it?”

Not at all.

Maybe I should just leave the moment alone. It was a joy to me regardless of its source and regardless of my mental tampering. Sure, I need to be careful in making assumptions until I have all the facts, but at the very least, I was able to enjoy a wonderful concert in the historic district of Avignon, France, and my dreams were a refreshingly different as I closed my eyes to sleep.


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