Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Sensual Feast

Paris Perfect Apartment in the 7th Arrondisement

When I am fortunate enough to go to Paris, indulged by my family, one of my favorite things to do in the afternoons, weary from a long day of walking in shoes for a lady rather than an athlete (more on the pleasures and theology of walking to come), is to sit outside in a cafe, winter or no, and sketch.  Yes, in Paris, a woman is first, and gloriously, a woman, shoes and all. A glass of wine in hand, I take out my sketching pencils and take aim at whatever door or window, plate of food or poster for a Moliere play has caught my fancy. I tell myself it is the light, which is somehow different in France, though less so than in Provence, where it is truly magical. Or, perhaps, I imagine, it is the rich material from which to draw inspiration. Or maybe it is the case that my active mind and body have become more accepting of impressions, more open, away as I am from the press of my life.  But I know, in part, it is the ritual of these long-honored traditions I have kept, almost vigil-like, that connects me to Life where I sit.  As I draw open the lovely tin of pencils, which was a birthday gift, and retrieve my sketch pad from my basket, this ritual of connecting to the feel and touch of Paris out of doors, mapping the sinuous, sensual Metro signs with my drawing eye, causes me to See in a new way. I see Paris with my heart.

Later, returned to the apartment, I love to paint with my watercolors what it is I have attempted, however badly, to sketch. Seated at the little marble table which has a view to the Eiffel Tower from the picture postcard balcony (if I can afford to successfully rent the apartment I particularly love), and situated in the leafy 7th arrondisement, I can almost pretend I live there. And while I am in residence, I do, however sanitized the experience may be (no bureaucratic red tape to negotiate or maddening repairs to navigate).  I shop at the local markets for food, spend magical mornings chatting with the farmers at the marche biologique; take in an ancient music concert at the Cluny museum, seated in the old Roman ruin of an amphitheatre; eat a languorous many-course lunch in one of my favorite little bistros, tucked away happily; and spend happy hours at the little postage stamp size shop called Sennelier, where I imagine just what it must have been like to be one of the California Impressionist painters whose paintings I love, studying in Paris, and purchasing paint here.  The shop hasn't changed much in all that time, and there are still the worn banks of wooden drawers loaded with pigments over which I love to run my fingers, shiny with the patina of years; little shelves of travel watercolors I adore for their pragmatic and aesthetically pleasing simplicity; and the delightful, musty scent of the past.  These scents call Paris to life. The intoxicating scent of the little fraises des bois in the markets: wild strawberries, gorgeous enough to paint and begging to be savored, slowly, sensually, one at a time, redolent as they are of everything sweet, without being cloying.  The bubbling aroma of a gratin dauphinois, one of the great culinary indulgences, as it arrives at my table over lunch.  The scent of the fromagerie, where I buy cheese, that reminds me of the corridor in Tante Gaby's house in French Switzerland, always full of edible treasures, resting in the cool below the reception rooms above the stairs.  These scents are a bond, indelibly imprinted on my memory.  It is Memory, which first gave Life to the Muses, and this sensual memory forges a bond beyond my conscious recognition that lends Inspiration to many months to come when I am away from this place I love.

But at night, armed with my basket of edible treasures, spread out on the table to admire, I cook. It might be as simple as a little composed salad, Frisee aux Lardons (See Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking for a wonderful recipe; it would make a perfect beginning of September supper), gathered from the market earlier in the day, and some grilled levain toast, rubbed with olive oil and garlic and the open face of a tomato, and sprinkled with sea salt.  It too is a ritual of sensual pleasure. The glass vial of olive oil, gleaming its Chartreuse-like hues, reminds me of the annointings for which it has been used for centuries, and I wonder that it brings to this bread which I eat, a kind of sacred form, though of a paler sort, the sort that gives thanks for bounty and for the pure magic of wonderful bread. Touching the just gathered eggs, and the baby lettuces full of autumn colors, admiring the voluptuous tomatoes, and the tiny shallots, I remember: long ago, foraging for wild mushrooms and wild greens with my grandmother in French Switzerland, setting our treasures on the table to admire, and she comes back to me, almost Present.  The touch of that beautiful food brings her near, almost sacramentally. And so cooking becomes a kind of liturgy, wrought of memory and beautiful elements, of sensual impression, of learned repetitions, almost instinctive now, the rhythm and ritual of which is a meditation.  Cooking in Paris this way is a love poem, set to music by the taste, and touch, and feel and scent of Living.

In that same museum in Paris, the Cluny, is a series of six spectacular medieval tapestries, one for each of the five senses, and one last one, which is called "A mon seul desir" (To my only desire).  The tapestries are called La Dame et le Licorne, the Lady and the Unicorn, and depict a noble woman, pure, and a unicorn, a medieval symbol representing Christ.   I have loved these tapestries for nearly thirty years, as has my sister, and together, we have made a little pilgrimage to Paris to see them. I visit them each time I am in Paris.  While their meaning is obscure, and has been debated for centuries, it is clear enough for me.  They are believed to depict Love and Understanding (Wisdom). However mysterious and fascinating are many of their hidden messages and meanings, they are a picture of Meaning as understood sacramentally.  We are created in the world of matter and form, and God has given us the ritual of the sacraments because he knows we need them.  He knows how we learn and how we remember, and how the senses, engaged by our hearts through memory, act as as kind of Muse.  Through these rituals and signs is a window, through which we begin to understand Love in all its dimensions, if only our hearts are open and teachable, and our senses Alive.

Scott Hahn, the well known Catholic theologian, writes in his book on the Sacraments that "the One who made matter and spirit redeems matter and spirit; and He uses matter and spirit to redeem us as well. In his earthly life and in his sacramental mysteries, Jesus Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of the world, uses matter, physical reality, to accomplish our redemption."  The sacraments, the signs of the taste and touch and feel and sound of heaven, if you will, are not permanent institutions.  They help us to See with our hearts.  They are our participation now in the the life we hope to know more fully. Now we know him though signs which bring his Presence near to us, as through a glass darkly.   Then, we will see Him as He is and we will have no need of signs.

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