I haven’t been to Paris in nine years. When I was 19, I went to Paris for the first time, and like most 19 years olds, it felt like I was seeing the whole world in one city. Like most 19 year olds, Paris was the epitome of culture, art, and food. We saw what we could, we basked in its glory, we imagined the past. I loved Paris before I arrived there, full of ideals from Madeline to Moulin Rouge, I left Paris forever changed.
The glitz of the tourist trail was stunning. Tears were shed at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I “wowed” my way through Versailles, and I acted like a giddy child at the Musee de Cluny. Yet with all the power of other places the Cathedral de Notre Dame had a power that no other place I’ve been to does.
Notre-Dame de Paris rose majestically over the Parisian skyline by Ile de la cite in 2010, the same as it had for 700 years previous, it stood over the city another nine years in the same way before today. Two tours shined in the front, flying buttresses made the rest of it possible coming off the sides and back. It’s 19th century spire sat dramatically in the middle. It was a limestone fortress dedicated to the importance its creators found in art and religious myth. A limestone that was ultimately flammable.
Notre Dame welcomed millions over its centuries. It welcomed poor believers, and wealthy tourists, pilgrims and wanderers. Outside of the cathedral a swarm of excitement existed, a constant wave of photo takers and backpackers, families and school groups. A swarm of people constantly seeking something in the medieval structure.
My own journey was one where because we were in Paris, it was vital to visit the cathedral, to pay homage to its presence. My friends were accommodating to my desire, having been there numerous times, they took me so that I could witness, could celebrate. It was my first time in a with these friends, catholic, and it was there that I witnessed a different side to what I understood about religion and faith. In Notre Dame I witnessed endless worshippers dot themselves with water. I saw what it meant to light candles, I witnessed prayers and pilgrims be humbled by a testament to their beliefs. As an agnostic I saw another testament, one to the ingenuity and brilliance of the creative mind.
While Notre Dame stands out in the sun, it’s so white, it’s recently cleaned from soot and grime, the inside is a haunting display, equally beautiful, but a different power. With almost no modern lighting the cathedral was always darker inside than our modern eyes are used to. Most of the light was from candles and the large stained glass stories that sucked in Parisian sun. As large as it was, the designers had made the winders and angles work with the sun, and allow it to play on different angles throughout the day with visitors. In the 12th century it was not common for these stories of a Christian god to have such a massive stone, yet people built this, they came together under kingdom and conflict to build it.
Inside the dark cathedral and endless treasures that have been accumulated over the 800 years it has been welcoming peoples. 800 years of graves, of gild work, of stone carvings, of testaments to saints. Wood carvings, organs, tiles, paintings, plans, and endless stories lived in those limestone walls.
President MAcron said, [Notre Dame is] “our history, our literature…the place where our biggest moments played: plagues, wars, liberations. It is at the very heart of our lives.”
It’s odd for an agnostic to care about a religious site, but I do. I care about Notre Dame, and Westminster Abbey. I care about Angor Wat and Mecca. I care because other people care and it’s important to them. I care because of the history and relics and testaments to talent and art that all of those place have in them.
So my love letter to Notre Dame, and my tears, and my pain and the pain of many other travelers and catholics and compassionate people is I mourn the loss of the historical significance. I mourn the loss of buildings because of the march of time and human error. I mourn the loss of a building that stood through two world wars, plagues that killed half of Europe, a revolution, and human nature for almost 900 years. I mourn the loss of a strong thread through human history.
I know the French will rebuild, I know that in ten or twenty years no one will worry too much, people will begin forgetting it happened. I know that in its place a Notre Dame will rise, a phoenix from the flames. Yet, it won’t be the same, the ancient stones and glass won’t all be there, the worn floors will be mended, the feel and smell and details won’t be the same. It won’t, it never is. As is the plight of man, a new kitten helps to mend the broken heart from a lost pet, but it is never quite the same. Yet we must love our new Notre Dame, and welcome it, because love is the only thing that ever matters.