PILGRIMAGE: Saint Julien Le Pauvre, Paris—Letting Go Of Perfection by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Saint Julien Le Pauvre, Paris—Letting Go Of Perfection by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

With its rough stone walls and low Romanesque lines, it looks like a village church that has lost its way and wandered, bewildered, into one of the noisiest neighborhoods of Paris.  Just across the river from the great Gothic towers of Notre Dame, I step through a modest doorway into the dimly lit Church of Saint Julien le Pauvre.

It still keeps the humble simplicity it had when it served as a shrine for medieval pilgrims on their way to Compostela.  In recent years, its charming intimate interior has made the church a popular spot for chamber music concerts.

I find a seat in the second row – my reward for coming early – and glance over the evening’s printed program.  I recognize the titles of several familiar pieces by Mozart, Vivaldi, and Handel.  There is still plenty of time to gaze around and take in the scene.

The simple round arches, dark vaults, and small windows give me the sense of closeness that I’ve felt in little parish churches in farming towns.  Recently, Saint Julien was assigned to the Greek Melkite Church as their regular worship space, and so a colorful iconostasis – a wooden partition decorated with hand-painted icons – has been built across the front of the apse and hung with flickering votive candles.  This adds a touch of life and color to the otherwise somber beauty of the place.  In the narrow, brightly lit area between this altar screen and the front row of the audience, eight empty chairs face outward and wait self-consciously for the members of the string ensemble to make their appearance.

My imagination fills the church with pilgrims passing through, as they used to do in the Middle Ages, on their way to Compostela.  I can almost hear the church’s bell ring out as it did for centuries to call the students to their classes at the nearby Sorbonne.

From the rear of the church, a ripple of applause grows to a wave as the musicians, clad in traditional black-and-white formal dress, walk briskly down the left aisle and take their seats in the sanctuary.  The first violinist will also act as conductor of the group.  There is a final muted tune-up, then a couple of seconds of pregnant silence.  Finally the instruments burst into a robust rendition of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

“Bomp, ba-bomp, ba-bomp ba-bomp ba-BOMP!”  The young man playing the bass violin is obviously enjoying himself, his expressive face letting everyone know that this is one of his favorite pieces.  The young violist, on the other hand, plays precisely; her only goal seems to be technical perfection.  The woman to her right, with short brown hair, looks as though she loves playing, but seems a little bit tired.  I wonder if she’s a mother who has had to hire a babysitter for the evening, and has left the supper dishes in the sink.  The unkempt first violinist has a lot of the showman about him and conducts by swinging the far end of his violin in expansive circles.  I look once again at the bass player.  For the last few moments he has not been playing, but simply standing with his eyes closed, nodding his approval of the violin passage and smiling at the little surprises that Mozart slips in now and then.

The second movement already, the andante: “Da, da, DAH…dee DAH-da DAH-da DAH-da-DAH!”  The first violinist is now conducting by drawing elegant figure eights with the scroll-end of his instrument while never missing a note.

I seldom get to attend chamber music concerts when I’m home in the monastery, but have to content myself with recordings of the great artists and orchestras on CDs or on some FM station.  There really is something special about a live performance.  First, of course, there is the sense of human contact as you get to know the lively bass player, the young mother with the viola, and the showman on first violin.  But even more gratifying than getting to know the musicians is the presence of something you never hear on a compact disc recording at home: imperfections!

These performers in front of me are professionals, and they’re good.  Every now and then, however, maybe just once in a whole concert, somebody will hit a couple of muddy notes that should have been sparkling diamonds.  Hrumph! complains the little critic inside of me.  On my recording at home, Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra do a much better job on that passage!

Oh!  Here’s the third movement, the allegretto: “Da-DUMP-dum, dah DAH; da DUMP dump, dah DA-da DA-da Da-da.”  The bass violinist sticks the tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrates on moving his fingers nimbly through a particularly delicious bass run.  Suddenly he breaks into a broad smile as if he’s just remembered a good joke.

As I watch and listen, it dawns on me that what I hear on a digital CD is usually a thoroughly sanitized performance.  There are no friendly background noises of squeaking chairs and stifled coughs.  All the human imperfections have been removed electronically, all the poor passages redone, and every blemish cosmetically removed by clever audio engineers.  No fancy audio tricks here in Saint Julien tonight, though.  These musicians are real people who have families and friends.  They eat lunch, smoke cigarettes, take the metro, and discuss politics like everybody else.  Each of them contributes his or her talent to the group, and together they are making the stone vaults ring with the Heavenly harmonies of Mozart.  They play quite well together, no doubt about it.  Still, this is a group of human beings, so they’re not perfect.

None of them seems preoccupied with being perfect, either, with the possible exception of the violist – the one with her black hair pulled back in a tight bun.  I study her stern face for a moment and start to feel vaguely uneasy.  Suddenly I realize why I don’t like that forbidding but familiar expression: “It’s my face, my “work” face.  Whenever I do a job, my unconscious goal is always to do it perfectly.  It is, needless to say, a bit of a strain on coworkers and brother monks, and on me, too.  During this year away, I’m getting a chance to step back from my perfectionism and look at it from the outside, the way I’m looking at this violist.  And I don’t like what I see.

The fourth and last movement of Eine Kleine, the allegro.  They’re really moving this one along: “DRRRIN-din, din-din, DUNT-dunt-Dun!”  The young bassist is throwing himself body and soul into the marvelous bass line, so “into” the music that he’s playing it from the inside out.  He’s so uplifted and enthralled by the beauty of what the group is creating up there that he has left any concerns about perfection far, far behind.

Beauty and harmony are goals that are within our reach, but perfection is not – that’s reserved for God alone.  This is why Benedict’s vision for his community is not perfection but peace and harmony.  He strictly forbids grumbling, and often recommends some course of action “so that no one be saddened in the house of God,” or, “that no one be given a justifiable reason for complaint.”  He knows that monks are imperfect, but he holds out to them the challenge to build a “peaceable kingdom” in the monastery.

These imperfect musicians who still make such beautiful music together remind me that I don’t need to be a perfect Christian, a perfect monk, or a perfect anything else.  I just need to concentrate on making music with my brothers and sisters in the monastery and in our school, music that isn’t perfect – only beautiful.

In a flash of insight I see the truth about myself: I am a recovering perfectionist.  I immediately promise myself to attend these concerts faithfully, hoping vaguely that these musicians will be a support group.  As the audience breaks into heartfelt applause, the musicians stand and acknowledge our enthusiasm.  I’m already looking forward to our next meeting.


What is your attitude as you keep Lent?  Do you go about it with the grim determination of the scowling perfectionist on the viola, or perhaps with the joy of the ebullient bassist?  Benedict expects us during Lent to “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”

Fasting and prayer help to foster harmony within you by taming wayward desires and keeping your priorities in proper order.  This inner peace then overflows into the rest of your life.  Ask yourself how well you foster harmony with the people around you.  Think of an area where you may be a source of discord.  How might you change that?

Sacred Scripture (Psalm 34:14)

Seek peace, and pursue it.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 72, “The Good Zeal of Monks,” vv. 4-6)

They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.

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