Faith, Loss and Notre Dame

Standing in the hotel lobby in Morocco, I hear a gasp and someone say- Notre Dame is on fire. That can’t be. How could it? But I check and there it was. A half hour later, video came across my screen of the central spire falling in the ball of flames engulfing the cathedral. It’s a scene from a surreal nightmare.

The flames are dying down now, but the damage is done. The roof and spire are gone and the interior is gutted. It would be a miracle if any of the beautiful stained glass windows survived. The world is in shock. There are many great French Gothic cathedrals, some even better than Notre Dame architecturally, but it doesn’t matter. This was the queen, presiding over the pounding heart of France from her Ile.

It’s hard not to take this personally somehow, and even if I’m not a person that cries often, it’s hard not to feel like I need a good long cry. It’s the loss of a great symbol of our shared heritage. It’s like losing a family member. Maybe for me, that’s because I know it pretty well.

For the past 15 years, I’ve guided tours that hit Paris for a few days. I always try and approach Notre Dame in the best possible way, so that my groups see it dramatically appear. And then I tell stories, as there are so many wonderful stories to tell about this special place.

One of the stories I tell is of resurrection, and I hope it helps at this moment.

During the French Revolution, the church became an enemy of the people for a time along with the monarchy. Symbols of subjugation of the masses. Notre Dame was a symbol of both. In the frenzy of the time, angry revolutionaries expressed themselves by destroying parts of the church. For example, the stone kings in a row about halfway up the facade were beheaded, as they were mistaken for kings of France. The church was heavily damaged, and I’ve even read stories about it being used like a barn for a while. As time passed, the structure became decrepit and unsafe. A local writer thought it was a terrible shame to see the state of the once-glorious church, and decided to write a story that would spotlight the plight of Paris’ great landmark. Perhaps that story could shame the city into fixing the church. You know, I’m sure, that the writer was Victor Hugo, and the story was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The attention brought by this famous story worked, and a restoration project began in the 1840’s.

What you may not know is that the restoration architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, was a historian with an artistic flair. While he researched Gothic churches and their elements carefully, his restorations added bits of fancy and folly. That’s not surprising when you consider the Victorian period in Europe as a whole, but his type of restoration would be impossible today, as restorers deeply frown upon addition that is difficult to differentiate. The funny part is, many of his creative additions are the things we like the best about Notre Dame–the cheeky gargoyles on the towers, the stained glass, and a much bigger spire in the center than the original, with a statue of Saint Thomas at the top admiring the work…which was a portrait of Viollet-le-Duc himself.

Tonight that spire is gone. We’ve lost so much that it’s hard to even know what’s left besides bones. The legendary Crown of Thorns was supposed to be in the church tonight, the only time of the year it is on display. It’s heartbreaking. It reminds me of Dresden Cathedral or the fire that destroyed La Fenice opera house in Venice, cultural tragedies where the world loses.

But the point is, Notre Dame has been heavily damaged before. It was reborn in the 19th century, arguably even better than it was before. Dresden Cathedral was rebuilt stone by painstaking stone. Terrible tragedy and gutting loss feel far too common lately and we can give in to feeling this is the inevitable symbol of our times. But that’s not good enough. As La Fenice can tell you, nothing is impossible, we all must be the Phoenix and rebuild, even if it takes a while.

As the faithful stand outside and sing tonight, I am reminded that even as she burned, her heart was still beating in those beautiful voices. She is a house of faith, and we should all have faith that she will be reborn and rise from the ashes.

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

23 replies on “Faith, Loss and Notre Dame”

  1. It’s indeed a tragedy, but I also have faith Notre Dame will be reborn. I don’t know how long will it take, or how much, I don’t know if I will see it finished and reconstructed in this life time, which is sad. It will rise again, that’s all I know.
    This was a sad but beautiful post Sarah. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for such a heart-felt tribute. I’ve never been to France, have only seen photos of Notre Dame, but I, too, have felt the loss of such a beautiful structure. I hope that I will see it rise again.

  3. It is interesting to see that the history of most of the great churches of France includes fire. Fire has removed the roof of many a Cathedral over time. In each case the building was restored and usually improved or enlarged. While it hasn’t happened recently to any of the great Cathedrals; many were damaged by war. I was aghast while visiting the cathedral at Rheims, to see the photos of the building after World War II. It was a pile of rubble that now stands again. I hope that Notre Dame will be rebuild incorporating today’s technology so that the next life for this great church will be more secure. Sure, I want it to look the same, but with steel instead of oak in the roof, and sprinklers and alarms and such to help carry on the life of Notre Dame Cathedral.

  4. T V. News reporter says the crown of thorns relic was found and is safe . Thanks for your shared personal reflections. Tour guides make a place come alive with historical facts and enthusiasm for a site. Just think of how many tourists are remembering you telling them about the cathedral of Notre Dame. You helped them love the experience and the place. Treasure that, Sarah. You have served the queen of churches honoring Mother Mary well.

  5. It’s so good to hear from you again, Sarah. I’ve missed your blog posts. I agree that Notre zdame will rise again!

  6. Thank you, Sarah! Really value your comforting words tonight. I’m sure you are right Notre Dame de Paris will be rebuilt! April

  7. Thank you Sarah! Your beautiful words are a great comfort this night. And you are right — Notre Dame de Paris will be rebuilt! Love, April, and Donelle

  8. This was the perfect thing I needed to read after following the news all day. Thank you for providing words of hope about this tragedy. Norte Dame will rise again.

  9. thank you so much for this post, it was such upsetting news and I didn’t know the story which makes me feel much better.

  10. Yes, and as I said on another forum tonight, the citizens of Reims woke up to a similar catastrophe on September 20, 1914, after German artillery had set fire to the cathedral roof (a blaze similar to today’s). With international help Reims rebuilt. Paris will too, but the loss is hard to accept.

  11. Sarah, this is beautifully written and obviously comes from your heart. This is a terrible event to happen to this amazing Cathedral but as you so eloquently say, Notre Dame has risen before and will again. The French are resilient and will rise above this, too. Isn’t that what this Easter season is all about?

  12. Sarah, this is beautifully written and comes from your heart. We are all saddened by this tragedy but as you say, Notre Dame has “risen” before and isn’t that what this season is all about? The French have always demonstrated tremendous resiliency and will again. This awesome Cathedral with he French spirit shall rise again, too.

  13. Sarah,
    Thank you so much for this. I was watching this off and on today and felt so very sad to see Notre Dame go up in flames. It was so beautiful and meant so much to see it when I visited France. And now you have reminded us to always hope.

    Sincerely,
    Linda

  14. I really appreciate your hopeful and forward-looking words, Sarah. This is a sorrowful tragedy to befall the cathedral and having it happen during Holy Week only adds to the misery. I can be grateful should there be no loss of life or human injury, but feel utterly bereft for all the history consumed by the fire. Here’s to the power of resurrection and hope for Paris, France and the world at large.

  15. Well said! It is devastating, but she is still standing. The first images inside look promising. I am sure she will be rebuild in time and with much love and care.

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