Monday I was at home working when I heard a cry from upstairs - Notre Dame is on fire! Like everyone else all over the world, we hoped in vain that the fire wouldn't be catastrophic and damage would be slight. We watched in horror as the spire - made of old dry wood and soft lead, came crashing down like the twin towers.
This time there was no terrorist group on which to focus our ire, to cast the blame. While the cause still remains to be identified, it appears to be related to equipment in the attic as part of an ongoing restoration effort. At the risk of appearing trite, the end result was the opposite.
For Catholics (and likely Christians in general), the cathedral was a holy place. For anyone with a sense of awe and beauty, it was a magnificent structure, with irreplaceable art and craftsmanship - carpentry, stonework, painting, tapestry, stained glass... Like the Louvre, the building itself was part of the experience - its own work of art.
There are many who watched the news for whom a visit was likely on their bucket list, and felt the chill reality that they will never get to see it as it truly was. Yes it can be restored, but it will never be the same.
For those of us lucky to have walked beneath the saints and explored the nooks and nave, there is a profound sadness knowing that the beauty and artifice have been forever changed. Raine and I visited it 3 years ago (nearly to the day), and will always have those memories.
In past visits I have had the experience of climbing the stairs in the bell towers and seeing the gargoyles very close, and looking out over the Seine and the City of Lights, and knowing why it was long the center of the human universe.
I have another memory from 20 years ago, when I was in Paris for work, and it happened to be around Easter. We were out late on the Saturday night before Easter and noticed that Notre Dame was open. We walked in while the church was in the midst of midnight mass. It was an amazing sight, with the massive pipe organ churning out music, the priests assistants swinging huge incense burners which filled the church with a foggy smoke. The priest had a huge palm frond in his hands, and was dipping it in a large bowl of holy water held by another assistant, and then spraying it out over the congregation.
The place was packed, and felt almost like a rock concert. We watched in wonder at the spectacle, but then - not being Catholic - began to feel like interlopers, so we left, leaving a couple of SRO spaces for hopefully a couple for whom the service was more meaningful. I think about that night, knowing that this coming Saturday would have been a repeat of that event, and know it will have to be skipped this year, and probably for several more.
For us tourists, it was a beautiful building in a beautiful city. For Parisians, it was the soul of their hometown. For the faithful, it was a holy place - Our Lady... Notre Dame.