One does not have to be Catholic to understand this loss, to feel the significance. Notre Dame, lovingly referred to as Our Lady of Paris, transcends mere religion. Make no mistake, she is a world renowned beauty, a symbol for the faith, a home of architecture, art, relics – all symbolizing the history of Catholicism.
But she is so much more than a church.
There is a reason why tourists from around the globe – the faithful to the faithless – flock to her. It is why we travel to begin with – to seek out what we have only heard of, to experience grandeur, history, awe, to feed our spirits. She stands, as so many great structures do, as a connection to the past, a home that contains the stories of how we arrived at this place in time. Notre Dame, like the pyramids, Machu Pichu, Stonehenge, the Colosseum, all echo our collective history.
What is being lost before our eyes is not simply a building. We are losing a touchstone. Construction began with the laying of her cornerstone in 1163. In the ensuing years she has survived the French Revolution, desecration, additions, restructuring, a World War. Paris has grown up around her – buildings and people rising and falling in her grand shadows. Yet she stood.
That this fire comes at the beginning of one of the most significant weeks in Catholicism – this is Holy Week – Palm Sunday was just celebrated there yesterday, Good Friday along with lesser known celebrations and observances for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (commemorates the Last Supper) – all leading to Easter Sunday. This loss would be heartbreaking at any time, but that it comes today is particularly painful.
An average, 13 million people visit Notre Dame each year – that means roughly 30,000 a day, peaking at 50,000 during weeks like this. They come because they are Catholic. They come because they are tourists. They come because they are lovers of art, of history, of lore. They come to see the gargoyles made so famous by Victor Hugo in Hunchback of Notre Dame. They come to gaze at the stunning stained glass windows. They come to pray, to light a candle, to take a picture, to feel a connection, to simply stand in awe.
Notre Dame is overwhelming in her majesty, her detail. Intricate sculptures so high that they were only ever meant for the gaze of One. Relics are housed within her spires, her vaults – the most notable being what is believed to be remains of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when crucified. This artifact, having a long and storied history beyond the obvious, includes being piously guarded by Louis IX. The relic has been housed within Notre Dame since 1806. Her organ, with a rich and storied history of her own is in danger, as are the bells, the windows, everything.
The pain being felt in Paris is deep and will be lasting. The pain felt by the faithful around the world is real. Just as is the sorrow and loss being felt and observed by those who may be secular, but are not without soul. It is part of the human condition to seek and appreciate our past, to understand, to honor not just the history of how a place came to be, but the humanity involved in its creation.
I well remember standing on the steps of the cathedral in Cologne Germany. And then standing inside her. My mind could not fully grasp the hows – it was majestic, soaring, sweeping – how did we mere mortals conceive this, let alone have the hubris to attempt its construction? No modern technology, fancy cranes, OSHA rules for safety. Yet there she was. A breathtaking assembly of spires, and glass, and stone – having been started in 1248. It is a sight I shall never forget. A testament to the will of the human spirit, the depth and breadth of our ability to dream, the strength we possess to will something into being.
That day, the words of poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy, written in 1873, but made immortal by Willy Wonka, echoed in my brain, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.“
That is the spirit that pulls people to Notre Dame. To stand in a place we know was built by people just like us, yet not know where to even begin.
My son, an artist, is broken at the thought of what is being lost forever in terms of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, glass, wood – all manner of artistic expression used to translate feelings without words, scenes without movement, history without writing.
My daughter, offered a dream trip anywhere in the world at age 16, asked my sister to take her to Paris. Consumed by a love for history, Culley basked in the glory that is the Louvre, Versailles, the Arc de Triomphe, and yes, Notre Dame.
As I sit here now, watching the updates, a Ministry spokesperson has stated, “Firefighters may not be able to save Notre Dame Cathedral.”
This is a tragic, monstrous, profound loss for Catholicism, for the world. And that daughter, who stood in awe in the Lady’s presence ten years ago, just sent this to me. Perhaps Notre Dame’s true lasting legacy, her deepest message and meaning, is found in Culley’s words.
Notre Dame is something that no amount of pictures or history can fully encapsulate; you have to stand in its shadow to truly “get it”. There is something about it that creates a true sense of awe that cannot be explained. Is it the size? The stained glass windows? The gargoyles? The flying buttresses? The vaulted ceilings that seem to stretch into forever? Yes, those are all part of it, but there is just a feeling you get walking up to its intimidating facade or walking through the huge wooden doors that transcends words. In the deepest, purest sense of the word, it fills you with faith. Not a religious faith, but a faith in us as people. Someone dreamed this, and others cobbled it together, working as one to create something that people the world over would flock to, just to stand in awe of, for hundreds of years. It gave me faith in people, and all the amazing things that people are capable of. I think in today’s world, something that reminds us of the good that we are capable of is a rare commodity, and to lose a symbol that reminds us of that is heartbreaking.
“It gave me faith in people, and all the amazing things that people are capable of.” Amen, Culley. Amen. Notre Dame may indeed be lost to the fire, but the human spirit is noncandescent.