In the light of COVID and the new wave of European "Islamist" attacks in France we were released from lockdown to commemorate “La Toussaint”, 1 November, when the French visit graveyards with Chrysanthemums.
France is reeling since the recent savage beheading of Samuel Paty, a secondary school teacher, on 16 October in a suburb of Paris. He was executed for giving a freedom-of-speech lesson where he presented the 2015 “Charlie Hebdo” cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.
A call to arms (and blades) by the Islamic State, “ISIS” resulted in the further deaths of three people in an atrocious stabbing attack on 29 October at a Roman Catholic basilica in Nice. On 31 October, a Greek Orthodox priest was shot while closing his church in the French city of Lyon.
The second French lockdown commenced at midnight on Thursday 29 October, however, the government announced that for “La Toussaint”, All Saints’ Day, Sunday 1 November, visiting cemeteries and commemorating would be tolerated. Paris’s flower shops were allowed to stay open until the night of Sunday 1 November to allow people choose from their array of beautiful potted chrysanthemums displayed in lines of colors ranging from white, yellow, pink, orange, and purple with my favorite; the beautiful autumn embracing burnished rust chrysanthemums.
In Paris, we felt like the carpet of life had been dramatically pulled out from under our already COVID unsteady feet. I felt an urgent need to reconnect with the Irish community and headed to the Chapelle Saint-Patrick in the Centre Culturel Irlandais, CCI.
The relief on the faces of the approximately 30 attendees on the terra firma of the chapel ground was visible in their eyes, the only feature visible on their masked faces. Along with the regular Irish expatriates, there was a younger crowd, students in residence in the CCI who stayed on even though universities have shut their doors and their classes relegated to zoom. If you saw the 1775 building, its grounds, and surroundings in the Latin Quarter, you might understand why they chose to stay there together, rather than being locked down with their families in Ireland! The CCI is a stone’s throw from Place de l’Estrapade, where Emily (Lily Collins) lived in “Emily in Paris”, the recent Netflix series.
The sense of support and community as we gathered around Msgr. Hugh Connolly, (a native of Co Down), the current Irish Chaplain was palpable. I wondered if the ambiance was similar to what Irish people felt in Penal times, huddling together at secret masses. However, there was no huddling for us, social distancing was, as usual in these times, de rigueur.
Despite COVID, the new lockdown, and the traumatizing terrorist attacks Msgr. Hugh’s mass, as soon as he took to the altar, became a joyful occasion. He spoke about the saints, shining a new perspective on their role. He pointed out that we were all trying to live good lives and there were many anonymous saints among the living and the dead. The canonized had been designated not only to be honored but also as an inspiration to the living.
He spoke of a former program on RTE Radio 1 “A Giant at my Shoulder” where prominent Irish people talked about a public figure who had a major influence on their lives. It seems even the prominent need inspiration and “influencers”.
He recounted how Julius Caesar saw a statue of Alexander the Great, who had died more than two centuries earlier while still in his thirties. 31-year-old Caesar lamented that he himself had done nothing noteworthy at an age when Alexander had already conquered all the lands from Greece to India. He left the temple in despair. Caesar returned to Rome to pursue his ambitions with new zeal. He died at fifty-six, after achieving, in the eyes of many, more than Alexander the Great had.
Msgr. Hugh pointed out that obviously that pair had not been known for their holiness but it was an example of how a statue of a personality could and had inspired. There is a tremendous diversity among saints; those like St Theresa, "The Little Flower.” who prayed constantly, alternatively Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick (whose portraits featured on either side of the altar) had been doers, others had been soldiers, some like St. Francis of Assisi wouldn’t have hurt a fly. It seemed we are spoilt for saintly inspirational choice.
He added that celebrating the Saints on 1 November should never put the souls of our uncanonized, dearly departed in the role of the “also rans” on 2 November! In France 2 November is called “Le jour des morts”, (the “Day of the Dead”).
Although it was an unusually difficult year, he hoped we’d emerge from 2020 with a strong sense of solidarity. After mass, we gathered in the courtyard for a cup of tea and Tayto crisps before heading home. Along with chatting with Irish friends, wonderful Paris “lifers,” I made the acquaintance of Crystal a Lebanese PhD student doing a thesis on “Conflict Resolution”.
She told me she was comparing Middle Eastern attempts at resolution with the lead up to the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement. We spoke of the main characters of that period and what a wonderful achievement the agreement had been and the current worries in the face of Brexit… Discussing resolution further, I told her of the unlikely friendship which had developed between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley and she rushed home to download the film “The Journey”.
Another young Paris-based attendee, Drew from Florida, told me he had researched all the Anglophone churches in Paris before deciding this was the best one. We cranked up the “Poetry Juke box” in the courtyard and fell on “Night Fishing” by Glyn Edwards, which outlines in beautiful words the difficult challenge of bringing up thoughts from the depths of the subconscious.
Although not a regular churchgoer, when I go to the Irish chapel I find welcome, comfort, and mental stimulation. Looking back on the spirit of our “All Saints’ Day” will inspire me on my road through this second lockdown where COVID anxiety and fear are exacerbated by the new wave of European "Islamist" attacks, which continued on Monday 3 November when a gunman opened fire in Vienna, killing 3 and injuring 15.
 However, on Monday we subsequently found out that this attack was not “ISIS” related.
 In France, chrysanthemums symbolize death and are not appropriate as a gift unless the receiver is six feet under!
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