It was almost too small to be called a hotel, for it boasted only twenty-two rooms, a tiny lobby, and an even tinier breakfast area on the top floor. Still, because it was marvelously clean and located in the center of Paris, a few blocks away from the Place de la Concorde, I considered it just about ideal.
A week before Christmas in 1957, my parents and I, reservations in hand, arrived as guests. On December 15th I had been ordained a priest in Rome, and we were taking advantage of the Christmas "break" to see some of France and England together after four years of my being away from home.
Each morning we would meet in the hotel lobby to go out to Mass in one of the nearby churches. This practice caught the attention of the director of the hotel and his wife who, after the first day, joined us each morning for breakfast when we returned from mass. Before long they were becoming fast friends with my father, myself, and especially my mother who spoke French quite well.
"You American Catholics put us to shame," the director announced one morning "We French have had the Faith so long that we no longer cherish it as we should. We need to be learning from you."
The "learning" climaxed the last morning of our stay when the director and his wife went with us for Mass at the Church of the Madelaine. At breakfast afterwards the wife of the director presented my mother with a coffee cake wrapped in white paper and a blue ribbon. We would enjoy it in London because, she confided, the cuisine there "leaves much to be desired."
Six years later almost to the day I checked into the same hotel. I was in Paris, again during a Christmas "break," to work in the National Library on my doctoral dissertation.
The director of the hotel and his wife recognized me immediately. Before giving me my key, they brought me up to the breakfast area, sat me down, and questioned me at length about my parents. Some years before, they reported, my mother had sent them a Christmas card; and they were "ever so grateful."
"Will you be joining me for Mass?" I asked perhaps a bit too quickly. "Probably not," the director replied, his face darkening. "We are rather short-handed at this time, and well, we can talk about that later."
Two days passed. I went to Mass alone and ate my breakfast alone. The director and his wife were nowhere to be seen. A young waiter served me and the other guests our coffee and croissants.
On the third evening, I came in quite late from a piano recital at the Salle Pleyel. The director and his wife were in the lobby behind the little reservations desk. Snow was falling outside, and I was both cold and wet.
"Come on upstairs for coffee," the director called across the lobby. "You need something to warm you up."
Seated in the breakfast area, I laid the program for the piano recital on the table. It was just a listing of the works to be performed without program notes.
"Did you enjoy the recital?" the director asked.
"Not particularly," I replied. "Most of the music was unfamiliar to me."
He picked up the program and examined it. "But certainly not the suite by Ravel," he exclaimed. "Certainly you are familiar with Ravelís ĎGaspard de la Nuití."
"Frankly, Iím not," I answered, "I have heard of it, but that is about all. And I cannot say that I found it terribly interesting."
"What a pity!" the director shot back, "Father, it is a delight, a marvel, a masterpiece."
The next morning, as I was leaving for Mass, I found a book leaning against the door of my room. Its worn, cardboard cover clearly revealed that it was not new. Inside, on the title page, the director of the hotel had written a dedication: "A gift for my friend. Please read chapter 7. Then trust in Ravelís genius, and give ĎGaspard de la Nuití another hearing. I am sure that you will come to love it, as I do." The chapter in question was entitled "Appreciating Ravelís Suites for the piano."
In the lobby I met the wife of the director and tried to express my gratitude for the book. She interrupted me nervously and spoke quickly. She was sorry that they had not gone to church with me. However, as her husband had intended to explain, he was no longer "inspired" by the Mass. She hoped I understood.
I was to leave that day. Hence, after breakfast, I hurried over to one of the gigantic department stores on the Boulevard Haussmann to buy perfume for my mother and sister. On the way to the cashier I noticed a religious goods counter in the next aisle. I went over to it and began to rummage through the modest collection of religious books. One was An Introduction to the Devout Life by Saint Francis de Sales. I paid for both it and the perfume and fairly ran back to the hotel.
In my room I sat down at the tiny desk and wrote a dedication on the title page of my purchase. "A gift for my friend. Please read chapter 14. Then trust in the genius of the Lord, and give his Mass another hearing. I am sure that you will come to love it - again." The chapter in question was entitled, "Holy Mass, and How to Hear it."
Downstairs in the lobby I paid the director for my stay and presented him with my gift. He read the title page, turned to chapter 14, read its title, and came out from behind the reservations desk to shake my hand.
"Itís a deal," he proclaimed. "You read my chapter, and Iíll read yours."
"Will you let me know the results?" I asked
"No," he answered with a half smile. "That is between the Lord and me."
Back in Rome a few days later I fulfilled my part of the bargain, although not perhaps as the director of the hotel might have imagined. I read " Appreciating Ravelís Suites for the Piano" kneeling in Saint Peterís Basilica near the statue of Saint Francis de Sales. And I have no doubt that chapter 14 and the Saint who penned it did the rest.
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