I suppose it’s a bit preposterous for me to feel a deep personal connection with Notre-Dame. I’ve been there maybe a dozen times during brief Paris sojourns over the past decade. Hardly exceptional compared with the experience of the legions of faithful who worshipped there regularly, or of the millions of Parisians and French who learned the moods of Notre Dame as they passed by on vacations or just going about their daily business over the years. Notre Dame was literally as well as figuratively the center of the island in the center of Paris, and thus the center of France, and what it means to be French. Even the most jaded cosmopolitan Parisian could not avoid a relationship with Notre Dame, as it is impossible to go much of anywhere in Paris without passing by it.
Despite my limited familiarity, Notre Dame was my Notre Dame. Great architecture does that to you. The embodiment of history and culture does that to you. Faith does that to you. A great cathedral is a bit like a great author, a great performer. He may be read by millions or perform in sold-out stadiums, but you know he is speaking directly and personally to you. That was my Notre Dame.
Two visits to Notre Dame stand out; both visits were unexpected. I had intended both days to be in Lille, and ended up in Paris due to train misfortunes. I suppose there are earthly explanations in each case, though I’m inclined to believe that something more profound is involved.
One Friday night in November of 2015, I watched the horror at the Bataclan and the other scenes of attack from the safety of a Bordeaux bar, and by midday Saturday I was in Paris, not knowing quite what to expect. What I was not prepared for was the extraordinarily moving experience of standing quietly at the modest, spontaneous, and sincere memorials that had sprung up at the Bataclan, La Belle Equipe, Le Petit Cambodge, and the other sites of destruction in the quartier that was my Parisian home. I felt not just the camaraderie of grief, but an almost hopeful calm, something to do with the affinity of caring souls gathered at that particular time in those special places. At those quiet moments amidst the flickering candles, I felt—perhaps quite naively—that France could and would defend itself, not just with its arms but also with its spirit. I lingered late, not wanting to lose the moment. In a small way, part of me was left there, and I still return to La Belle Equipe, to sip, sup, and remember.
The first sanctioned public gathering after the attacks was to be a memorial service at Notre Dame that Sunday evening. When I arrived, thinking I was in plenty of time, the cathedral and the square were overwhelmed. I never expected such turnout in a crowded public place so soon after so many had died. I passed quickly through security (a quick baggage check without metal detectors) and wiggled my way toward the front of the crowd outside, employing the French art of insistent cajoling along the way. Alas, the somber old doors of Notre Dame closed before us. But the plaza became a moving experience of its own, a fellowship of the excluded. Another suicide bomber could well have slipped into the crowd of mourners and worshippers left outside. We simply had to trust our neighbors, to believe in them. I was very glad to be there at that moment, as a caring Paris turned out in great numbers unafraid. And what a remarkable social media moment, a virtual Apple ad, as small groups hovered around smart phones simulcasting the memorial and joined in the chants and hymns. Many knew all the words.
The second occasion was Easter one year ago, when strikes disrupted my planned arrival in Paris and I had to grab a train ticket on Sunday (even striking unionists honor Easter). I stashed my luggage and dashed to Notre Dame for the last Easter Mass of 2018, which turned out to be the last Easter Mass for who knows how long. The music and majesty and mystery were all that one would expect of Notre Dame, and I lingered afterward by each window by each cross and candle, soaking it in and prolonging the moment while the keepers of the cathedral pressed me along. They were very anxious to close the doors, having had a long night and day, when it seems all of Paris rediscovers God and flocks to the cathedral. I and a couple other stragglers were the last visitors to leave Notre Dame that night, as the huge doors closed with a thud. Now that experience is lost in the fallen and charred timbers of the ancient forest that was the Notre Dame roof.
So the days since the fire have been personal, though dwarfed by the experience of so many others. The loss of Notre Dame—at least for several years and in some ways forever—thankfully involved no loss of life. It cannot compare with the Easter anguish in Sri Lanka. What a sad and sorrowful Sainte Semaine! And nothing, especially in Easter season, compares with the agony and the sacrifice of Christ. Some say the reaction to the Notre Dame has been excessive. Better we should devote the millions of euros and dollars and pounds to combatting poverty or pollution or some other heart-wrenching problem. There’s something to that. I would hope that Catholics and other Christians and everyone moved by Notre Dame will remember our very human and earthly needs. Propping up stone walls is not all that matters.
But the response to the fire strikes me as not only understandable, but even proportionate. Notre Dame was the perfect catastrophe for instant visual media. The huge fire was captivating, and the magnitude of the tragedy so palpable. Dramatic fires are at one and the same time destructive and alluring—the incredible power, the intense color and heat of dangerous flames. There is a horror and magnificence in such destruction. As the incomparable Leonard Cohen sang of Joan of Arc,
“I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?”
To watch the destruction of Notre Dame was to feel so helpless, but so captivated, as the flames of a fallen church leapt toward the heavens. The damage was indeed oh so cruel, and oh so bright. No wonder, then, that the emotional and financial response has been so overwhelming, even outsized. This was live theater at its more compelling.
Rebuilding Notre Dame is a cause that people can understand, and where money can have a clear effect. And in Notre Dame it is the soul of the Church, the soul of France, and perhaps the soul of the West that has been scorched. In times of hardship, and even for desperate lives, we need our symbols that speak to the greater human story of which we are just small and temporary parts, and to the promise of life beyond. Notre Dame captures in its charred timbers and resolute stone walls the violence and self-doubt afflicting the West, but also the fortitude to move forward past tragedy toward triumph for the soul, the faith, and the culture. Notre Dame matters, and millions—whether they identify as spiritual or secular—have been shaken to realize that their roots matter, and that some causes are worth any effort. That somber resolution in itself will not save the West. It will not accomplish the recovery of the Church. But it’s a step.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Nôtre Dame, Paris” (1828) by David Roberts (1796-1864), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.