The world wakes this morning to the devastating news that Notre Dame de Paris has been engulfed in flames. My social media feeds are full of images both of the cathedral in flames but also in her glory. She’s a photographic beauty and my feed is overflowing with the towers framed by pink blossoming trees, or moody black and white shots with the gravity that a nearly millennia-old icon deserves. I have my own photos, because like most Paris lovers, the cathedral of Notre Dame is one of my favourite places not just in Paris, but in the world. She is the beating heart of Paris.
One by one some friends and family members text or message me to let me know, and to say how sad they feel. We don’t live in Paris, but there are certain people who share my love for Paris and they know I will need consoling and share in their grief. Today, though, a dear friend is burying her brother. Her family, his friends and loved ones, are devastated but the rest of the world continues on. There are some griefs we share with the world and others that we must bear alone or with those who love us most. To think that every day, thousands, probably millions, around the world deal with a personal event on this scale, but the rest of world goes on, complaining about the traffic, planning a vacation or buying shoes.
I have visited the cathedral multiple times on each of my trips. In 1994, my tour group followed our guide single file through the cathedral, visiting places that only select tour groups could go then. The darkness and the history soothed my ragged soul and it was respite from the searing Summer heat outside. The Rose windows were awe-inspiring. I was never much of a church-goer and in the aftermath of losing Terry I had all but lost my religion, but for some reason I was drawn to these incredible cathedrals. Call me shallow, but growing up in the Brethren church I was repelled by its austerity. We had no spires, bells, rituals or even a painting of Jesus. We did have a lot of sit down and shut up, if you happened to be a woman.
I had grown up thinking there were two religions; us and the Catholics and because I was a ‘disturbing element’ naturally I was fixated by the more romance, symbolism and ritual of the Catholic and Anglican churches. I had recently visited St Paul’s in London which is monumental and grand, but I found Notre Dame other-worldly. A potent combination of gothic architecture, history and the esoteric; this place was the rich, silk tapestry to the scratchy burlap of my church. I felt a fizz of the forbidden just being there.
Although this is not something I had grown up with, I lit a candle for Terry in each church I visited.
Much of what the guide said over that two-hour tour is lost to history but the interior of Notre Dame is seared on my brain. The carved rood screens, like nothing I have seen before, and those Rose windows… The knowledge that the cathedral been built over an ancient pagan temple was thrilling to me. Many Catholics may find this distasteful or even suggest it isn’t true, but history has well-documented that as people moved into an area they would use the sacred spaces and change them to suit their own needs.
In 1998 on our second visit to the city, we visited the cathedral most days to sit behind the church in the rose garden to eat our morning croissant and feed the pigeons from the specially bought packet of Ritz crackers. The shade from the trees was welcome on those hot June days.
We took a tour of the Cathedral with new friends in 2006. By this time, I considered myself agnostic. I wasn’t sure enough to go the full-atheist. Our friends were devout. The tour was lovely and they positively glowed afterwards. It was lovely to see the façade clean my son was fascinated by the gallery of saints keeping watch and particularly with St Denis, who stands there at attention, holding his own head. Visiting a cathedral with a child is an education in itself. He asked questions about everything. I wish I had known about the towers to climb then. He was really only interested in the gargoyles. We bought a miniature gargoyle to take home that clings still to the side of our miniature Eiffel Tower like a very small, very lost King Kong.
I finally got around to climbing the towers in 2012. My b&b had a view to the towers from the roof terrace and sitting up there at night was wonderful. Travelling solo can have its downside and being reluctant to wander around the city at night can be assuaged by an excellent view. I am an early riser and I arrived at the tiny gate on the Northern side of the cathedral early enough to be third in line. I was prepared for a long wait – I had been warned. I had visited the toilettes, had a bottle of water and a croissant. (I had been told they didn’t take card and would only take the right money.) Lots of my queue-mates were not happy about the wait and left. When you travel solo you have to be organised or you lose your spot in the queue because you didn’t empty your bladder. I might have been accused of being intense at times, but I never lost my spot in the queue.
The stairs were narrow and worn, with hundreds of years of graffito scratched into the walls. The weather had been awful since I returned from Amsterdam but I had chosen a perfect morning to climb the towers. The rain of the past few days had cleared and the view from the top was divine. Pardon the pun. I am so glad I climbed the towers because I fear now that Notre Dame won’t be rebuilt in my lifetime, but she will be rebuilt.
The next day, and I have seen a number of posts on social media not so much criticising the generous and mind-boggling donations pledged by French Billionaires (for the rebuilding effort) but questioning the justice of spending the money that way. When people are hungry and homeless it seems a little mean-spirited to spend money on an enormous church.