People Watching in Paris with Madeleine Delbrel


‘We, the Ordinary People of the Streets’

By Tamara Isabell 

We take our places in a sidewalk cafe in Paris, tempted by the fine weather, wine, food, and intelligent conversation.

Our spirits are lifted by the ineffable ambiance that is Paris.

Even the most seemingly insignificant things around us take on the weight of sacramentality.  

One understands the bread and the wine, the taking and eating on a fundamental level in such a setting as this.  

People-watching, for instance. Why do we search the faces of strangers?

It’s a universal pastime in Paris – the whole reason for its world-renowned ‘café culture.’

Surely we entertain ourselves by noticing the details and the differences.  (These elegant Parisiennes are in their 70’s!) 

 French sisters stylin’ and shoppin’

French teens and their ubiquitous Coca-Cola 

Young and old alike on bicycles. 

Beneath this layer of idle amusement, however, there is something else at work.

Perhaps we search these other faces for a glimpse of ourselves.

And as we search, we confront the universality of humanity itself.   

The more saintly among us perceive the gaze of Christ in that humanity.

Madeleine Delbrel certainly did.  Swept into the heady artistic world and philosophic thought of early 20th France, she was an uncompromising atheist in her youth.  

Inspired by a circle of intellectual Catholics, she experienced a profound conversion in her early 20’s, launching her into depths of faith as unflinching as her previous disbelief had been.  Although she was a gifted writer and thinker, pondering how the interior and exterior worlds meet, her works are surprisingly accessible.  She sets the battle lines in the struggle for holiness in the most ordinary of circumstances, in our most intimate and mundane encounters.  


Her book ‘We, The Ordinary People of the Streets  draws a contrast between those in religious and active life, but it might just as well be called an ode to people-watching, as Delbrel reveals the joy and hidden holiness to be discovered within the ordinary all around us.

We, the ordinary people of the streets do not see solitude as the absence of the world but as the presence of God.  For us, the whole world is like a face-to-face meeting with the One whom we cannot escape.  

We, the ordinary people of the streets, know that all our work consists in not shifting about under grace; in not choosing what we would do; and that it is God who acts through us.

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