Sacre-CoeurParis, France was never thought of as a place for the Amish to visit, but two mild-mannered children named Bethany and Jeremiah Zimmer were not really there to be tourists. They weren't expecting to like the place all that much. Not even to like the food. They were brought there by their parents, along with their other two siblings, an uncle and an aunt as a part of a family quest to search for a nephew of the family who in their farming community in Holmes County, Ohio had just been shunned by the local brethren. It was rumored that he was engaged to a French woman who, as anyone could imagine, was unwilling to become Amish. News about it had traveled by word of mouth, but never by telephone. The story went, like an old-fashioned village rumor, that the nephew and the woman had met and fallen in love at a farmer's auction, and that she was a college foreign exchange student. A known rule was that he would have had to officially decide at the traditional proper age that he would first leave the community and take on the culture of the outside, modern world, which he did not do. He had done wrong to the Zimmer family. It was thought of to be up to his immediate family to try to pressure him to quit the relationship and come back home, with a return to the community ways and, of course, plans to marry an Amish woman only. The young brother and sister talked about it in typical children's terms as they walked to the Sacre-Coeur cathedral, the great landmark that was to many a symbol of Parisian Catholic faith and decorum. As a reward for hard work on their Ohio farm prior to their trip, the brother and sister had been given permission to go inside the cathedral by themselves while their parents seek out the local clergy to inquire about the wayward nephew. Bethany was eight years old and Jeremiah was ten, both dressed in the usual plain black attire of the Old Order. Both had brown hair and Bethany presented a noble sight with her tightly fitted white square bonnet with a string hanging from each end of the front, touching her shoulder.
The moment they walked in, they couldn't believe their eyes. What was all around them and so high above them to the vast archaic ceiling was so far away from what they were taught what a place of worship ought to look like. Everything about the style was so medieval and ornate. Worthy of a worldly king, not a humble soul who had come to pray to a God who demands the utmost humility from mortal humans such as to the explanation of the somber clothing that Bethany and Jeremiah's culture and faith had so solidified. What's more, to them the place seemed to both scream and sing the outlandish pride of the Catholic religion through the centuries. If not altogether about French pride in Paris, it emphasized the profound dignity and even haughty undercurrent that seemed to flow supernaturally from the Vatican in Rome all the way to this cathedral. As Amish children, such was exactly why they thought the place was designed to be so extravagant. They were instantly mystified, with each step bringing them closer to whatever came next.
"Jeremiah", commented Bethany. "It's so beautiful, but there's so much pride here. I wonder if that's what it means to be. Mama said it is Romanism. It's so very different. So different."
From what Jeremiah saw on the look on her face as she said it, she had been somewhat saddened. She looked as if she just realized that it is a shame for a person of their faith to find so much beauty in a religious place, all from discovering what a huge Roman Catholic church in France looks like, both inside and out. They stood in front of what seemed to them like an hour in front of one of the dazzling stained glass windows gifted by the sunlight through each color, wishing such a thing was allowed to be shown in their own times of worship back home. Then, they knew there was much more to see. They felt like the place might as well be an art museum, and could scarcely fathom that it was a building where generations of French people came to pray and listen to a priest without being constantly distracted away from the seriousness of worship.
"Peculiar." Said Jeremiah. "The worship of God is supposed to be in a serious-looking place, not a fancy occasion, like a party. Imagine the work that people did to make it all look all fancy like this. All of the work would be a waste if God doesn't approve. We know the Elders back home surely wouldn't approve. We don't even decorate for weddings." They were amazed that people wouldn't necessarily feel embarrassed to make a place of worship so fancy to look at. "Aren't the people of France the slightest bit embarrassed?" he wondered out loud. Bethany knew he meant, "embarrassed in front of God." She looked down at her boyish-looking black shoes and shook her head. They suddenly realized that from this attitude they could never relate to French kids, regardless of their clothing and language difference. "Maybe French people don't get embarrassed." She shrugged. "French" had nothing to do with it. Throughout their Old Order childhood they didn't know there were Catholic churches in America, mostly because they never saw one and never heard about one. Like the 17th Century Puritans they so closely resembled, when they heard the work "Catholic" they automatically associated it with foreign, mostly non-English speaking nationalities, especially European.
They walked slowly around, still astounded by the idea of so much decoration. There were no other visitors inside, not even a tour guide or caretaker. They quietly tiptoed in the huge sanctuary, thankful that it wasn't Sunday where so many other people, or so they thought, would be there to catch two kids in strange clothing wondering what to do, or what not to do. They suddenly looked up along the side of the front to see what they couldn't believe was allowed by these people. It was a graceful, beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, fully colored and to them looked like it might as well be a mannequin preserved through the centuries. It scared them both.
Bethany gasped and covered her mouth quickly. "Look at that! How could they allow, willingly allow a graven image of the mother of Jesus here like that? Mama would be horrified!" They knew about their people having a reputation for refusing to even be photographed by onlookers. Even worse and more ridiculous to them was the idea that people would think to need the Virgin Mary to help them reach the Lord, as opposed to the uniquely Amish humbleness thought of by Bethany and Jeremiah to be a necessity in reaching the Lord. "To be thoroughly humble, both inside and out." added Bethany. They both agreed that they were thankful that they were not yet old enough to understand the ways of Roman Catholic worship. In being thankful about it they were obviously unaware that this religion so weird to them comes with its own parochial school system.
After a few minutes of staring at the statue, they decided that they finally felt guilty for being attracted to its beauty and turned their heads away. Perhaps if they were a few years older they would declare that they had no business looking at it to begin with. The thought occurred to Jeremiah. They then walked together away from the altar area, which they both criticized was a dreadfully prideful place for people to pray, all because of the well-sculpted decorations. No longer impressed by the size and appearance of the place, they then wanted to seek a room, any room where there might be a plain-looking area considered appropriate for their religious upbringing to accept. They were tired of feeling uncomfortable to look at what the Sacre-Coeur had to show them so far. They walked down an imposing corridor to find what was the hall of the Confessional, a place where generations of faithful Catholics confessed their sins to individual priests in a tight-spaced, dark, private booth made for one visitor at a time, complete with solid black curtains, and virtually no decoration. There was no tour guide there to explain it. Each side had a chair to sit in, but almost no material objects in the booth, "and certainly no Bibles," said Bethany, with a hint of disdain in her voice. The cage-like panel frightened her and she couldn't imagine what it was for. The panel was nothing more than simply the singular dividing window between the confessor and the priest, covered up so that they couldn't see each other and therefore bring on the shame of being identified as the person telling of his or her wrongdoing against God.
"What if this is where children who behave improperly are told to sit in the dark?" was the only question Bethany could come up with to wonder next. All she could imagine was any French child being brought there to the booth by the parents especially as punishment for being bad. Jeremiah nodded, fearing she would cry and wish they never walked into the corridor. It was such a contrast to what exquisite interior spectacle they saw when they walked into the entrance of the cathedral.
Next they wandered into a large room that turned out to be the candle storage. They couldn't resist the fragrance. The room was left unlocked, and a couple of boxes served as chairs where the two children could take a rest. The overpowering smell of so much simple candle wax reminded them of the ordinary, everyday candles used at home for nighttime lighting since electricity was not allowed in the Zimmer household. "Maybe the room is left unlocked because French people would never think to steal any of the candles because they know God is here watching them, and of course, protecting the candles too." Guessed Bethany. "Well," added Jeremiah. "At least there's nothing to be ashamed of to look at in here, and it's not a scary place to sit down at. I guess this room is the only place here where it would be okay for us and Mama and Papa and our friends to have a Sunday service, a normal Sunday service, like we have at each other's houses. Even the hotel that we're staying at is too fancy to have congregation meeting in."
They remained seated together, wondering when their mother and father would arrive at the time they agreed to show up outside the cathedral to leave. They did not wear watches to keep time, so they depended upon an appointed travel host to come inside and escort them to his car to take them back to the hotel. Jeremiah broke the silence of the minutes. "I'm glad our travel host is wise enough to make sure Mama and Papa don't have to come inside this place and see all this. They wouldn't like it, you know." It was a waste of words because Bethany already figured out that their mother and father wouldn't want to be like the tourists and visit the inside of the cathedral. It was the most important reason why Mr. and Mrs. Zimmer had decided to let their son and daughter go inside the place without them. It wasn't just for children's fun of going inside a big, famous, and very old place all by themselves with no grown-ups.
As planned, the travel host of the Zimmer family from Ohio arrived at the cathedral and retrieved the two youngsters.
Bethany and Jeremiah just hoped that their parents didn't worry that this special treat of going inside the massive place representing a style of worship alien to them would be a bad influence on them or create a change of attitude about what loving God is supposed to look like.