Back in the dark ages I lived in Paris for several years. I had a number of favorite spots in the city: the Arc de Triumph where I sat and fed the pigeons, now forbidden. Sacré Coeur – the beautiful church in Montmarte – and Notre Dame.
I would take the bus from our home in the suburbs of Paris down to the cathedral. Notre Dame was huge, impressive, and slightly terrifying. When I walked inside the cathedral and sat in one of the pews the majesty of the structure overwhelmed me. I could feel the force of God, the sheer weight of God around me.
The church was begun in 1163 and took nearly 200 years to build. The fact that it is nearly 900 years old is awe-inspiring.
I would sit and simply absorb the atmosphere of Notre Dame. It was a working church. It still is. Parishioners would come and go, always genuflecting, always respectful. I wasn’t a Catholic. I was Presbyterian, but it didn’t matter. I was in awe of the exquisite beauty created by people in service to God. Sometimes I’d explore, following a whispering tour guide who led her troupe of tourists through those public areas not sequestered from view, but mostly I sat still and silent in that overwhelming cathedral.
History solemnifies me and I’ve never experienced a more impressive place than Notre Dame. I imagined all the pageantry that had happened there, all the hundreds of thousands of souls who had sat where I was sitting. The Crusaders prayed in the cathedral before beginning their pilgrimage. In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor there. In the 18th century it was decided that Notre Dame would be the center of France, so all distances were measured from that point.
I wondered at the workmen, their families, the congregants who bragged that their church was Notre Dame. I wanted to know about the men who’d designed the buttresses. How long had the rose windows taken to construct? A hundred other questions always popped into my mind in a pre-internet era.
When I heard that Notre Dame was in flames I cried. I’m certain that my emotions were mirrored by thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The cathedral survived the French Revolution, World War II, and countless other upheavals, including the Algerian riots and the recent political unrest in France.
Notre Dame represents more than history, in my humble opinion. It is the embodiment of the talent of countless artisans, men who worked tirelessly to create the statues on the outside of the building, the magnificent stained-glass windows, and the impressive, soaring ceilings – to mention only a few details. Notre Dame was filled with incredible works of art. We humans are fragile creatures, but we sometimes create beauty that lives beyond us, that represents the best of who we are. I think Notre Dame is one of those icons.
However, the fire is simply an indication that nothing is truly permanent, as much as we might want it to be.
I hope that the investigation about the fire will prove that it was an accident and that it wasn’t a gesture of spite and hatred. Or worse, religious intolerance.