As I write this entry, the afternoon of April 15, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is on fire. The spire collapsed a few hours ago, the roof is collapsing piece by piece as the fire gets closer to the two towers in front. People all over the world are watching updates, and commenting on social media. With each passing minute the situation gets worse, and at the moment news outlets are speculating whether the walls themselves will survive. Many people on Twitter and Facebook are talking about when they visited Notre-Dame. A few have even posted pictures from yesterday, or this morning, in a feeble attempt to show what existed just a few hours ago.
Like so many other people, I spent years telling myself that I would visit Paris “someday.” There was always something more urgent and the years went by with the vague promise hovering like a cloud behind a distant mountain. Yet last year, in January, I went to Paris. Now I am so glad that I put away the procrastination and excuses, imagining what I would be feeling right now if I had not gone.
Notre Dame is on an island, in the Seine River, apparently the first place people settled in the area thousands of years ago. It was easy to defend from attack, I suppose. The Cathedral was begun in the twelfth century, and took hundreds of years to build into the treasure that existed this morning. When I went there, on a Saturday afternoon, the line of tourists was so long that I gave up, promising to return. I did so the next day, when (to my surprise) there was a much shorter line. The bells in the tower were ringing, and when I got through the side door – the main doors were closed, which might always be the case – the inside of the cathedral was dark. The crowd slowly went in a circle, along the edges, as another crowd stood in the middle for Sunday worship. I lit candles for mom and dad, just as I do in every Catholic church that I visit. That might be against the rules, since I am a Protestant, but I don’t think the Lord would mind. As I followed the crowd, people held up their cell phones to record the church service, and priests in green and white robes offered communion to the worshipers who were there for a much more important reason than tourism. Each section of the cathedral had its own small chapel, which is or was really just a curved space with smaller accommodations, plus some dioramas on the history of how the cathedral was built. As I write this, I suppose they are gone.
I left the cathedral, but went back at least once more, maybe twice. There is no admission charge to get into Notre-Dame, unlike Westminster Abbey or Saint Paul’s in London. It may be selfish to think I am lucky to have gone there; it is hard to imagine at this moment when the cathedral will open again – even more so to dread that it may never reopen. It is now 4:36 in the afternoon on the east coast in America, which means it is pitch black in Paris, yet I am sure there are thousands of people still in the streets, watching the glow of flames that are currently destroying one of the greatest pieces of architecture in the world.