On the morning flight from Paris to JFK, I knew I had to put down in words what it did to my heart and my spirit to see Notre-Dame in person. I did not know the words would come spilling out of me when I heard news of the fire two months after that flight. It is with unspeakable relief that I acknowledge not all of the church was reduced to ashes. Even so, it seems right to simply submit these words as they are, having been begun when it seemed everything would be engulfed and lost, and having been finished only after news came that the towers and the façade were saved.
The cathedral is burning.
I am an ocean away, with a bowl of untouched leftover Thai carryout sitting in front of me, and I can hear someone’s dishwasher laboring in the apartment above mine, and the cathedral is burning. Someone said in a news article that nothing would be left. It’s beautiful outside, a flawless April afternoon. It’s nighttime in Paris now. They said nothing would be left.
When I was not even a teenager, I learned that the gargoyles perched all over Notre-Dame were not terrible of face and form to inspire horror of God in the hearts of incoming congregants; I learned they were ghastly so that demons would be daunted, that darkness was to be fought with darkness so light could be preserved inside the church, and the worshipers would be safe. God’s very fragile, very weak and very loved children could not fight shadows off themselves and rest in His presence at the same time—something else would have to do it for us.
It was my first introduction to the upside-down logic of the Gospel—death is life, ugliness can be most beautiful, suffering is inextricably tied to true joy. The gargoyles of Notre-Dame proved pivotal in my perception of reality as I grew, a testament to just how quiet and even misunderstood goodness has to be sometimes in order to run its course without being stopped and stared at, kept from its work. I wanted to see those gargoyles in person, to stand inside the cathedral and crane my neck backward and gaze above me. I have wanted that since I was small.
In many stories that were precious to me during my childhood, Notre-Dame was the setting for major dramatic action. It’s a unique place in which to scaffold a story, because it’s hardly a setting so much as a character of its own. Its heart clangs or hums, empathetic according to the predicaments and emotions riveting the characters. In a Ray Bradbury book I try to read every October, the cathedral is a looming structure on which lonely souls are collected and displayed lest someone should come looking for any one of them on a rescue mission of steadfast love. In some ways, not to be dramatic about it, I am beginning to wonder if my own encounter with the cathedral was part of such a rescue mission, only I was the lonely creature being collected and the steadfast love was already there, awaiting my arrival as if it had been drawing me toward itself all my life.
It had been a bleak autumn and a bleak winter here in Tennessee. Grief was ravaging my friends. Prayers had gone unanswered, perhaps unheard, perhaps uncared for. I could not find whatever light God had supposedly fixed within me, that little radiant thing inside that reminds us we’re born of light, nourished by it, bound to it—I could not find mine.
In an adventurous fit, I had bought a plane ticket to Paris the September before this season began. I am not prone to adventurous fits of international proportions, but I’ve been obsessed with Paris since I was a little girl and had never been abroad before. I suppose I was fed up with waiting around to go. It turned out to be a merciful thing that I had something to look forward to as midwinter passed. At the very least, it seemed a change of scene and a suitcase full of European chocolate would improve my mood for a time. Any disruption to my world was welcome.
God Almighty is with us. He is here, and He is not the weaker for it. Janie Townsend
With a friend and a city map we could barely read, I wandered the city of Paris on an exquisitely blue February day until the cathedral rose before us across the gleaming river. If I thought gazing upon Notre-Dame for the first time was transfixing, shuffling inside was another thing altogether. I stood inside the cathedral and craned my neck backward as I had dreamed of doing for at least half my life. The certainty that the Almighty God is physically near to us while remaining vaster than reality itself pressed down upon me, and I could not have believed we are alone in the universe if I had tried with all my doubtful, bitter might. I could not have believed I was alone. My eyes were guided upward, and somehow I could see His face and sturdy, outstretched arms in the intricacies of design, in the deep quiet of the cavernous vault.
God Almighty is with us, I thought breathlessly as I stood there all but gaping. He is here, and He is not the weaker for it.
It was like the closing of a wound, that realization—after a time of mourning and total inability to keep from wallowing in isolation I could not free myself from without the care of those around me. Like the closing of a wound, being told as if to my face that I had not been alone the entire time.
There’s more I could say about what I experienced, sensed and received in my time within those stone walls, and certainly more I could tell of what it meant to see Notre-Dame with my own eyes after a lifetime of imagining myself beneath its shadow. I am stunned that I was summoned to behold it before it was forever changed by near-devastation, and I am dumbfounded with gratitude that so much is left of it, that I could see videos online of people standing outside in the fire-lit night while they sang hymns for hours and hoped together, regardless of what they believe.
My prayers go out to the people of France and the citizens of Paris, who must have felt as though they were watching someone die. Holy Week has begun soberly for them, and for me as well—and yet, for me, it has begun with thankfulness so deep I don’t know if I can hold it, because God did preserve much of the place where He last surprised me with His nearness.
May we celebrate that nearness this week and for the rest of the Easter season and for the rest of the year. May our lives be marked by remembrance and proclamation of His nearness to us. May our lives be marked by remembrance and proclamation that we are never alone.