Saturday, May 15, 2021

Magnitude of Loss: Notre Dame Burns

As the news brief flashed across my computer screen for the first time, I got goosebumps. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was burning. I watched in horror as thick, black smoke billowed out of the cathedral and the famous spire--the one that can be seen from almost anywhere in Paris--toppled down. When it landed in the middle of the cathedral--a bright orange cloud shot up into the dusky twilight that was descending on Paris. Where are the firefighters?! I wanted to scream from my desk. Where are the super soaker planes? Wouldn’t they have fire fighters “at the ready” 24-7 to save this place? Where are they?!  But I did not yell. I just sat there until the last few minutes of the free streaming on my computer ran out and then I got up to tell a co-worker.
"Did you hear Notre Dame in Paris is on fire?" I was a bit breathless.
“Oh wow,” she said, “I’ll have to go check that out.” She didn't say it with as much urgency as I thought was warranted. It was almost as though I had told her American Idol just started.

I had to get back to work, but a few hours later in the afternoon, I logged back in to the news. Please God, let the fire be out, I quietly prayed, but as the live feed popped up on my screen I could see it was not over. The ancient cathedral continued to burn. Firefighters ran inside to salvage what they could, while I sat at my desk trying not to cry, wondering why this was affecting me so much. Was it my hormones? I am pre-menopausal. If I were twenty I would have blamed it on “that time of the month.” But then I thought about it. No, it wasn’t my hormones. It was my heart.

About three years ago, I visited Paris for the first time with a group of friends. It was right after the deadly nightclub shooting which scared away a lot of tourists, so we felt like we were the only Americans in town, racing around from our hotel to all the Paris hot-spots. Emotions were still raw for the locals though. Just like the heavily armed guards standing beneath the Eiffel Tower, they would need armor to cover up their vulnerability.  One day, we were in line to get in to the Louvre, when a man in front of us turned around and asked, “Are you Americans?”  We hesitantly said yes, having heard that the Parisians weren’t our biggest fans. He said, “Thank you so much for coming to Paris!” He pronounced Paris the way I had always heard it pronounced in movies--“Pair-Ree.”  He went on to say that he lost his 19 year old daughter in the Paris nightclub shooting and started to get choked up. The line was moving ahead slowly and we presented our tickets, as he told us in broken English that he hopes that people will still come to Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. His love for his city and the pain of his loss were intertwined on his face. He turned away his wet eyes and disappeared, as we all stood inside the Louvre for a minute to process what just happened. I remember tearing up then too, and having to collect myself before we headed to some of the most famous artwork in the world. 

A few days later, after touring the French countryside we found our way in front of Notre Dame. I took a picture and marveled at how small it looked from the outside. It wasn’t actually 'small', but something about the way the stone plaza was configured in front of it, or its proximity to other buildings, or maybe the Seine, made it seem smaller than I had pictured it would be. Inside was a different story. The cathedral towered high above us, our eyes adjusted to the darkness as we looked upwards, mouths open. A hush fell over me well before I realized a mass was in progress. A priest was speaking to a few hundred faithful who were sitting in wooden pews near the middle of the cathedral, and to our left was a tiered metal display of small white flickering candles. We walked over and several of my friends lit candles, placing them carefully on the tiered display. I finally looked around. The ceilings were gorgeous--arched wooden beams (or 'flying buttresses") drew long lines over the top of us toward the glistening stained glass windows on both sides of the church. I took a deep breath. A soothing, but serious voice came over the loud speaker “Shhhhhhh--quiet please.”  This was repeated in several languages. I was already silent--muted by the magnitude of where I was standing. I thought about all the people who had prayed, sung, gotten married, been christened, and been weeped over in this very building. The many who had found solitude and others who had found Christ. As I walked around I marveled at the religious artwork including the glorious “South Rose” stained glass window the cathedral is known for. Voices all around me were hushed. Eyes were darting up and around. People were praying, gazing, whispering, shushing. I walked slowly, taking it all in, aware that I was in one of the most historic and beautiful places in all the world--a truly transcendent place, filled with more than 800 years of art, architecture, music. I was speechless at the power of this magnificent, ancient, house of God which did indeed make God feel closer and yet, unreachable at the same time. I knew I was somewhere that not everyone would get to be and I felt grateful and blessed to be there.
And today, as I watched flames leap from the roof and topple the steeple, I felt even more blessed that I got a chance to be within its walls--walls that are now scarred with ash, soot and debris. And yet somehow, I feel more devastated than blessed. Sure, like Jesus, Notre Dame will rise again. Tourists may stand inside a resurrected Notre Dame several years down the road--with a fire proof roof, emergency sprinklers and firefighter roof access, but they will never again be beneath the organ pipes, church bells and precious portals from hundreds and hundreds of years ago where kings, queens, sinners and saints stood. The flying buttresses burned just in time for Ash Wednesday. I remember singing in Sunday school: “The church is not a building, the church is not the steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people." While that is true, this was no ordinary building. No commonplace steeple. No run-of-the-mill resting place. This was Notre Dame. And the magnitude of that loss, is not lost on me.

-Hope A. Horner
#ParisStrong #notredame 

No comments:

Post a Comment