Our Lady, Notre Dame
The thing I’ve learned about loss is that there are great lessons tied into it. It can be hard to look past the devastation and grief, but beyond the veil there are silver linings. Like it or not they force us to learn, grow, and open our eyes. The fire at Notre Dame was horrific to watch from afar, yet somehow contained (bravo, pompiers!) as if to teach us some lessons. As photos from inside emerge, I’m in awe of how much was left intact. I am grateful for what did survive.
When you live in Paris you get asked about what is going on often. This post is my tale.
I was home watching a movie on Netflix last night while scrolling my Facebook feed, as I often do. A francophile friend who lives in the US had posted that Notre Dame was on fire. I knew I couldn’t just sit at home and pretend it wasn’t happening. I walked up the hill of Sacre Coeur, Paris’s younger (compared to Notre Dame’s 850 years old) basilica church. Still battling a cold, I took the funicular up, and started to see a glimpse of orange in the skyline. I made it to a fence above the park in front of the church where I perched myself for an hour, watching the nightmare unfold—yet I couldn’t look away.
I thought about the priests and nuns who work there, their special Bibles tucked away, the people who work in the gift shop, the pigeons who have a very impressive home, the amazing museum in the crypt underground, all the black soot that would now cover the recently cleaned façade, the stupid machines in the apse of the church where you can make a commemorative coin, the café workers nearby whose income is supported by visitors, the cherry blossom trees outside the south windows that I’d just visited 10 days ago.
As I watched what appeared to be the flames enrobed in a violent dance inside the walls, I prayed that the walls would contain it all, and was thankful the church is on an island surrounded by water.
Notre Dame is 850 years old, but still not the oldest church in Paris. The architects who designed it never lived to see it completed, as it took nearly 200 years to build. (A notion hard for us to grasp in our world of instant gratification.) And despite what many may think, Notre Dame beats out the Eiffel Tower as the most visited site in Paris. Fast forward to the next afternoon, and I can only think that it will become even more popular to visit now than before. (I vote for a car-free zone in central Paris.)
As it burned the weight of what was happening weighed on me. When you live in Paris you risk not seeing all the greatness around you because it becomes part of your everyday surroundings. For me, Notre Dame lost some of its grandeur due to the throngs of tourists cluttering around and inside. It felt more like they were lemmings sent there by guidebooks, than humans visiting a true wonder. I became jaded by them, and they affected my experience of the place. Instead, I learned to love walking by at night, when the doors were closed, the facades perfectly lit, and I felt like Our Lady and I could have a moment in peace. Part of me had to ask if she had enough of this madness too?!
The fire of 2019 serves a good reminder to not sit around waiting to do the things you want to do. You must be proactive and take action. You never know what may change tomorrow. As much as I hated waiting in line to go up the towers of Notre Dame years ago, I was so grateful for that challenge to myself to use a Museum Pass (even if I felt highly claustrophobic being stuck in the stairwells behind those dreaded tourists who didn’t move). It was one of my favorite views of Paris, gargoyles and all. I remember when I got down, I headed straight to a café, because the experience took me far longer than I expected. Then the skies opened and the rain poured. I’d been so fortunate to see the view I did. It’s important to appreciate the moments we are in, not just the moments when they’re gone.
Another idea in my head 11 days ago sent me on a pilgrimage to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. I didn’t go inside, but I decided to take a picture of the cathedral, just because. There was a point last night where we weren’t sure if the towers would survive at all. I think as the public we needed to hear that to give us real perspective. Yes, we are sad for what is lost, but we must be more grateful for what survived. It’s hard to believe it, but I am certain there are lessons tucked in this devastation. Namely, it’s a blessing that no one was hurt, with the exception of one pompier (fireman).
The work of all the pompiers was valiant. This was not just a building. It was a church built 850 years ago, and certainly not up to fire code (I witnessed that when I was stuck inside the towers on a touristic escapade). There was a science to saving the building to ensure that the walls didn’t collapse. We all—even social media pundits and presidents—can pretend to have the answers and advice, but this event was an excellent reminder that there are times when we really do need to default to the experts. As photos emerge from inside the cathedral, it’s quite miraculous.
One of the most surprising things to realize is how much a building can hold emotion, and for so many. Notre Dame was clearly more than just a cathedral. As many people have pointed out, art and architecture
My wish is that we can stop looking at the surface of things, and remember to dig deeper. Remember, why these sites exist, and the history behind them, and their own battles they’ve been through. I hope we can stay curious and inquisitive, and stop just taking pictures for pictures and likes, but look to another level and learn from the stories that happened behind those walls, and what the different treasures represent. Notre Dame is an important lesson in remembering to look to and learn from the past, pick up a book, read a website, learn something new. My art history lessons all came back to me last night as articles were shared with the architectural labels of different parts of the church. We’re never done learning.
As I look to US media coverage every headline seems to want to have an answer or solution to what happened and why. It made me think how in many ways I feel like the French are better with sitting with things. There is time to process, feel, be. My friends who watched French news (while I was outside) learned so much history about Notre Dame, the treasures, the renovations, the heritage. Americans rush to want answers—just look at the headlines. The French are resilient. Every time a major event happens, it reminds me that I am between two different worlds. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but there are always lessons from both. One that touched me as the right balance was Paris-based New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins’s piece “On the Roof of Notre Dame, Before it Burned.”
Now the day after the fire, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. I was not the only person with that idea. The poor police officers had a hell of a time trying to keep pedestrians on the sidewalks, as not to get hit by cars. At times humans seemed more unwieldy than the fire. But much to my awe, so much of the shell and surrounding area is still intact (including the cherry blossom trees outside!). It’s clear that the fire at Notre Dame is going to pose new challenges: structurally, logistically, and ways still yet to be determined. We can’t predict the future, but I do hope we can learn from the past and let this be a reminder that life can change for anyone on any day. Regardless of religion, I hope that what happened at Notre Dame can be a reminder that not even a 850 year old stone cathedral is invincible. Neither are we.
p.s. I may update this post with more images, but for now I thought it was important to share. I’ve shared more images on Instagram Stories: @pretavoyager.