The fire at Notre-Dame shows what the church means to all of us.
When I heard that Notre-Dame was on fire, I gasped, stopped the dinosaur movie that my five-year-old was curiously unafraid of, and turned on the news.
We watched together as what I thought was something I’d misread came into focus as reality. Smoke spewed from the rooftop, terrible, and yet as beautiful and complexly shaded as the clouds that float across the Parisian sky. Beauty destroying beauty.
At the time, I only felt horror and loss, and what I feel this morning, now that the flames have mostly been put out, is a lump of grief in my throat. When I ran into some mom friends at my son’s school, this was all I could talk about. When the friendly owner of one of our local grocery stores asked me, “Comment ça va?” all I could say was, “Je suis triste pour Notre-Dame.”
I thought that my tears were a rarity. The French are not particularly emotional people. In fact, overdoing it on emotion, to them, smacks of insincerity and a certain lack of dignity. But again and again as I watched the news, everyone — city officials, longtime Parisians, heads of government, as well as tourists and casual passersby, had a breaking grief in their voices. Many spoke openly of having cried. Many held back tears as they were interviewed.
As the fire raged, from across the ocean, family and friends sent me messages. “I can’t believe it,” “It’s horrible,” “I had to get away at work so that I could cry.”
A friend who works at a news organization told me colleagues were fighting to keep themselves together. Another friend talked about her memories of visiting Notre-Dame. One spoke about her dreams to visit.
Whether you live in the streets beside it, or somewhere else in the world, whether it’s played a distinct role in your life or in your dreams, Notre-Dame’s burning, the thought that it could crumble and disappear, struck all of us.
Watching the news that night, like so many people around the world, I experienced pure fear when the head of the firefighters confessed that the north belltower might collapse. I debated with local friends about the fate of the rose windows and other stained glass. I learned how much pressure water released from a helicopter or airplane would have put on the cathedral, which could not have withstood it.
Through it all, the constant was the outpouring of everything we had in us — family, friends, strangers: the sense of love for this building, this enormous and overwhelming respect and feeling of loss.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s first official statement included his condolences to Catholics. It was only when I heard this that I remembered that Notre-Dame is an active religious site.
This was strange — I’ve been there many times, have heard mass there. I’ve lit candles and prayed there myself. Every year after my visa renewal meeting at the Prefecture of Police across the square, I would walk to Notre-Dame and thank God that I could stay in my beloved Paris.
I used to stare fondly up at the painting of the Virgin Mary that decorated an area on the ceiling just below the spire. The naive simplicity of that image always charmed and comforted me.
But what I had felt when the church started burning, what had brought me to tears, was simply a loss of history and beauty. Notre-Dame is such a presence in Paris that I think many of us forget its function. Its towers stand firmly like sentinels. Many people interviewed on the news last night described the church as “watching over Parisians”. There was no religion mentioned. It’s simply a beautiful building that is such an indelible part of the landscape, such a constant for all of us.
In an interview with a reporter from Le Parisien, a woman told a story about her mother, who said that every day of the Occupation, she would pass the cathedral and think, “If Notre-Dame is still standing, we have nothing to fear.” I think it’s a sentiment we all have within us, still.
It was impossible to believe that this building, which has survived wars, bombardments, the French Revolution (when all of the statues of kings on its façade were beheaded), and other disasters would possibly vanish in a matter of hours — and not because of some massive disaster or attack, but simply, it seems, because of human error.
As I’m writing this, the structure of the cathedral is being examined. There’s still some doubt about how the stone reacted to the extreme heat, and what the fire still burning inside might have done. But it we’re all cautiously hoping that most of the church will survive. The bell towers, at least, we’re being reassured, won’t fall.
Watching a live feed online, I see the silhouettes of the famous, enormous gargoyles perched in front of those towers.Years ago, a friend forced me up winding stairs and onto the passage between the towers, despite my vertigo. We’d stood beside the sculpted monsters, marveling at their size, marveling at the view of Paris before us.
That memory has always been a symbol for me, of trying something new, of discovering something astonishing.
I wondered how the gargoyles must have felt, so close to the flames last night. Did they marvel? Were they afraid? Or did they merely watch and think, “This is just another thing we’re witnessing as the years go by,” and look out over the rest of Paris, beyond the parvis, seeing nothing different at all?
Yes, the gargoyles seem alive to me — the whole church does. I think it does for all of us here. It’s our benevolent, loyal companion.
For those who live very close to it, even has an effect on the rhythm of their days, just as it did for people in the Middle Ages. I used to stay in a wealthy man’s magnificent apartment on the nearby rue Chanoinesse, watching his cats while he traveled. Every morning, I was woken up by the tolling bells.
I have more serene memories of Notre-Dame, as well. For example: A warm spring night a few years ago, sitting at a café terrace with a fellow foreign friend, staring admiringly at the back of the church — my favorite part — and saying to each other “We are lucky to live here.”
Or venturing down to the waterline of the flooded Seine this past January, astonished at how close the church now was to the water.
Even simply passing by it sometimes, no matter how much of a hurry I’m in, no matter the weather, I can’t help but stop and admire its distinct beauty.
I’m glad for all of the times my family and I have gone to the center of the city over the past few years. My son was able to see Notre-Dame as she looked for so long.
Since the fire began its horrific and impressive destruction, people have been talking about rebuilding. Mayor Anne Hidalgo evoked the City of Paris’s official motto: Fluctuat nec mergitur (Though tossed by the waves, I will not sink). Interviewed on TV last night, rector Patrick Chauvet said sadly, and not without humor, “Now we will all be builders of cathedrals.” President Macron spoke of reconstruction as a mission.
If you want to look at something positive, this is it. We are all united in our grief, and we can all rebuild Notre-Dame together. Notre-Dame de Paris isn’t just “Our Lady of Paris”; the past hours have shown that she’s, simply, “Our Lady” — wherever you come from, whatever you believe (or don’t).
I can only hope that those in charge will restore the church’s former beauty. For me, gazing at it, especially the high windows and buttresses of its back, capped by the pointed roof and the elegant spire, was the visual equivalent of hearing a symphony. I hope that people who live in Paris, and people who come to Paris, and people who dream of coming to Paris, will be able to see that symphony again.