It was the heart of a nation, and it was on fire.
My phone began blowing up around 10:30 that morning; April 15, 2019. The calls, messages, and texts came from my kids, from friends, everyone who knew we’d just been there: “Have you seen Notre Dame?”
What they were telling me just didn’t seem possible, and it wasn’t until I’d found a livestream of the blaze and watched horror-struck that I believed it was real; the amazing building my girls and I had stood in just six days before was, indeed, on fire.
The trip began a year before, I suppose, when my dear friend moved to England to be nearer her college-aged children as well as new ministry outreaches all in need of support. A devoted Anglophile, it seemed only reasonable that I come visit, and once I’d done that the die was cast. The glory of Westminster Abbey, the intellectual shrine of Oxford, Edinburgh’s brooding streets; all of them tucked themselves right into my heart, and I knew not only that I’d return but that I’d have to bring my daughters with me. We all pocketed pennies and plotted and planned for months, and then, just a few weeks before we left for a brief, whirlwind trip ‘round the UK, it struck me that Paris was just an hour-and-a-half train ride away from London. The suggestion was wildly approved by my daughters, and after a bit of waffling (I’ve never been! We don’t speak much French! What if the airport is crazy?) and some encouragement from Daddy, we booked flights into London but *out of Paris.
We were smitten with London’s double-decker buses and proliferation of parks and statues; falling in easily with the multi-cultural foot traffic and English-speaking tour guides. Hot tea overlooking the bustling city was a perfect counterpart to April’s cool drizzle, and we navigated the tube with ease. We gawked at the crown jewels and shivered in the shadow of the tower. Even the bookstores are picturesque in London …
The girls kept asking questions; about queens and kings, the war, which nations which were in league with one another and why all these statues and monuments and cathedrals and castles had been built in the first place. When we left the Tower of London, my eldest said, “I’ve learned more about history in the past two days than in all my life before now.”
Late the next afternoon, we took a train into Oxford, where our carry-on suitcases bumped down cobblestone streets and every turn led to new vistas of ancient learning in Gothic, neoclassical, and Palladian style.
After visiting Narnia at C.S. Lewis’ home and getting glimpses of Rivendell all around the city of gleaming spires, we woke up wayyyyy too early for human thought on a Monday morning and took a taxi to the train station, then a train to London, switched to the tube to reach King's Cross, and finally onto the Eurostar bound for Paris.
It honestly all flew by so quickly, it was much like a dream. But when the doors opened, we were in France. First time for all of us, though we instantly decided it couldn’t be the last. France is like magic, and we were standing under it. We ate buttered baguettes with ham and swiss on the second story of the Eiffel tower (never has a ham sandwich tasted so delectable!) and stared enchanted at the spreading city all around us. The most obvious thing to me, as we traveled from point to point on foot all around the city, is that Parisians love beauty. The curved roofs and wrought-iron balconies on nearly every building, copious amounts of flower stalls, and of course museums everywhere stood in testimony.
Our hotel was only a few blocks away from what I most wanted to see, though. Notre Dame, Our Lady of Paris, was built over a period of 200 years, beginning in 1163. That’s the twelfth century; nearly 800 years ago, a period I find difficult to wrap my mind around. We stood in line waiting to enter the massive, ornate doors …
and then there we were inside.
Notre Dame felt so different to me than Westminster had. It was darker, less airy, more crowded. The outside was incredibly intricately carved, the inside full of amazing artwork. The windows, of course, were exquisite. Henry VI, Mary Stuart, and Emperor Napoleon I were crowned here, and as we were leaving, a Mass was begun. For all its beauty, though, something saddened me about this building, and I wasn’t sure what it was. It wasn’t until we returned home (all the while talking about our next trip!) that I was able to do some research and find some clues.
While Catholic services are regularly held there, Notre Dame de Paris is actually owned by the French government now, as it has been since the time of the French Revolution. National Geographic writes:
Regarded as a symbol of the power and aggression of church and monarchy, the building was ransacked during the French Revolution. The heads of the 28 statues in the Gallery of Kings on the main doorway were struck from their bodies, the crowd believing them to represent the hated royal lineage of France—in fact, they depicted the ancient kings of Judea and Israel. Also destroyed were the sculptures adorning the doorways, and the reliquaries and bronze statues inside. Lead from the roof was pillaged for bullets. The bronze bells were melted down to make cannon. Only the enormous Emmanuel bell, which hung in the southern tower and weighed some 13 tons, was spared.
During the revolutionary period, the cathedral was de-Christianized, and the firebrand Robespierre dedicated the church to the cult of the Supreme Being. Once the Terror had abated, the cathedral resumed its former role, but it was a shadow of its former splendor. Many of its windows had been shattered and its treasures ripped out or desecrated. Birds flew in and out through the broken panes, nesting high in the galleries and overhangs of what was turning into a giant ruin.
According to a History channel article,
In November 1793, the cathedral became the site of the Festival of Reason, a revolutionary and anti-religious festival that both mocked Catholicism and suggested that French people should worship Enlightenment principles instead. After the cathedral was plundered, it became the stage for a packed public event in which a seductively dressed actress portraying the Goddess of Reason was worshiped atop a mountain. Enlightenment philosophers’ busts and statues of the Liberty replaced religious statues, and seductively dressed women danced and sang songs extolling the revolution. The centuries-old cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason. Almost everything inside was looted aside from its bells. Eventually, dechristianization extended all the way to instituting a new, atheist state “religion” devoted to revolution.
Ahhhhh. I can hardly imagine such a scene taking place inside the building I remember, but maybe this is the reason I felt heaviness as I walked her aisles.
Ironically, it was Napoleon’s desire to be crowned there which led to the restoration and reinstitution of the building as a Catholic church in the early 1800s. The towering spire was added in 1850, creation of young architect Viollet-le-Duc, who befriended Victor Hugo and was engaged after the author’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” brought interest and badly-needed funding to the project of repairing the building which was in pretty bad shape by that time. .
For the past century and a half, for the most part there have been services held regularly inside this cathedral, often referred to as “the heart of France.” So much the heart, in fact, that all places in Paris are measured by their distance from a spot marked just in front of the Cathedral. Notre Dame is a symbol not only of Paris, of religious feeling, but is a monument to western civilization itself. In 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark, British art historian, stood across the Seine from Notre Dame and said: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet.” But then he turned and looked across the river at Notre Dame: “But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.”
The building of Notre Dame was, of course, quite an architectural feat. The 13,000-odd trees which were the framework for the cathedral’s 210-ton lead roof were already three to four hundred years old when they were cut down and installed in 1220, making them both massive and tinder-box dry by the time April 15th, 2019 rolled around. For many years, groups like Friends of Notre Dame had been sounding an alarm: crumbling stonework, rainwater issues, oxidation in the stain-glass windows, even the flying buttresses themselves—an integral part of the building’s structure—were in desperate need of repair long before the fire broke out. Construction, indeed, was underway as workers attempted to make repairs to the spire itself. 16 statues had actually been removed from the base of the spire to facilitate repair just days before the fire broke out, saving them from certain destruction as the flaming spire plummeted to the floor of the cathedral that evening.
If you haven’t yet read a good description of what happened the day of the fire—the mistakes that allowed it to blaze for nearly half an hour before firefighters were actually called to the scene, as well as the heroic actions taken by those firefighters once they arrived, as well as the facts about how close the entire structure came to being lost, this is the one you want. Interactive, moving, detailed graphics make it all come to life in an easily understandable way.
Here’s what’s on my heart about this: I think in the burning of Notre Dame we can see a warning.
A warning that beautiful things take time to build.
That they can be costly to build.
But also, that if we ignore their maintenance, they can be lost.
This gorgeous building was built by men who desired to honor God in every stone. Somehow, over the years, people lost sight of its glory as they lost sight of the One who had inspired it. The elevation of “reason” and “enlightenment” which eschewed the reality of God lowered the ability of the people to see the beauty of what was immeasurable, and the monument began to crumble right alongside their faith.
Why build anything at all, if we are nothing but cosmic accidents? What is a house for God, if no one is home?
Notre Dame is owned by the state and borrowed by the church. In some ways, I suppose that means she belongs to everyone; in others, I suppose it means she really belongs to no one. No one is “responsible” for her upkeep; the bills for her upkeep don’t arrive on anyone’s doorstep.
I heard a reporter say that she’d stopped into a cafe on her way to the blaze, and the mood in the room was mixed. Half the room was in disbelief that Notre Dame was being ravaged, the other half shocked that anyone cared, because to them the loss of “the heart of France” didn’t matter at all. One group of firefighters bravely raced up the towers, toward the fire, literally not knowing if they’d come back out; another refused, remaining on the ground, the danger more than they were willing to risk.
So here’s what I’m wondering, today …
What is it we’re building?
Are we willing to run into fire to save it?
A visit to a historical site has great capacity to speak deeply to our hearts. There is something about encountering buildings that have stood for centuries, reminding us of the ones who built them and the legacies they’ve left architecturally, nationally, intellectually, and spiritually, that calls out to what longs to be great in us—what longs to last.
Jesus tells us that a wise man “builds his house upon a rock,” and indicates that the house being built is that man’s life. Each of us has been given a great gift: one beautiful life, one season of time in which we have great capacity to make choices for good or ill.
We can build our lives on the rock of Christ, or the sands of all else. We can build shacks or cathedrals. We are creators in the image of a Creator: we can build legacies, families, neighborhoods, businesses, churches, ministries, nations. But we must be willing to pay close attention both as we build and afterward. We won’t be able to build great things and then sit back on our heels to enjoy what’s been done with no further work necessary, because the second law of thermodynamics is always at work, along with threats from within and without. What is not valued will not be protected. What is not reinforced will eventually fall into ruin.
Who’s on guard over your life?
What can you do today to prevent destruction, to shore up your soul, to add beauty?
If you’d like some suggestions, you may want to listen in on this podcast I recorded with Sally Clarkson and Kristen Kill earlier this summer: Restoration and Maintenance