A Confession to Notre Dame*
Once upon a forgotten time, there lived a young man who was of a pleasant disposition, an inquiring mind, a literary genius and later a man of religion. He was also the bearer of a secret, one he told none alive. Yet, it is a story that altered the course of his life and in turn established something that exists to date. In his final hours he confessed to the one he could trust – and she was not of this world…
“Peter! Where have you been? I have been patiently waiting here for you.”
“Marie my love – it is a difficult time. I came as soon as I could” Peter smiled at the woman who stood in front of him. Her dark hair was pulled back under a burgundy scarf and she wore her skirts long. In her brown eyes he saw a trace of fear and yet the tenderness they both felt was reflected there. He took both her hands in his and kissed her fingertips gently. They were warm and yet there was a tingling of ice. It was the end of summer and the breeze sang through the leaves of the oak as they both stared into each other’s eyes.
“Why can’t we be married Peter? Why wait anymore? You know I would gladly leave this very moment to be with you forever.”
Peter’s face lined with worry because he knew that though his family would accept Marie, her family, of aristocratic descent, would not accept their daughter being wed to a commoner. Yet he knew that the risk was worth it – every moment stolen with Marie under the oak was cementing his belief that they would somehow make it. Like the unflailing oak and her strong roots – their love was strong. He could feel it in his very soul.
“My love, do not be hastened by what your heart says. At this point we must be cautious. I need more time to establish myself so that I can provide a home for you. I would not be content to watch you suffer in poverty.” Peter saying this took Marie’s face in his hands and gently kissed her lips. Marie responded earnestly and the two were soon entwined like a rambling rose vine on a pillar.
“Hail Mary, full of grace…I have a confession to make. It is one I have borne these years in great pain. It is my greatest agony and my greatest lesson. Please do lend an ear to an old fool as he awaits his death…”
Marie was kneeling in prayer at the family chapel as she murmured her daily prayers to the Lord to protect her family and to give Peter and herself the strength to see their love through. She also earnestly begged for forgiveness for going against her family but she was sure hers and Peter’s love was one of divine ordaining. Her heart was full of guilt but also love. And she chose to let love be her guiding light. She looked up at the stained glass window depicting Mary with baby Jesus in her arms and holding a lily in her hand.
Marie walked slowly back to the house – a sprawling mansion with turrets, manicured gardens and a sweeping driveway leading to the entrance. She went upstairs, climbing the curved wooden staircase to the reading room located on the first floor. It overlooked the side garden which had lilies, roses and lots of beautiful flowers. The reading room was one of Marie’s favourite places. It had books of all genres and though her two brothers were encouraged to read the more learned literary texts, Marie took pains and pride in being able to enjoy the works of so many well known writers and philosophers.
There was a new book on one of the tables and Marie looked at it curiously. It was a collection of poetry by Victor Hugo. Marie flipped through it and read through some of them. She was intrigued and soon was curled up in a chair, her feet drawn up and she read through the poetry in great delight. Her mind kept flitting to Peter and she smiled to herself several times as she read.
“What I am about to confess is something I have tried to remedy all my life in every deed I have done since it happened. So please, forgive me, for I am only a man. A man who once loved a beautiful woman named Marie…”
Marie hurriedly wrote a line from one of the poems on a piece of paper and rolled it up into a scroll. She put it into a small bottle and kept it in her skirt pocket to give Peter when she met him next. They had a planned meeting in the evening and Marie could not wait. She felt like a little girl though she was only 20 years old.
Marie wandered down to the side garden and was walking among the rose and lily plants. She had decided to remove her shoes and skip barefoot around the garden humming a tune as she did. The roses were in full bloom but some were already burned brown by the hot summer sun. There were pink and red roses. Marie’s favourite was the burgundy almost black rose with its crimson red. It beheld for her almost a strange fascination and she noticed that one particular rose was scorched by the sun but still red. She walked upto it and reached over to pluck it. Her finger immediately got pricked by a dark brown thorn that was not visible.
“Ow!” she cried in pain as the blood oozed from the prick on her ring finger on her left hand. She hurriedly wiped the blood away with her handkerchief and held it for a few minutes. The rose remained unplucked and she walked away, surprised at how sharp the thorn was.
Peter had been summoned to work for a lawyer and he was earnestly engaged in his duties. Though the revolution was over, there were still many things that had not settled. Peter’s own family had fallen on hard times and the 26 year old had to work hard to support himself and his family.
That evening Marie and Peter met under the oak with a blanket to shield them from the strong winds that were blowing. As they sat down, Marie pulled out the bottle from her pocket.
“I have something for you Peter. I hope you will like it” she said with great eagerness.
“Oh what is it my love?” Peter asked with a gleam in his eye.
“It is something to remind you of me when we are apart. So do not open it now.” Marie said this slowly but earnestly. She closed his hand around the bottle. Something somewhere had told her to give Peter this as a reminder of her love and she wanted him to keep it with him.
“You mean I can’t open it now?” he asked surprised.
“Yes Peter. You will understand. In time” Marie smiled as she said this and gently rested her head against his beating heart and held him as the two spent the evening together. When they left that evening, Marie held onto Peter a little longer and kissed him more passionately than she ever had. There was an urgency that neither could explain but they held each other in earnest and when they parted there was a funny feeling in the pit of Peter’s stomach.
Peter had to leave town for a few days on work and promised to meet up with Marie upon his return the following week.
“I left her and went to earn money for our future. I wanted to provide her with everything she deserved for she was truly a divine creature and with the gentlest soul. But when I returned, dear God, when I returned…”
Marie had not been feeling too well and she felt her joints stiffen and she had trouble swallowing her food. She wondered if she was coming down with something and had some hot soup for dinner. By the next day Marie felt terrible. She could hardly get out of bed and informed the maid Louise to call for the doctor. After staying in bed for a while, Marie felt a walk in the side garden may do her some good. So she gingerly got up, dressed in her usual skirts and scarf and walked along the side path and into the garden. As she was heading towards the centre of the garden she suddenly started convulsing and collapsed onto the ground and continued to spasm for a few more minutes. She could not cry out for help and in a few minutes her body grew still.
“Mademoiselle Marie! Where are you?” the maid was calling as she had called the doctor who had arrived and was waiting to see Marie. But there was no answer.
The maid searched in the rooms and went to the reading room hoping to find Marie there. As she looked out the window she saw a figure collapsed in the side garden and shouting to the others in the house the maid ran down the stairs and into the side garden with the doctor in tow.
When the doctor reached her, he felt for a pulse and slowly looked up shaking his head.
“She was gone…my Marie was gone. Stolen from me by that wretched infliction. Gone forever dear God, gone…”
Peter returned to Marie’s funeral. He had nearly collapsed when he heard the news. She had died of Tetanus. The result of the prick from the crimson rose thorn.
Peter was consumed with guilt. He was the one who had wanted to wait instead of taking her away to be with him forever. Perhaps he could have saved her. He could have prevented this. The guilt drove him crazy and he turned to the bottle to escape the pain. His beautiful Marie was no more and life was not worth living anymore. The wines of Bordeaux became his new evening mate.
One day he was passed out near a church when a priest – Fr. Marte – saw this young man and took him in. He spoke to Peter for a long time and advised him to follow a life that was fruitful. Peter listened to him and decided to go to Paris to work.
In Paris, life seemed to just pass by. One day, he was walking by the church of St. Sulpice and as he walked in he saw the statue of the Virgin Mary and he was immediately drawn to it. There was something there that woke up what was dead in him.
“And so I turned to that most foul vice – drink. I was a shell. I was lost and you saved me. You gave me hope. And so I dedicated my life to my Marie. To honour what we could never have – a family.”
Peter visited the oak where he and Marie used to meet. He had dared not go there since her death. But today he went. And in the whispers of the winds, he suddenly remembered the bottle Marie had given him. He ran home and grabbed the bottle, opened it and pulled out the piece of paper and saw the words written in Marie’s beautiful slanted writing,
“Let’s love always! Let’s love again!”
It was like Marie calling to him again – to do what he was meant to do.
And so began the Ministry of Peter Noailles – founder of the order of the Holy Family Association in Bordeaux. In honour of Marie – the woman he loved and lost. He planted an oak in remembrance of the tree where they used to meet.
Peter never told anyone about the story of Marie – no one knew about their love and he did not want to speak about it after she was no more. And so he instead only highlighted his epiphany at St. Sulpice as the inspiration for this work.
“I did this for Marie. Not for God – for my beautiful Marie. But she was truly the face of God. So please forgive me for my selfish intention – I loved her like no other. And she was truly everything to me. I am not long for this world so please accept my sincere confession our lady. Please forgive me”
Peter, now old and almost at death’s door confessed his last to the statue of Notre Dame as he remembered how it was her who saved him from his vice and his loss. Marie or Mary would always be in his heart.
He bowed his head, placed his hand on his heart and murmured ‘Kyrie eleison’ as he left the church on his final journey.
*A story inspired by Pierre-Bienvenue Noailles – founder of the order of the Holy Family nuns in Bordeaux, France.