The cathedral was big, absurdly big. It towered over the cobblestone streets of Chartres’ medieval center, imposing its harsh Gothic symmetry on a place that otherwise seemed to exist in a state of perpetual pastel charm. I stared at it, biting into a baguette. The cathedral was impressive. But being a twelve-year-old atheist, I had chosen to stop at the bakery before starting my sightseeing, even if it meant sacrificing the opportunity to experience mass. I found the baguette and the gentle June sun a far more sacred form of communion. I finished my bread, then, holding my parents’ hands, entered the cathedral. I was curious to see a building with such a fascinating and ancient history, but I was ambivalent to the faith that drove the miracle of its construction.
The air was cooler inside the cathedral. It smelled like old stone. What struck me first was the singing: passionate tremulous notes that seemed as old as the walls off which they echoed. Despite my bakery detour, mass had found me. I looked up. The arches rose to pointed pinnacles with a solid grace. The cathedral was composed of curves accented and grounded with the geometry of angles. It was dark, yet in that darkness was so much color. With an almost ascetic sensibility, precious sunlight filtered through windows stained with stories, touching the gaudy marble of the partially refurbished walls.
Juxtaposition brought out my reluctant spiritual side. The cathedral was a place of contradictions. It was there I first saw a detailed depiction of the crucifixion: the grotesque, yet passionate image of self-sacrifice was bathed in the soft glow of candle light. I stared at it, horrified, while a glorious aria played. Beauty emerges from contrast: from a dark church illuminated sparingly with the warm incandescence of the faithful’s newly lit candles and the colorful light of ancient stories.
The grace of this place astounded me. A small melancholy ache rose in my chest, like I was missing or maybe longing for something. I could feel the careful geometry with which the architects had sought to please God. I could feel the many hands that had dedicated their lives to the cathedral’s construction in poignant faith. I realized that I didn’t have to be Catholic for this place to be holy. Its story made it sacred.
In that cathedral I found pieces of myself that didn’t fit, yet I felt whole. For a moment, I let myself become part of an established and complex rhythm. I let myself dance with history. I realized that this experience was incompatible with my atheism. In the years since, I have become an agnostic. I believe patterns are sacred: the ones we follow, the ones we seek to understand, and the ones we create. Notre Dame de Chartres was full of patterns of religion, architecture and art. These patterns created a throbbing amalgam of humanity and math, of logic and faith. As a writer and aspiring linguist, it is my dearest ambition to translate this amalgam into something I can understand.
One of the defining characteristics of humankind is our ability to create stories, our ability to believe in things we cannot necessarily see. Sometimes the things we are not able to fully understand can be the most beautiful. And the process with which we attempt to make sense of these mysteries can be even more exquisite than the enigmas themselves.
After leaving the cathedral, we returned to the bakery to buy another baguette. Meandering through Chartres, we took turns tearing off chunks of the long loaf. As we walked and ate, my mind lingered in the cathedral. Despite the early summer flowers, I could still smell the musty stone.
Zinnia Hansen is a seventeen-year-old essayist and poet from Port Townsend, Washington. She has a tendency towards abstraction, but a deep love of the idiosyncrasies that make us human. Her work has been published in several magazines. She was a participant in the 2020-2021 Hugo Young Writers Cohort. And she is the 2021-2022 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate.