The statues and the gargoyles could no longer weep, so they exploded in flames. As material consumption and egotism have competed for our attention, we have often lost sight of the majestic and the divine. The bell towers survived and therein lies the symbol of hope and future resurrection of this living monument to faith. Notre Dame has been the embodiment of France’s spiritual manifestation as well as a bastion of French culture since the 12th century A fire during holy week summons the angels who court our souls. Centuries of saints dance in the stone shell that remains where the cross and the altar are still intact, reminding us that the pillars of real faith are indestructible and will prevail.
Notre Dame was attacked during the protestant reformation and it was taken over by the state in a wave of anti-establishment hostility during the French revolution. Napoleon made peace with the church and returned Notre Dame to its earlier status during his reign. He was even crowned in the cathedral. The spire of Notre Dame Cathedral has been the focal point of the Bateau Mouche tours of Paris along the Seine for years. Who doesn’t look out to the outline of Notre Dame with its towering spire while cruising down the Seine, listening to French music over bad speakers and taking in the city from a bench in the boat? Notre Dame does not only belong to France, it belongs to all of Europe and to all who have ever laid eyes on it.
My first visit to Notre Dame came when I hitchhiked to Paris with a French friend from Aix-en-Provence back in the 1970’s. She was going to Paris to see a friend and I was going to see the city of light in all its splendor. My first stop was Notre Dame. I had admired its flying buttresses and stained glass windows in the culture section of my French textbooks. I had admired its façade in my French teacher’s slides of her summer holiday. I went to see Notre Dame, thinking that St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I dearly loved, was but a distant cousin to this ultimate tribute to Mary, mother of hearts and souls. The cathedral stood before me on an island in the center of Paris Notre Dame ruled the Seine and embedded within its walls were stories, blessings, and mysteries that flickered in the light of the white candles that beckoned visitors to pray and to enter the mystical realm of this gothic masterpiece.
Victor Hugo once said, “A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.” All of France slept in the blessed mother’s arms of Notre Dame, and now her children cry out for their mother, ravaged by time and circumstance. I pray for her restoration and for our salvation, as good Friday approaches. The fallen spire may remind us that the path to the Easter miracle was marked with suffering. The good news of Easter serves as a stained glass window tinted in rose and gold, harkening the warmth, hope and redemption embodied in the surviving cross and alter that reign supreme in the otherwise burned out interior of our lady’s Paris home.
I look at messages I am receiving from friends in France who say, “La France est un peu orpehleine ce matin. Nous sommes tous tellement tristes.” And, “Un cauchemar reel….nous sommes tous orphelins.” My friends there are saying that we are all orphans now- what a beautiful tribute to the maternal presence of Mary…. And another friend there says that while there will be a rebirth from the ashes, at the moment we have been orphaned..
From my own perspective, the enormity of this loss goes beyond cultural heritage and straight into the veins of our very being. I hear a chorus of voices saying “Mother Mary, pray for us.”
Is Notre Dame Cathedral a metaphor for the tragedies and resilience of our times? Only Our Lady knows for sure…..