Notre Dame

I haven’t done much tonight.

I actually decided it was a day to not do much.

The news hit me between classes — classes I teach, not classes I take.

Notre Dame is burning. In Paris.

THE Notre Dame.

I’m grateful for my students who will take things like this in stride — switch from the rigidly assigned homework to watching news in Russian (because it was, after all, a language class) and react to real news and learn while finding out what’s really going on.

Because I really couldn’t take my mind off the images.

Or the worry.

Or the consequences.

It was just the place I grew up in, right? RIGHT?

I didn’t think I cared so much. Not about Paris, or Western art, or so many things I forgot to separate from current policies and politics — and especially politicians.

Notre Dame de Paris isn’t just a feature of the Paris landscape.

It’s not even just a feature of French culture, or European history, or Gothic architecture. Or Western Christianity.

It is a living, tangible link to hundreds of years into the past. It is stone that was touched, molded, formed, placed, by hands that belonged to people who lived over 800 years ago. People who came on pilgrimages to contribute to the building of a great cathedral, a symbol of their faith — not of religion, or Church, or dogma, but of pure, unadulterated faith and love.

As I sat riveted to the news channels, absorbing every tidbit of real news I could find, I started feeling the symbols of history pulling the strings of the day’s events.

The spire — a 19th century construct — went first and went fast.

It was also a part of the building that had gone up last, and gone up fast. It was part of renovations spurred by the success of a novel — albeit as grand as that of Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo — but nevertheless, spurred by a novel, entertainment, not faith.

When the spire fell, and the conflagration illumined the Paris night sky, while uncertainty reigned and the ultimate fate of the original stone structure itself remained uncertain, the people of Paris, gathered as close to the old building as they were allowed, burst into a spontaneous song of prayer to the Lady.

There was no point or meaning to it beyond that — a hymn, of praise and mourning and celebration all at once, and beseeching, too. Not a rational request, or a thoughtful prayer, but a momentous song — of love and feeling.

The news are going to be full, in the days to come, of the blame-game, and fund-raising, and official lamentations.

The truth is, Notre Dame has suffered fires in the past and survived them before. Medieval man lived with the daily danger of fires, because fire was a familiar, dangerous, and deadly companion. Medieval man built with fire in mind.

Tonight, the medieval shell, the stone structure, stands.

The hasty (and however pretty) XIX-th century additions and repairs have crumbled.

Prayers rose above Paris, unbidden and spontaneous, as they may have since the first days Christianity took hold in the city. And the fire couldn’t eat the stone.

However and whatever you believe, tonight was about history — what endures, what has meaning, what unites, and what is just hot wind.

As for me, I felt like I was seeing my childhood burn to ashes.

All gone, nothing to speak for it.

And then… There was hope.

The stones endure.