"No-one has a monopoly on transcendence"
Itʹs Saturday evening in the heart of the 4th Arrondissement in Paris. The central district of the Marais hums with bars, people, colourful lights, music clubs and Parisʹ vibrant artistsʹ and gay scenes. A few metres away is the Rue de Rivoli, a retail magnet for both locals and the endless masses of tourists who have streamed into the French metropolis for Pentecost weekend.
Amid the noise sits the Roman Catholic parish church of Saint Merry. Erected in the early 16th century in the late Gothic style, Saint Merry is located on the site of a 7th century chapel where Saint Medericus was buried in the 700s. The church was closed during the French Revolution of 1789 and misused – suffering considerable damage – as a saltpetre factory. And yet it survived.
Today, it is one of the most progressive and lively congregations in the city. Bold art exhibitions, provocative ideas and unconventional ways of thinking have all found their home here. Located in the direct vicinity of the Centre Pompidou and contemporary culture, a place like this could hardly be closer to the world at large.
The unique congregation describes itself thus: "In the heart of Paris, where people of all backgrounds and generations meet, where an appetite for culture and leisure are next-door neighbours to poverty and marginalisation, where crowds and loneliness clash, the door to the church of Saint Merry is always open."
Saint Merry is also characterised by its openness to interfaith exchange. The Nuit Sacree originated here four years ago. A musical and cultural event spanning the night of Pentecost Sunday into Whit-Monday, the Nuit Sacree brings together different artists from the traditional, spiritual and world music genres. It was launched in 2016 as a joint project between the congregation of Saint Merry and the Coexister initiative.
Coexister is an interdenominational movement of young people called to foster peaceful relations between people of any belief or none. The initiative defines its focus as "interconvictionnel" in French, expanding the interfaith dimension to include any form of belief or conviction: religious people of all denominations, as well as atheists and agnostics. Coexister is a perfect fit for the Saint Merry congregation, which views its calling to be truly anchored in the local community and society as a whole – with all its facets.
The motto for this yearʹs Nuit Sacree was "Un message de paix", welcoming artists and members of religious orders with the aim of promoting peace and singing out a message of hope. In doing so, the Nuit Sacree 2019 hoped to use fewer technological resources to achieve a more intimate version of the event than in previous years.
Laurent Grzybowski, co-founder and moderator of the Nuit Sacree is himself an "intercultural mediator". A journalist, musician and lecturer, he engages medially, artistically and socially in building bridges in his district – the 15th Arrondissement.
During this yearʹs Nuit Sacree he told Qantara.de, "This congregation regards itself as ʹcatholicʹ in the truest sense, because in the original Greek, ʹcatholicʹ means ʹuniversalʹ. The universalism of Saint Merry is really evident here, it strives to organise events of openness. Openness towards contemporary culture, towards religions, world cultures and humanity in all its diversity."
Grzybowski stressed that this mission – to take a stand against the imposition of walls and barbed wire fences – has become all the more important in the face of current political and social rifts and the palpable shift to the right. Against the background of the refugee crisis, the event has also become a focus for people seeking to resist isolationist politics.
Meeting the ʹotherʹ
"For me, this kind of event is an act of defiance. We defy the popular misconception that the future lies in barricading ourselves in," explained Grzybowski. Neither walls nor a rejection of otherness – the "root of our humanity" – provide that sorely needed security; the only effective security is to be found in meeting ʹthe otherʹ.
"Humanityʹs true enemy is ignorance and indifference. The peace of tomorrow is to be found in meeting and sharing dialogue with people of different beliefs and negotiating with them with a view to the common good." This is clearly noticeable in the Nuit Sacree manifesto of 28 May 2016, which has since been signed by various representatives of religious communities.
The Nuit Sacree lives and breathes this spirit of peace, togetherness, freedom and responsibility, and this is where its power lies. Those in attendance experience a moment of openness and spirituality, conveyed through the language of music and song. This reaches people deeply and directly. It was a case of understanding that "no-one has a monopoly on transcendence", said Grzybowski.
On the second day of the event, the imam and leader of Maison Soufi, Abdelhafid Benchouk, appealed urgently to the media and their responsibility: "Today, there is still a deficit when it comes to the awareness of such events among the general public. Unfortunately, we donʹt hear enough about these kinds of campaigns on TV or on the radio, even though there are many of them taking place every day. There are so many different associations doing great work to facilitate participation in interfaith dialogue, but no-one talks about them."
“We all have a truth”
Having stayed up all night for the occasion of the Jewish festival Shavuot, which commemorates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the rabbi and founder of the Franco-American synagogue Kehilat Gesher, Tom Cohen, was keen to emphasise the following:
"We all, each of us, have a truth. Problems arise in society when we take our truth to be the whole truth. When we accept that everyone has their own truth, we have to meet with them in order to understand these truths and to come closer to that truth." Peace is not the absence of war and violence, it is more like abundance. "May we all have this abundance in our lives."
Grzybowski, a Catholic, called for a minuteʹs silence to dwell on the countless known and unknown victims of violence and to pray for peace, "for all the victims of Islamophobia, the victims of every form of hate, all the victims of human folly, religious, political or other forms of violence; that we carry them in our hearts – each in his own way. May these acts of violence disappear forever."
The grand finale was performed by the ensemble Dervish Spirit, singing sacred Sufi anthems in Arabic, Turkish and Farsi – to the accompaniment of whirling dervishes.
Being able to take part in the treasured aspects of ʹotherʹ religions, cultures and world views and give of your own in return is a formula that is proving highly effective. The many pilgrims who attended La Nuit Sacree are unlikely to forget these enchanting images of a vision of peace, filled with colour, movement and beauty.
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu