«We appreciate something when it’s no longer part of our life». This thought comes stronger and stronger to my mind, every single day for the past few years, since the time I went to live in Paris as a student (now I live permanently in France). During my studies I had read a book under the title God in Paris. Even though I don’t quite remember the plot, this title still haunts my mind, but as a question.
I can still recall the first answer I was given regarding this question, when I set foot in France. The answer came from a nurse at the first hospital I worked in, when she saw the cross hanging from my neck; «Take it off immediately, where you think you are? France is a populist state, thus it is forbidden to wear religious symbols in public spaces!«
The second answer came a year later, when I was invited for lunch during Lent. Everyone was curious about my exact beliefs and then hastened to enlighten me about the hypocrisy and the crimes of the Roman Catholic Church. «No! Fortunately, such an old-fashioned God has no place in modern France» they added proudly.
The third answer came during my third year in France, from a French colleague. While holding a conversation, I told her that I’m Orthodox Christian and pratiquant, a French word different from the word croyant (believer) used to describe a person who practices his/her beliefs. She was surprised as she told me that she thought only believers of Allah live according to their beliefs. «I have never heard anything about Christ!«
So God is banished from Paris…from the populist French state… Maybe banished but surely not absent… «To the unknown God»…
December of 2015, my fourth year in France. Since long ago I had heard about the Solan monastery, which is an orthodox female monastery near Avignon in Southern France. As Christmas was coming, I thought it would be nice to attend the Vesper and the Service on Sunday morning. After I had contacted the nuns, I set off with a friend on Saturday morning. A five-hour trip by train led us to a village, one-hour distance from the monastery. A man around 70 was expecting us in order to give us a ride. We got in the car and started making acquaintances. He was French and he had been working in Geneva for many years. I couldn’t resist asking him how he had found God and became Orthodox.
The answer was simple, yet staggering: «I did not find God. He set me up and found me!» He told us he had found by chance some orthodox literary works and then he searched orhodox hymns on youtube. He also recounted that when he found the Orthodox Church of Geneva, he and his wife realized that they had finally found what they had been searching in vain all those years in Catholicism! The living God had set them up. His wife was a catechist in a catholic parish. When she told the priest there their decision to be baptized orthodox Christians he simply said «I understand you!»
«We had been told that in the miracle of feeding 5000 people, the bread wasn’t really multiplied but that everyone had a piece of bread in their pockets!!!! You can understand how weak this God looked like.» added our driver.
When he found Orthodoxy, he abandoned everything, he and his whole family were baptized and they moved nearby an orthodox monastery in order to be actively involved in parish’s work…
The following morning at the Service I beheld a spectacle too unique to be happening in France. I saw decently dressed people arrive early in Matins, attend silently the Service, singing hymns and be actively involved. They had the enthusiasm and eagerness of a neophyte, which reminded me of my first years as a Christian…
I spoke with the majority of them and heard their stories. I found out that in many cases their decision to become orthodox Christians had caused them be rejected by their families…
«At work everyone couldn’t help asking what was wrong with me, because I didn’t wear jewelry anymore and instead of grumbling, I was always happy and smiling. What had happened? I was simply baptized orthodox Christian» said to me a woman who was the head nurse of a hospital in Avignon.
Like the Christians of early times, the same enthusiasm, the same transformation or, better, the divine change… The same happiness which causes one’s face to glow…
To my inquiry how they had found God and Orthodoxy, everyone gave me the same answer! «He found me, when I couldn’t find pleasure in anything, He came to meet me! How? I don’t really know… But my question mark was turned into a blessing exclamation mark!«
Well then, God in Paris!!!
The only thing left for me is to ponder on whether I have this enthusiasm. Me whom God found and blessed so much even from my crib… To ask myself whether I am that happy, whether my beliefs cost me anything, whether my life was so extremely changed under the light of His presence. And last but not least, to wonder whether I have selfishly concealed this gift from the people around me who yearn and keep searching for the One, yet Unknown, my God.
Where can I go and hide from Your face?!