DSC_0643Last night, a little before 7 p.m., my kid rushed in and turned on the TV. “Notre-Dame is on fire!”

Sadly, the kid doesn’t really remember having visited Notre-Dame. Paris is a faraway universe from here in la France profonde. When will it be possible to again enter that huge, dark space that was designed to invoke awe and make one keenly aware of one’s place in the the world, which is that we are very, very small and insignificant. Specks of dust.

Many, many years ago, I was wandering around Paris on Christmas Eve. I crossed Île de la Cité, the original Lutèce where Paris was founded, and thought, hey, why not see whether there’s midnight Mass at Notre-Dame?

Yes, there was. It is very interesting to attend a religious service in another language. I spoke French but not nearly as well as now. As an ex-Catholic, I have had the Mass drilled into my brain. And it’s exactly the same in French, the same rhythms, the same pauses, the same rises and falls and intonations. DSC_0667It also was a special way to appreciate Notre-Dame, serving its original purpose and not for tourism. There was no line to get in. It was before 9/11, so there was no security check. Nobody was taking photos. They were singing Christmas carols.

When I went to Africa for the Peace Corps, I took with me three posters of Paris that had hung in my Midwestern apartment. One was of the back side of Notre-Dame, with its curved wall that houses ambulatory chapels, the flying buttresses, the lacy stonework, the delicate spire that is no more. I hung the posters on the corrugated iron sheets that made up my house.

The Square Jean-XXIII, from where my poster photo was taken against a pink sky, is a surprisingly quiet haven. Most tourists don’t think to walk all the way around the place, I guess. DSC_0659Last night, the TV showed the familiar shot of the back of Notre-Dame, but the roof was red, the spire broken off.

The roof beams were made from single oak trees–1,300 of them. Hewn by hand. Hauled in by carriages. Raised by human force. Built to last. They survived 850 years. The first stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexandre III. Work continued into the 14th century.

The design was made to awe, but facts like those also are awe-inspiring. They put our lives into perspective. What will we contribute that will survive and be treasured 850 years from now?

To read about the history of Notre-Dame, check out the cathedral’s own website. And here is a video of the jaw-dropping light show. If you have time, this is a special Mass. Oh, the acoustics! And if, like somebody I know, you like Gregorian chant, here is an amateur snippet from inside Notre Dame with some shots of the stained glass windows.DSC_0678

33 thoughts on “Notre Dame

  1. The grand old lady is down but she is not out. I have every confidence that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, and your son will be able to visit while the memory of this moment is still fresh. Even if part of the history is lost, what remains will be all the more vivid. Moments like this help bring us together and help show are sadly divided country what really matters.

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  2. Take heart and think of the opportunity to train new conservators and artisans. The public is in shock, but heritage professionals are already looking to what can be done. I’ve just had an email from the Fondation du Patrimoine, so serious fundraising is already underway, with the help of the Fondation’s professionals. I’ve worked with them before and cannot speak highly enough of them.

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    1. They already were trying to restore it, which may have caused the fire. (And I feel so bad for any worker who gets blamed for accidentally having been at fault. It’s important to learn the lessons so it doesn’t happen in the future, but I hope there’s no public shaming.) It’s just that rather than moving forward to fix what was crumbling, they now have to also rebuild the roof. But yes, it will be a huge chantier for new and old artisans.


      1. The lessons about how risky building works and restoration is were all learnt decades ago and there is a well established code of best practice. Of course there will be an enquiry but the truth is that heritage buildings still burn down during renovations on a regular basis no matter how carefully the work is planned and the workers trained. It will almost certainly be down to a tragic accident.

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  3. So very sad, I shed a few tears watching this beautiful place burn. I have visited many times over the years and always found comfort there among the worn stones. I will be sending a donation to the fund today! I am sure that one day your son will visit the “new” cathedral.

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  5. Yes, very sad watching the news last night. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it had more visitors than the Eiffel Tower – when I lived in Paris I went to the cathedral many times (often on my own) but only went to the Eiffel Tower with visitors. It has been the heart of Paris on so many occasions. Like you I also found myself there one Xmas eve (probably ’77 or ’78), I found it very moving.

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  6. Such an unfortunate event, I just keep my fingers crossed that it isn’t as bad as we fear. You are right, when I visited the cathedral, although there was a seizable crowd in there, I felt that we all were so insignificant inside that huge space. I will never forget the peace that I felt while sitting down and listening to the afternoon mass- oh, that acoustic was simply divine.I am not a religious person, but I understand the role of religion and churches in human evolution, so I appreciate the immense value of Notre Dame. I can only imagine the shock and sadness that happens in France right now. We’ll all be helping to rebuilt it, I’m quite sure of it thus giving your child and others a chance to see something that has been passed on for hundreds of years. Thank you for the opportunity to bring back dear memories.

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    1. I had the same feeling of awe at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem–such buildings are meant to inspire, regardless of the religion. Sadly, Al-Aqsa had a fire at exactly the same time as Notre-Dame, but it seems to have been much smaller.


  7. Lovely pictures and links, thank you.
    Much relief on Tuesday morning stateside to learn that the damage wasn’t total, that those glorious windows survived. And I am heartened by the expressions of support and solidarity worldwide — perhaps there’s hope for the human species, and this may prove to be a strengthening of the European effort.

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  8. I’m glad to see so many stepping up to help restore what can be restored. I don’t practice my Catholic religion anymore either – as I found far too much hypocrisy among the ranks. That and evolution just makes sense to me.

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  9. This is such a special place for so many of us. Thank you for sharing your memories. I know my own memories span four decades, and I can only hope that the restoration, however long it takes, will do the city proud.

    Still, so much loss that is irretrievable. This feels like the loss of a friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I heard today that your president Emmanuel Macron has promised to completely restore her to her former glory. I also heard that an immense amount of money has already been collected for the restoration effort. This makes me smile and gives me faith in the goodness of human kind. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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