Lessons from Paris: Befriending Holy Leisure

Lessons from Paris: Befriending Holy Leisure

Woman on a bench in a park writing in her journal

Photo: Mary van Balen
Writing in Jardin du Luxembourg

Originally published in The Catholic Times   June 16, 2016

I’ve recently returned from a wonderful vacation of almost a month in Paris with two of my daughters, one of whom is doing research at the National Natural History Museum there—a perfect reason to visit. Spending so much time with adult daughters is a gift itself. Doing it in Paris? Well, that made it extraordinary.

We did the usual tourist things, visiting museums and landmarks, enjoying Parisian baguettes smeared with butter or jam, and drinking lots of café. A highlight was making the short trip to spend a day at Giverny and Monet’s garden, a lifelong dream of my youngest.

Standing in the oval rooms of Musee de l’Orangerie surrounded by the giant water lily canvasses was breathtaking. I don’t think it makes any difference which you do first, visit the garden or feast on Monet’s paintings, the experiences enrich one another. Musee d’Orsay, a favorite, required two visits.

Art and music are everywhere, not only in museums but in shops, cathedrals, and along the streets. Beauty heals, whether in a painting or in the care taken with displays of pastries and breads for sale. Once, on our way to an evening concert, we were surprised by a woman singing an aria. Speakers provided the music, and her powerful voice poured through the small street. A trio on military patrol, heart-stirred by the song like the rest of us, paused, and one lifted his iPhone to record the sound.

We became accustomed to hearing a classical pianist playing Chopin on Pont Saint-Louis near Notre Dame, someone playing accordion along a strip of small restaurants, or jazz groups entertaining on street corners.  In every case, people stopped to listen, sometimes to dance. Always, music stirs the soul.

I was grateful for the length of our stay. A friend commented on one of my posts saying he was glad I had time to spend enjoying “holy leisure.” A sense of the importance of befriending “holy leisure” is wisdom that came home with me. The temptation, vacation or not, is to try to do too much. In Paris, there was always another amazing museum to visit or landmark to see. What would friends say when you returned if you told them you didn’t visit the Louvre?

We could pack every day, allowing vacation to become a check list. We chose otherwise. While our list of things to see and do was long enough, we gave ourselves days to do nothing special and simply be present to the gifts of the moment and each other.

My daughter made time to paint. Sometimes we walked to a park and she set up on a bench. Other days, the dining room table worked. I journaled, wrote blog posts, and finally figured out how to sketch the lovely green table umbrellas at Luxembourg Garden. We wended our way to our favorite street, Rue Mouffetard, sat in a café and enjoyed starting (or ending) a day slowly. Some of the best times were sitting or walking wherever, all three of us, enjoying each other’s company.

Back home, events and places are different, but schedules and expectations can be as demanding. There is work to do, family and friends to see, events to attend. But I returned determined to enjoy little things, listen to more music, and be attentive to Spirit movements in my heart.

One afternoon, after preparing dinners for the week to come and catching up on vacation laundry, I walked outside and tossed cans and jars into the recycling bin. The air was particularly clear after a rain, and as anyone in central Ohio with asthma knows, that is something to celebrate. Back in the kitchen, I started to wash up the dishes, then remembered Paris. “No,” I thought responding to the lift I had felt, “Enjoy.”

I poured a glass of iced tea and sat in the plastic lawn chair on my porch. That’s it. I sat and looked and breathed air that felt good in my lungs. A hummingbird buzzed in over my shoulders and headed toward a green patch of ground cover looking for blooms. A sparrow hopped out from underneath a bush with a huge piece of fuzzy fluff in its beak. The breeze picked up and leaves on the trees across the street danced.

A short prayer of thanksgiving. Some quiet moments of remembering that I live in God’s presence.

The truth that we meet God in the present is nothing new, but deceptively simple. In Paris, at home, anywhere.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

Different Faces of Beauty

Different Faces of Beauty

photo of small street in Paris lined with small cafes

Small street off Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

My sister sent me a marvelous photo of a morning on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Sitting in the bedroom of a Paris apartment, I feasted on the greens of trees and grasses, the rocky coastline, and the fog that softened it all. Even through a photograph, the scene “felt good” for my eyes, making me feel like I was looking far.


foggy morning view of coast on the Grand Manan Island

Foggy morning on Grand Manan
Photo: Elizabeth Delphia

Such a difference from walking old, narrow streets of Paris with buildings standing on either side. There is much beauty there, too. It just has a different face.

Isn’t that how it is in our world? Beauty comes in all sizes and shapes. In the tiniest flower or the intricacies of human construction. In the natural world and what we have made.

Close up of the flower Solomon's Seal

Solomon’s Seal Giverny 2016
Photo: Mary van Balen

People, too. We come in many shapes and colors. Standing in line to take an elevator up the Eiffel Tower, my daughter and I were fascinated with the languages and faces of people from around the world who had come to experience the striking monument and the view of Paris spread out around it.

Seeing beauty in its many guises takes practice. We become accustomed to our particular ideas of what is lovely, or our culture’s definition of  what is or is not beautiful.


Paris from Eiffel Tower Photo: Mary van Balen

Paris from Eiffel Tower
Photo: Mary van Balen

If we were able to see the soul’s beauty in all faces, no matter the color or ethnicity; if we were able to appreciate the world through the eyes of a scientist as well as an artist, or a child as well as a tired adult; how different the world might be.

As I travel abroad, the news from home is disturbing. Fear and anger are stirring up the ugliest side of human behavior. Through the dark glass of racism, hatred, and ignorance, Beauty and Grace are obscured.


graffiti in Paris that says L'Autre est ton ami, or the other is my friend.

Graffiti on Paris Streets
Photo: Alan Cummings

If only we could acknowledge that those we see as “other,” those different from ourselves, are also filled with a spark of Divinity, and accept the gifts and visions they bring to deepen our understandings and experience of life and of God.

Walking through Paris, a friend saw some graffiti that, translated, said: “The other is your friend.”  We should heed those words.


Paris: Music in the Air

Paris: Music in the Air

Musicians playing bass, banjo, sax, and trombone on Rue Mouffetard, Paris

Musicians on Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

Music is in the air! Often, while walking around Paris, I hear music. Train stations large and small have public pianos ready for anyone passing by or waiting for their connection to play. Groups of musicians cluster on corners, a hat or open instrument case sitting on uneven cobbles to collect coins from those who stop to listen.

The first group I encountered was a foursome playing bass, banjo, sax, and trombone. They stood along Rue Mouffetard, a narrow medieval street lined with small shops, cafes, and fresh food markets. The sax player moved with the rhythm, tapping his foot. The thin, white-haired banjo player stood tall and straight. Lots of people paused to enjoy the sound and a little girl smiled while she twirled and clapped along.

Man in black suit playing accordion on street in Paris

Accordion player, Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balem

That evening, my daughters and I had dinner at a restaurant on the same street. A man dressed smartly in a black suit and hat strolled along, weaving between the outside tables of small cafes, playing his accordion. No wonder the “soundtrack” I’ve heard in my mind when thinking of Paris includes accordion music: It’s common around the city, day or night.

Man playing piano on bridge over the Seine

Pianist on bridge over the Seine
Photo: Mary van Balen

No matter what they play, the musicians I’ve heard are accomplished. Once, while walking home from a day of wandering through neighborhoods on the right bank, we heard classical piano. Sure enough, there on a small bridge across the Seine, a man was playing Chopin on a shiny black piano. People clustered along the sidewalk, called by powerful, familiar music to stop and listen.

Music in, for me, unexpected places reminds me to appreciate, to recognize the power of song and the richness of the human gift to make stirring, soul moving sound.

Early one morning, Kathryn and I walked to our favorite boulangerie to buy a baguette and jam for breakfast. Rue Mouffetard was almost empty. Above us, a curtain billowed out of a window along with the sound of a violinist tuning his instrument. I wondered what he or she would be playing.

string ensemble and vocalist in St. Paul's cathedral, Paris, France.

String ensemble and vocalist in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

If you want to attend a concert, they are easy to find almost any night in cathedrals around the city. Kathryn and I listened to a string ensemble preform Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. They were joined by a vocalist whose powerful soprano filled the church with Schubert’s Ave Maria.

On an afternoon in the Marais area, we thought a store or restaurant was piping opera music into the street. No. Approaching the art exhibition hall, we saw a woman standing in front of the building singing a piece from an opera. I don’t know what it was, but her strong, expressive voice was mesmerizing. Even armed military police patrolling the area had to stop and listen. One let his automatic droop to the side while he held up a phone to record the moment.

Guns and music. The news from the States is filled with hateful, troubling events aimed at transgender people for the moment. We watched TV in a café yesterday as the loss of an Egyptian Airlines plane was being covered. Security and armed military presence here on the streets as well as in airports and train stations reminds us of terrorist activities. Poverty is visible as homeless men, women, and children make the streets their homes.

Over it all, haunting music awakens the question in my heart: What fear and anger, what wounds make human beings, capable of creating such beauty, do such horrible things to one another?

© 2016 Mary van Balen



Poppies along path Jardin de Plantes, Paris

Photo: Mary van Balen

Cool air slides into the apartment through open windows. No screens gray the view of a Parisian morning. Bird song, motorcycle growls, and car hums signal the city is stretching and meeting the new day. It’s Saturday, my first here, and I don’t know just how busy the morning will be. I’m enjoying tea and baguette smeared with a bit of jam. A bright bouquet of flowers, a gift from my daughter, sits on the table where I write. Another daughter just left, on her way to the Jardin de Plantes to paint.

To paint! We are both enjoying the biggest gift of this adventure: time. Time to savor the morning breeze and the sweet taste of breakfast. Time to walk slowly through huge public gardens, watching poppies nod and dance as people strolled by.

young woman sitting on bench painting in Jardin de Luxembourg

Photo: Mary van Balen

“What do these people do?” I asked my daughter yesterday as we carried our chairs to a shady place in the huge public garden. So many adults filled the park on a Friday afternoon. What about their jobs? Do they take long lunches? Not all of them could be tourists.

We settled in. Kathryn pulled a pencil, paints, a tablet, a collapsable water pot, brushes, and a bottle of water from her Longchamp bag. I pulled a journal, pencil, eraser, and pen from mine. (Thank goodness for Longchamp bags. They not only help us blend in a bit since so many women carry them here, but they hold everything!)

Pink tree in the midst of green trees and grass in Jardin de Luxemburg, Paris

Photo: Mary van Balen

A bright pink tree rose flamboyantly in the midst of green and caught our attention. My daughter began to sketch out her composition. For a while, I sat and took in the sight of the pink flame, wondering what kind of tree it was and how it came to be there. Deep breaths. In and out. No hurry. Time to savor beauty and to be present to the Holy Mystery that held us all there.

After writing  a bit in my journal and making a sketch of the tree, I took some close photos of its leaves thinking I might discover its name one day. Lots of people stopped to look and take photos of the tree that was simply being its beautiful self. Perhaps it would not have been as striking if the chestnuts and grass had not provided such cool, green contrast.

A line from Thomas Merton came to mind. I couldn’t remember it verbatim, but the thought was about how naturally trees were able to be just what they were made to be, yet how we human beings struggle to do the same. Those trees in the park were saying “yes” to their Creator, catching sunlight on their green (or pink) leaves and stunning all who saw with the beauty of pure being.

My daughter and I, witness to the glory, were relearning the grace of simply being who we are.


Hope for our Planet

Hope for our Planet

A picture taken on November 25, 2015 in Le Bourget near Paris shows the entrance of the venue that will host Paris' climate summit, also known as Cop21.

A picture taken on November 25, 2015 in Le Bourget near Paris shows the entrance of the venue that will host Paris’ climate summit, also known as Cop21.

How wonderful to read the New York Times headlines this morning and find an article about cooperation among world leaders on climate change. Hope! In the midst of so much fear mongering and violence, hope is what we need.

The agreement’s not perfect, everyone agrees, but it is an  important starting place. Maybe a moment that future generations will call a pivotal moment when worldwide recognition of the problem and a common will to do something about it took root.

Of course, here in the U.S., we have lots of politicians who don’t accept the overwhelming science supporting the reality of global warming and many who want nothing more than to obstruct anything that might smack of an Obama success. This includes most if not all of the Republican slate of presidential candidates.

eiffel tower with "No Plan B" message in lights referring to the importance of world leaders to make the climate change agreement work.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower lights up with the message that there are no second chances to address climate change

Maybe they will be shamed into supporting the agreement. Maybe our citizens will make their voices heard. This is not for big oil or coal or fossil fuel companies. This action is for the generations that follow ours.

This is not only a political issue. As Pope Francis has made clear, response to climate change and care for the planet, is a moral and spiritual issue.

The road ahead will be difficult, but for the moment, I want to enjoy a bit of hopeful celebration!