My parish church burnt down last week, and the world was devastated. When I was a student in Paris over fifty-five years ago, I attended mass at Notre Dame de Paris regularly. It wasn’t officially my parish, perhaps, since I lived near the Opera, and the Eglise de St. Roch was geographically the closest church to me. But the church of St. Roch, (despite the saint’s charming depiction on the facade, always accompanied by his faithful canine companion), was a dark and forbidding eighteenth century monstrosity and the Eglise de Ste. Madeleine, (despite the lovely flower market that even today surrounds it), was a nineteenth century neo-classical pretension that put me off.
Later on, as my circle of French and ex-pat students expanded, I’d spend Sunday evenings in the Latin Quarter at the student-oriented flamboyant Gothic church of St. Séverin. But, in the end, I’d always return to the golden sandstone beauty, (golden on the the interior, at least: most Parisian exterior facades, including Notre Dame, were still black with the soot of centuries in those days), always I’d return to the soaring arches reaching toward the heavens, to the vaulted roof and the improbable walls of glass and intricate rose windows of Notre Dame. That’s where I could worship in simple beauty, in awe and wonder as Parisians had done down through the centuries.
Getting to Notre Dame in those days was like taking a ride through an outdoor museum of splendid treasures. I would mount an ancient Parisian bus at the rear, stay out on the open-air platform and stare in wonder as we sped down the Boulevard de l’Opéra, past the Théâtre National, alongside the Louvre, across the Pont Neuf to the Place St. Michel. I descended there and walked back the few steps it took to enter the Île de la Cité and the Place Notre Dame. There was the great west facade of the ancient cathedral looming before me.
Yet it was another view of Notre Dame’s architectural magnificence that I most cherished. After Mass I would wander along the south side of the church by the Seine until I found a bench in a little park behind the edifice. There I could gaze and wonder at the ornate flying buttresses, the late medieval invention that made the building’s soaring walls of glass and stone tracery possible.
I have always known that the best views of Paris are to be had from the towers of Notre Dame. When you look out on the city from the church’s balconies, you share the view with gargoyles and grotesques, depictions of what frightened medieval Parisians the most. Their fears were palpable and important enough to be ensconced in this, the holiest of places, the looming heights of the cathedral itself. There widowhood and illness, sin and death were depicted: it was as if representing such horrors in such a sacred space could vanquish them from daily life.
To know Notre Dame is to know the enduring love for beauty, the deep respect for history and the abiding hopes for the future that reside in the hearts and souls of the people of Paris. And that is why Notre Dame de Paris will rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes. Paris could not be Paris without such beauty and history and hope at its center, the beating heart that is and will always be Notre Dame de Paris.