My heart ached as I watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame burn while flying from Salt Lake City to Oakland. Being in the air at the time made me feel even more helpless. I wanted to be there, in the heart of the City that we love more than any other on earth, in solidarity with the thousands who gathered to watch, pray, and sing.
Nothing material would have changed, but I had a longing deep within me to let her know that I would not abandon her as she faced what could have been her ultimate demise. All I could offer was to watch in real time from 35,000 feet, and it felt like such an inadequate gesture. When the reporter announced that officials were warning that the Cathedral may not be saved, it felt as though the air had been sucked out of my lungs.
I know that we’re talking about a supposedly “inanimate” object: A Cathedral built of wood and stone and glass. But for me, Notre Dame is a living, breathing entity. I’ve had the great privilege of walking through her doors at least 30 times, and viewing her majesty from the outside countless times.
With the first visit in 1976 and then again in 1980, followed by yearly visits to Paris beginning in 2001, Notre Dame has held a special place in my life. I grew up in California, in a small farming town of about 6,000 people, so experiencing Notre Dame for the first time was overwhelming.
It was all about the feeling. How I felt as a Christian walking into one of the most magnificent worship spaces on earth. How I felt as a lover of music who played the pipe organ, having never before heard an instrument of that magnitude. How I felt as an admirer of art and architecture, standing outside and trying to wrap my mind around the ingenuity of the flying buttresses which made possible the vast interior space. And then stepping in to a literal work of art while simultaneously admiring other great works of art that surrounded me.
Each succeeding visit carries a story with it that I treasure, because of the experience and the emotion attached to that story. As I recall them on this Good Friday, the feelings bubble up as if they are happening anew. Some are so simple, like making at least one visit each trip to purchase devotional candles to bring home for our friends and family, and for ourselves. We never worried about not buying enough, knowing that we’d be back the following year, and Notre Dame would most certainly be there for us. Others carry more meaning.
I think about my sister and me taking my dad to Paris for his first visit during his 90th birthday year, and attending Mass at Notre Dame. Sitting together as we listened to the organ prelude, I whispered to my dad that we were worshipping where Christians had worshipped for over 850 years. He was awestruck, as were the many friends that we accompanied on their first visit to the Cathedral on other trips.
I think about the night that my husband and I happened to be passing the Cathedral and stepped inside to find that Mass would be celebrated at the High Altar instead of at the altar in the nave, and that we were all invited to sit in the choir. Clustered together at the front of the Cathedral, there was a sense of spiritual intimacy that I treasure to this day.
I think about the night that we had been playing the French version of “Name That Tune” at a local restaurant, and after many glasses of wine, began our walk home. The route took us in front of the Cathedral, which was brilliantly illuminated. There were at least 1,000 chairs on the Plaza, in preparation for an ordination service the next day. Bob and I sat down to gaze at the façade. I remember thinking how glorious it was that no matter what else came and went, Notre Dame de Paris would always be here. Which is why the photo above, which I took one late summer night from across the Seine, is the wallpaper on my laptop. A few moments looking at her, and I feel grounded.
Over the past few days, I’ve been reading about other people’s recollections as well. Emotional. Experiential. Deeply embedded and clearly precious memories that help to form who we are during our time on earth.
I’ve always held that human beings are collectors of experiences, and the uniqueness of my fellow human’s stories as well as the similarities to mine had a substantial impact on me. So many of us had this unspoken belief that no matter how unstable life might feel, Notre Dame would always be our touchstone. Something that had stood the test of time and was immoveable. There is a reason that all distances in France are measured from “Point Zéro” in the front of the Cathedral.
The stories I read also spoke to the shared belief that the magnificent assemblage of wood and stone and glass was, indeed, alive. How could she not be? The energy poured forth from the thousands of workers from the day the first stone was laid, the energy exuded by the millions of visitors that have come to enter, rest, and pray over the centuries, how could all of that energy not enliven and animate what otherwise would simply be a beautiful building?
Notre Dame provided a sense of place where people from around the world could convene. She gave us an incalculable gift of unity and strength in the midst of our diversity. She represented the best of humanity: art, architecture, culture, heritage, music, literature, engineering, and faith. Notre Dame was an aspirational experience for me, as if the Cathedral was reminding us that humanity is capable of creating something as magnificent as this. It was a place where past, present, and future all collided, and that, for me, was her universal appeal.
The next morning, after the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters, police officers, and government officials, the fire was out and the Cathedral still stood. The roof was gone, but she still stood, and President Macron announced that rebuilding would begin with a target completion date of five years. Within three days, one billion euros had been pledged. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, I read the words of an art historian who said – paraphrased – that this is what happens with buildings that are hundreds of years old. They collapse and are rebuilt. They are ransacked and are rebuilt. They burn and are rebuilt. Life. Death. Resurrection.
I was hoping that I’d be able to tie things into a neat bow at the end of this blog, but I’m not. I’m simply grateful beyond words that I got to know Our Lady of Paris as closely as I did. I look forward to the rebuilding, and to being there for the dedication of the restored structure. To walking in for the first time again, and adding my energy to the those of my sisters and brothers of ages past. And I will continue to do what I can to create a sense of place for others to gather, feel safe, and be inspired.
Notre Dame de Paris, priez pour nous, maintenant, et à l’heure de notre mort. Amen.
Use this link to make a donation to the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Ken Mosesian is the author of:
The Power of Promise: How to Win and Keep Customers By Telling the Truth About Your Brand
Available on Amazon