I was shocked and horrified to see the images of Notre Dame burning yesterday. Some things we assume will always be there, for when we are ready, able, or willing to go and see them. But as the Greek masters said: Everything changes, and nothing stands still. Sometimes the change is gradual like the slow erosion of sandstone, other times change is violent and sudden, like when a fire engulfs a building and it is gone.
I grew up like many American girls having Paris associated with romantic getaways and ultimate displays of adventure and romance. Paris is for lovers! Etc. Yada yada. When Prince Charming failed to materialise and to whisk me away on his private jet to Paris, I decided to take matters into my own hands and give myself a short visit Paris for my 36th Birthday in August 2014. Seeing the images of the ancient building going up in flames made me think, as everyone in the world is now, of my own encounter there. I am grateful that I made the effort to go see this iconic, historic and important cathedral.
I walked past in the afternoon and decided my sunlight hours were too precious to stand in line to get in, so I resolved to return in the morning for mass. I was moved by the priest celebrating quite confidently with hordes of tourists/parishioners/believers of varying levels of piety and interest filling the space. As I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos, I decided to make an exception to my usual custom not to bust out the cameras during a service (which is how I was raised in my church with no photography during sacraments) and I took a few pictures myself.
As for Paris overall, this photos sums up my experience: Tourists everywhere, obscuring and dwarfing the actual attraction—and the realization that I am one of them.
When I heard the news of the fire yesterday, I immediately thought of one of my favorite songs by Leonard Cohen: Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 by Pope Pius X in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In the song, Joan eventually surrenders to the fire, becomes its bride.
Well then, who are you?” she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke
“Why, I’m, I’m fire,” he replied
“And I love your solitude, how I love your sense of pride”
The destructive power of fire to consume human accomplishments is again—through the magnifier of social media—brought to the consciousness of everyone on the planet in this tragedy. But hopefully, this event can ultimately remind us of why we cherish historic buildings, art, and the achievements and events of the past. And what we hope for the future. It is not just about preserving old buildings for the sake of it, but for us as a culture, and as a society to contemplate what role religion and art shall continue to play in our lives. Here we can be comforted by the story of the Devil in Goethe’s drama of Faust, who never quite manages to ruin things afterall.
“Who are you then?” “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
The fire isn’t the end, but the beginning of the next phase of development.