Preface - Millions of people have a story about the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Today as we watched it burn I’m sure we all re-lived those moments and remembered what they meant to us then and what they mean to us now. My story isn’t big or sweeping, I only set foot inside one time, but that memory is set in stone. My heart is with all those who loved this symbol of the connection between humanity and the divine.
My Story - The Cathedral of Notre Dame
I was 22 and alone in Paris. It was Sunday morning early March of 2000. My boyfriend had broken my heart three weeks earlier, so I was standing there by myself on my first trip abroad, in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The two massive towers with the delicate spire piercing the sky in between them. It was cold that day. I was shivering in my leather jacket, buttoned all the way up. That was before I started wearing knitted hats to keep me warm. Right now time is compressed as if the moment from 20 years ago and the moment today are back to back, instead of bookends to two decades of life.
I’ve looked at 4 different news sites now. The headlines are all the same, “Notre Dame is Burning.” I see the fire burning so hot and bright on the screen, yet I still shiver from the cold of that spring day. I remember going inside and walking softly around the vast space. People were gathering for Mass, so I sat down at the back and listened. The priests spoke in Latin. I caught a few words that I understood. “Deus” was the one that stood out most. God.
The air was still in a way I’d never experienced before. As if the sanctuary was holding the life and breath of everyone who had come to worship for the last 800 years. It was dark, especially around the edges where the light from the windows didn’t reach. There were stands filled with small flickering candles along the walls, but the light was swallowed up by the enormous spaces that soared overhead.
The woodwork was intricate, detailed and smoothed from countless fingertips running along the curves seeking to find a connection to the divine by touching the railings. I remember the smell most. The amplified fragrance of time, layered on and wiped clean every day for centuries.
We stood up and sat down. I followed the rhythm a half beat behind those who knew the service by heart. The echos of the unintelligible word of God floating over our heads along with the wisps of smoke from the incense burners.
I spent 10 days in Paris on that trip. Notre Dame was always there at the heart of Paris. From almost every high place in the city I found myself looking for the towers, the spire, and the famous flying buttresses. I walked by it several times more, but never went inside again.
I bought a book on architecture when I was there, written in French, vowing to learn the language well enough to read it. I never did get enough french to do more than read a menu. Someday I tell myself. I always intended to return to Notre Dame, to feel it again. Someday. I never did. Even though the years have brought me back to France and Paris several times. You always think there will be another day.
Today is one of those days that no one ever imagined. This man-made edifice that embodied something intangible for millions of people over hundreds of years, changed in an instant, forever. I didn’t realized how much my moment within those stone walls meant to me, until it went up in flames. My eyes brimmed with tears as I time traveled back to the year 2000 and remembered as I sat at my desk in my office and watched Notre Dame burn.