Not only is the week preceding Easter a religiously significant week for Christianity, it is as well for Jews who celebrate Passover, the root of Christendom’s Good Friday. The Sunni sect of Islam also fasts in observance of Passover. These religions all have their roots in the same place, just as we are all related to each other.
If Easter, Passover and their associated rites in the various religions that mark these days as Holy are emotion-filled in their own right, this past week has been exponentially so.
A few days ago, on April 15th, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned, not quite to the ground, but was extremely damaged in the inferno. The attic of the cathedral, known as “the forest” because of the extremely long old-growth oak trees that were harvested about the year 1160 for beams went up like tinder. The walls and towers remain, along with the famous medieval rose stained-glass windows.
As fate would have it, many of the statues on the roof and spire had been removed due to ongoing renovation. The treasures inside were passed, hand to hand, through a human chain to remove them as the fire burned through the roof and before the flames engulfed the upper reaches of the cathedral.
A stunned world watched Notre Dame burn for hours, staring breathlessly as night fell and the fire moved along the roofline, consuming everything in its path, like a hungry monster. The spire flamed dramatically, like a torch, then toppled, falling through the roof into the church, leaving skeletal scaffolding surrounding a black hole.
The fire photo above is the only one that I’m sure is copyright-free, being found on Wikipedia, but the images below are the result of a Google search.
One of the images, the third row from the top, third photo from the left, is horribly beautiful. God, Mother Nature or whatever name you call the Deity, created fire, and man created Notre Dame. The fire illuminated the cathedral and backlit the oldest Rose Window, the one without stained glass. Later images show the fire burning through the round window, licking the stones above.
Je Suis Dévastée
I spent the summer of 1970 traveling and living in Switzerland, studying French and culminating with a trip to Paris where we took up residence in a youth hostel for a week or two. We enjoyed a combination of student and tourist activities.
The midwestern city where I grew up supported a large Catholic church and school along with many smaller Protestant churches, but I never realized the differences between Catholicism and the Methodist and Baptist churches that I attended. The extent of my consciousness was that every church had their own “rules.” My perception was that “God” was entirely the same regardless and only man’s “church rules” varied. Therefore, I paid little mind to those differences.
I mention this because it sets the stage for my visit to Notre Dame.
Paris in August is stiflingly hot. Air conditioning in Europe is rare and was nonexistent in 1970. That didn’t matter, because nothing was air-conditioned in Indiana either.
As students, we noticed the heat, but it didn’t slow us down.
We spent our days on foot, exploring beautiful Paris and her architectural wonders. I distinctly remember feeling immediately at home in Paris, as if I had been there before – long before. I seemed to remember my way along streets that hadn’t changed much since Medieval times to places I’d never been.
I had no way of knowing that my ancestor, Jacques de Bonnevie, was born in Paris about 1660 and was probably baptized in Notre Dame.
I made my way to the Eiffel Tower, the L’Eglise de Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, the Church at Les Invalides and many parks and historic buildings.
As had been my practice during my trip, I found a local church of some description and slipped into the back row on Sunday mornings. Generally, I managed to slip out again, unnoticed, just as the services ended. My interest was as much cultural as religious, but I enjoyed the wide variety of experiences that were beyond what could be found at home.
My time in Paris was drawing to a close. I had one day left. I decided to go on one final walk-about in the city, knowing with certainty that some wonderful adventure awaited. Not one student in my group was interested in accompanying me, but another young man also staying in the hostel, Jon, wanted to go.
Jon and I set out, walking the streets of Paris in the early morning mist, before the city was quite awake. We marveled at wrought iron gates and old limestone buildings with their guardian gargoyles. If there had been selfies back then, we would have taken several as we laughed, talked and walked.
Eventually, we held hands, not as lovers but as fast friends, enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime bonding experience that no one else in the world would ever have. Just the two of us on that last, wonderful, day in Paris.
We walked towards the oldest, most historic part of town with the intention of strolling along the Seine River, land of artists, students, peace, love and happiness. The next day, we would forever be parted, so today would be filled with nothing but joy.
As Jon and I approached the Seine and began to cross the bridge, Pont de la Tournelle, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” standing sentry on Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine which is also the middle of both historical and contemporary Paris.
As we stood on the bridge, I took this photo. I didn’t realize at that point in time that the building I was staring at intently was indeed the famous Notre Dame. Jon knew.
What I did know beyond a doubt was that I absolutely HAD to go inside that building. Jon mentioned that it probably wasn’t free, so he and I began counting our money to see how much we had between us.
My status as a student meant that anything requiring an entrance fee was beyond my means. Furthermore, I had spent every last dime of discretionary funds, given that it was my last day in Europe and the money I brought had been rationed across months, day by day.
Jon and I enjoyed our walk along the Seine, from the bridge to Notre Dame, drinking in the ambiance of the lovely day. The sun was high in the sky and the heat was oppressive, but we didn’t care. We found shade along the banks of the river, sitting and talking about our dreams for the future amid the background chatter of others.
Notre Dame is massive and has the effect of making one feel minuscule and inconsequential. I hadn’t yet learned that the cathedral was 800 years old, give or take a few years, but it was obviously enormous, exquisite in every detail and wonderfully historic.
The flying buttresses were fascinating and incredible. I knew nothing of architecture or engineering, but I knew enough to appreciate the uniqueness of Notre Dame. At that time, I had no idea just how extraordinary the cathedral actually was.
I had developed an affinity for gargoyles during my stay in Europe, which I retain to this day.
Jon and I enjoyed spying the gargoyles and other stone carved figures, making up stories about what they were thinking or doing, then laughing at our silliness.
That day could have lasted forever.
Finally, we approached the gargantuan doors of the cathedral, our tone becoming a bit more somber.
We were relieved to discover that admission to the cathedral itself was free although access to some features required payment.
Grateful, we crossed the threshold, leaving the hubbub of the city behind as we entered a cool, tranquil sanctum. The stone walls absorbed any noise and the cavernous interior transported us back in time before the era of cars and horns. We left 1970 behind.
Our eyes needed time to adjust to the darkness. It seemed that in those moments, we had entered another world and found ourselves transported to the past when our vision cleared.
I remember the opulence of the interior, and that Notre Dame was unquestionably the largest church I’d ever seen or been inside of – staggering in its enormity.
I didn’t understand the significance of the Catholic symbols, icons or relics, but I certainly understood the historical importance and unparalleled beauty of the building.
I understood, felt in my bones, the deep silence and peace – the respite within those ancient sheltering walls.
As my vision adapted to the darkness, the light entering through the rose window at the end of the nave was what my eye was immediately drawn towards.
The people here did not seem like tourists, or at least not like the tourists I was used to. They were quiet, subdued and respectful, and I think of them as my co-pilgrims on a journey of discovery and enlightenment.
It’s just that many of us had no idea we were on any such journey.
While the rose windows were not the only stained-glass windows, their position, centered in the distance meant that your eye, and in my case, my body was drawn intensely towards them.
Like a moth to a flame.
As I walked towards the windows, I passed a small table where pilgrims could purchase a candle. Not the votive candles of today, but a tall, thin hand-dipped imperfect candle, maybe 10 or 12 inches long.
The candles weren’t free. I purchased one for a few coins and started to walk, with my unlit candle, towards the rose window, entirely mesmerized. A priest who was selling the candles and helping the pilgrims light them with another candle motioned me to do the same.
I looked confused, and then the Priest looked confused too. Not being Catholic, I didn’t understand the meaning of prayer candles. I did, however, comprehend the fact that a ritual was taking place, and I very much wanted to be a part of the community of ritual in this sacred space.
It didn’t seem as much religious as it did spiritual and inclusive. A human experience.
I lit my candle, but I didn’t cross myself which also served to confuse the Priest. Apparently, he wasn’t used to unschooled non-Catholic teenagers purchasing and lighting candles.
However, even though I lit my candle, I still wanted a candle as my souvenir, so I purchased a second one. Now the Priest was thoroughly confused, especially as I left the group surrounding the candle altars and began walking, alone, carrying my candle, transfixed, towards the rose window.
There are no words to describe what I felt.
The window transported my spirit to another time and place, not of this world. I was entranced, hypnotically drawn into the surreal beauty that seemed ethereal.
The darkness of the church seemed to allow the window, the light and the color to illuminate my soul, opening it like a flower, a rose, to the wonder of beauty, contrast and color that would endure for the rest of my life. A divine seed was being sewn in fertile soil that I didn’t understand existed.
Even today, this window has a trance-like spellbinding effect on me, as do other mandalas, including the labyrinth I constructed in my yard.
This life-defining experience initiated a chain reaction of events that won’t end until I “walk on” at the end of my life.
I don’t know how long I spent in Notre Dame that day. I have very little recollection of anything inside except for the transformative experience with the candle and the window. I kept looking for and at the rose window, from every angle, as if it were an ever-present peaceful anchor beckoning in a sea of turmoil.
If you’re lost, just look for the orienting window to find your way. It’s always there.
Jon and I left when the cathedral closed and they shooed us out.
That candle remained among my possessions for many years and life-chapters, even though it broke and cracked. Eventually, life’s events consumed the candle itself, but never the effects of Notre Dame on my life. Notre Dame infused me with my love of history, and more, much more.
Far beyond a building or a church and having nothing to do with a specific religion, Notre Dame was, to me, a place of transition or metamorphosis, a portal from this world finding passage into the infinite beauty of the eternal soul.
My experience in Notre Dame was more a nearly-invisible signal than an epiphany. I had no idea at the time what was so subtly occurring and would only connect the dots, slowly, decades later – in part as I watched Notre Dame burn. Many times a well-placed pebble sets us on our life-path.
So yes, as I sat, horrified, watching the flames consume Notre Dame, I truly was devastated. A little part of me died too as I desperately sought to see my beloved rose window in the footage as the fire burned.
I, along with the rest of the digitally-connected world watched helplessly, and to some extent, hopelessly.
I was torn between the stark contrast of devastating loss and the surreal beauty of the fire itself. Torn between agonizing loss and hope that not all would be lost. Torn between knowing that Notre Dame is just a building, and that it’s much more.
These are the thoughts that, in no particular order, raced through my mind at various times as I watched throughout the day, and night:
Witness to history
What happened to Jon?
Can’t rebuild the past
Crown of Thorns
Stab in our collective hearts
This too shall pass
And there I stopped, because I realized that yes, this too shall pass. Just like Passover in the Jewish faith and Good Friday with the story of the Resurrection in the Christian faith. The end is not necessarily the end. There can be hope, resurrection and salvation even after torturous trials. Notre Dame is metaphorical for all of humanities’ struggles.
Notre Dame is but a building, albeit an incredibly iconic historic one. Buildings can be restored and rebuilt. The heart and soul of Notre Dame is the heights that she inspires people to achieve, the good that she invests in the human condition and the light she shines on the future. Her value is not the building itself, but what she represents, the values she embodies and the inspiration she provides.
Indeed, this dark chapter too shall pass, perhaps uniting and unifying disparate people. Maybe there is a larger lesson in her destruction and rebirth – one for all of humanity. Perhaps this too is a seed of renewal. I hope we comprehend and internalize the message in our current generation and ones that follow.
If so, the hope, inspiration and beauty that Notre Dame infused in me and the seeds she yet holds to plant will live on immortally to guide others and cradle them eternally in her rose-colored, transcendent, illuminating light.