He said in broken English, “The Bastille station is fermez. How do you say… it is closed.”
My stomach dropped.
Our carefully-made plans to thread our way through the streets of Paris, navigate the Metro, and arrive safely at our hotel, crumpled. And drawing on memories of high school French from decades ago, I managed an articulate French response.
Two weeks earlier, Bev and I had joined a tour that went through Burgundy and Bordeaux and was now ending in Paris. We were finishing a delightful cooking class on the outskirts of the city and heading back to the hotel. Our friend Shannon asked if she could go with us. The instructor wrote down how to walk to the Metro, how to pay and find the right train, where to transfer, and how to exit the final stop and walk back to the hotel. Armed with her detailed instructions, off we went.
The directions were perfect. We three found the Metro easily enough, bought our tickets smoothly and followed the strange French words to the right level. To our delight the train we wanted rolled through right away. We stumbled onto seats just across from an elderly Frenchman and his wife. As the noisy Metro jostled us around, I shouted to Bev and Shannon that the Bastille station would be our transfer point.
The gentleman appeared to start to say something, then paused. He glanced at his wife. She cleared her throat and then said, “Pardon, m’sieur.” In response to my “Oui?” she said something I didn’t understand. I stammered in my basic French, “Repetez, s’il vous plait?” She glanced at her husband for help.
He said over the noise, “Umm … The Bastille station is fermez. It is … how do you say … closed.”
My reply en Francais, simply, “Oh,” was really short for “Oh, crap. What do we do now?”
He went on to explain (I think) that the Metro had closed a series of stations for repairs, and that this train would end in four stops. He saw the worry in our faces, so he gestured for the Metro map we were carrying. He kindly pointed to where we could disembark sooner, and he traced his finger around an alternate line of color. We could transfer to a different line in two stops and circle around to our final destination fairly easily.
“Whew,” I said. “Merci beaucoup.” We then had a few moments to deepen our connection.
“Vous etes Parisien, oui?”
“Oui,” he replied. “Ummm … sub-urbs. We are going to l’opera ce soir. Et vous?”
“Nous sommes américains,” I ventured. “We are enjoying Paris a great deal. We like it. Umm …Vive la France!”
They chuckled, and suddenly we were at our station. Bev, Shannon and I stood and repeated to our new friends, “Merci beaucoup.” From there it was easy to follow his directions to the new line. We boarded the train successfully and made it back to our hotel without incident.
That combination of having directions, meeting a problem, getting help, and then re-navigating is a common experience for travelers. It’s also a basic template for our spiritual journeys. We can look back on our lives and see the same pattern unfolding.
We start with a clear vision of how God and life work; we’re full of guidance from trusted elders – our parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, friends. We carry directions, or a sacred text to consult that reflects this wisdom, and off we go. And though everything is new to us, with funny-sounding names, interesting side streets and attractive passersby, we still identify our experiences as the events and descriptions we’ve learned. Our expectations are trustworthy and reliable.
Until suddenly a crisis hits. The station is closed. The way is blocked. We realize we “can’t get there from here.” Maybe our engagement gets broken. A friend betrays our trust. We get fired or fail a class. A sudden death or a serious illness or any number of events can essentially stop us in our tracks.
We must endure these moments when we’re largely on our own. We grope in the dark and the silence, jostled by reality that takes no notice of us at all. We may spend mere moments in the darkness, or it may be our reality for months or years. We hope and hunger for some kind of intervention that will inexplicably appear and set the world right again.
Then … it does. A new companion comes on the scene. Someone has seen and listened and understood. Or someone who has no awareness of our history at all but who arrives “in the fullness of time.” As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” This appearance, however we retrace the path to our meeting, is always an act of grace. If we could have summoned this person, we would have done so long ago. Their arrival at this particular moment is providential.
Their gifts to us vary. They may point us to God, or a different understanding of God. They may offer a sacred friendship, or an invitation into a new opportunity. They accompany us into a new community or share teaching that points us in a fresh direction. They offer love and acceptance. They bring a promise of a reoriented life.
We take it.
The information is important, but the encounter is the key. We delight in a new faith perspective but always remember our teacher. We thrive in sobriety but never forget our sponsor. Good health is a medical process, but still we thank the doctors and the staff. We make a human connection in the time we are together, remembering that we’re all fellow travelers, and kindness makes the journey bearable.
Again, in time, we eventually part and continue our unique journey. Our new certainties become familiar, and they sustain us on the next leg of our travels, until someday crisis hits again. These rhythms of security, trust, adventure, crisis, grace and friendship carry us throughout our lives
European guide Rick Steves reminds us, “Travel is a spiritual act.” By promoting curiosity, empathy, trust and transformation, it shapes our ability to live wisely and well. A simple encounter on a train in a faraway city can speak volumes.