The first time I saw it, I could barely breathe. It was so beautiful against the cerulean sky. Our Lady of Paris. It looked like a mass of lace, draped over scaffolding, with giant crystal kaleidoscope windows. I fell in love with a building that was the heart of a country.
Notre Dame de Paris was never just stone and glass, an inanimate observer of history. It seemed to have a beating heart that pulsed with the generations of people who prayed under her vaulted ceilings, knelt on her cold stone floor, blessed themselves before statues in dark alcoves or simply walked along the Seine and gazed at its solemn, eternal beauty. Even an agnostic could not turn away from the radiance.
I spent a year living in Paris, and visited the church every day. It wasn’t devotion to faith. It was an obsession with this place that rose above the kitschy nature of the outside pavilion with tourists buying plastic key chains and gaudy rosaries and bad reproductions of saints on pillows. Notre Dame did not care about the world that passed beneath her stone facade, didn’t take notice of the changing demographic that swirled around her.
It was the same when Victor Hugo imagined the bell ringer Quasimodo, swinging from the tower. It was the same when the Revolutionaries attacked the church for its close affiliation with the monarchy. It was the same when, during the two world wars, bombs and hellfire rained down upon it, but miraculously did little damage.
It was the same when I first visited in 1979, a wide-eyed senior in high school, and then returned two years later for my junior year of college. It was the same two decades later when I brought my mother for the first and last time to see Our Lady, one of the things she remembered with the greatest joy in the last days of her life.
It was the same until Monday, when flames ripped through the innards of the world’s most hauntingly beautiful cathedral.
I know people who were baptized there, and one couple who was married by candlelight. I can still see the watercolor of Notre Dame surrounded by flowers, which I bought with my last five francs, a present for my father who was dying at home in Philadelphia. It was buried with him in 1982.
It may seem strange to be so overcome with grief over the burning of a building, but the loss of this church, the amputation of the spire that reached toward heaven, the charring of the belly and the likely isolation while they attempt to put it back together are too much to bear. For decades, I have carried Notre Dame de Paris in my heart, and I am part of a family of millions of mourning children.
When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, it was the lives we mourned, and rightly so. The buildings were but the symbol of the flesh and blood and spirit that we lost.
But the damage to this building, to this church, is itself the thing we mourn. And pray:
Sainte Mere de Jesus, mon ange gardien, protegez moi durant cette nuit.
Blessed Mother of Jesus, my guardian angel, protect me during this night.