A LITTLE REQUIEM FOR NOTRE DAME. As I write this, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris, Notre Dame de Paris, is on fire. I first caught news of it on an afternoon flight returning to New England from Houston; by the time I arrived home, a phone call from a friend in Paris was on the message machine, and another more local call, both of them reporting the tragedy. Online, as I prepared supper, bits of news began to trickle in. Most of the roof was gone, and Viollet le Duc’s beautiful nineteenth-century spire had collapsed in flames. The two main towers have been saved. The superb copper statues that adorned the spire, having been removed for an ongoing refurbishment project, survive; many of the important relics and artworks are rumored to have been saved. Through the gap in the roof it’s possible now to see the night sky.
Despite France’s long and bitter battle with Catholicism, Notre Dame has remained the heart of the city. A small plaque in the cobblestones of the parvis is Point Zero, from which distances in and from Paris are measured, and which serves as crossroads, rendezvous and photo op for hundreds of people every day. With several years of work ending in 2000, centuries of soot and dirt had been cleaned away and the building looked bright and clean. The heaviest of its bells, the fifteenth century Bourdon Emmanuel, has rung for the crowning of kings, the deaths of popes, and the Liberation after World War Two; it rang after the attacks of September 11th, an event which sparked a huge sympathetic response in France. Notre Dame has survived neglect, desecration and restoration; a fire will not see the end of it.
On my first visits to Paris, despite having long made my own détente of distance with Catholicism, I would sometimes go to morning weekday mass, celebrated at the little altar in the apse. Oftentimes there would be only a half-dozen people present, old women and the occasional child. In a way it seemed as close as I would ever come to an imagined intimacy with “the old life,” the life of the older France, the older Europe. And the early morning always seemed the best time to visit Notre Dame, when the clangor of the bells would almost spiral down from above, and the windows of stained glass would throw their colors onto the interior walls. One Spring a friend and I heard Cardinal Lustiger give an immensely moving address on the parvis to a group of young visitors, just before opening the doors for Sunday mass. We went in and my poor non-Catholic friend was trapped through the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, the longest mass of the ecclesiastic year. Outside, though, the cherry trees were in full bloom, and the streets were pink with falling flowers—the purest image of Spring I’ve ever seen. At other times there would be the happy task of bringing first-timers to see the church from the Pont de l’Archeveche—at which point the tired old simile of the cathedral resembling the prow of a great vessel cresting the waves becomes a living thing, and one of the most memorable views in the whole of the city.
In terms of literature, Notre Dame has never been as lucky as Chartres, which has been memorialized not only in Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres but in Charles Peguy’s “Presentation de la Beauce a Notre Dame de Chartres,” with its meter that echoes the footfalls of the young faithful who still chant it on their pilgrimages to that church. If you try to research books on the cathedral, what you find are either guide books or innumerable editions of Victor Hugo’s gaseous epic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which, despite determined efforts, I have never managed to get through. Maybe I’ll give it another try.
This is only a pebble laid on the vast cairn of the writing that will take place after the fire at Notre Dame. It is not an attempt to lay claim to the place, but an attempt to acknowledge the gifts it has given me, as it has to thousands of other people, the faithful and the foolish, who have gone through its doors looking for revelation and assurance, and who have circumambulated it, marveling at its beauty. When I heard the phone message from the friend in Paris, I felt a pang of envy, just as one might want to be with a friend who was in sick-bed. With everything that has been going so extravagantly wrong of late all over the world, the resurgence of right-wing hate politics and all, hearing of Notre Dame on fire just seemed an unfair addition to every civilized person’s woes. As I finish this, Emmanuel Macron has announced that Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Even the unprayerful might find this a project worth a few uttered words of hope.