Yesterday and today my timelines, newsfeeds, and dashboards have been inundated with photos of Notre Dame. People I would never have guessed traveled to Paris are resurrecting photographs and expressing heartbreak. And my initial, unusually cynical response was to look at these pictures and think “oh great, another person capitalizing on tragedy to show their friends how well-traveled they are”. It was a bitter and frustrating thought, and honestly, it was entirely unfair.
Personally, I looked at the news headlines regarding the fire at Notre Dame and immediately squelched my desire to cry. I texted my husband and expressed my anguish over a tragedy that seems senseless. But I still did not feel that the expressions of grief I saw from others were genuine. Why was that? Why did I care deeply and assume others would not?
I think there was a part of my mind that was clinging to the idea that it was "just a building”. And surely there is validity to that-- thankfully no lives were lost in the fire yesterday, which has kept this tragedy from becoming even more heartbreaking. But I think it was more simple than that it was “just a building”, I think I was angry because I did not know why I was so sad.
Was it because the building was sacred? It was a holy space for some, but not for me. I am an outspoken Christian, but I do not consider myself a member of the Catholic church, and as such did not feel I had the “right” to hurt for the loss of its revered monument. My heart aches for the loss of others, but I am not personally affected by these flames.
Instead, was I upset because it was beautiful? Admittedly, I have a history of romanticizing beautiful things. I take stunning architecture and I immediately convert it to the-physical-embodiment-of-human-ability-and-effort. But people have created art in the past, and I am confident that this masterpiece can be rebuilt via the tenacity of the human spirit. So, no, I am not quite mourning the beauty.
Then I wonder if I am mourning the history? Surely a building constructed for the larger part of a thousand years deserves a bit of my respect and devotion. Again, this loss does hurt me, it seems such a waste of the work of myriad architect, artist, and engineer. However, the acknowledgement of the waste destruction brings does not make the building’s initial construction any less important to me. If anything, I am more thankful for Notre Dame’s existence in viewing its broken pieces.
In a way, I suppose all those things have contributed to the hurt I feel, the hurt others have expressed publicly. But I think it is both more and less significant than all those things.
There are not many places in this world that feel safe. Buildings where you walk in and feel loved, contented, thrilled, enamored, a tumultuous wave of emotion crashing over your shoulders the moment you cross the threshold. Notre Dame, however, had that exact effect. It was a beacon, a symbol of something greater. For me personally, it took my heart that constantly fights to wander and made it feel at home. I kept thinking “this is unbelievable, God is so Good, I can’t believe I get to see this, I was meant to see this”. It sounds dramatic, but a cathedral whose nuances can solicit such strong emotions from its visitors-- it is a dramatic thing, an important thing.
Notre Dame has inspired the words of novelists, has moved the brushes of artists, and has encouraged hurting souls towards a God that can seem intangible. And a part of Notre Dame died yesterday, a tragedy too senseless not to mourn. Maybe tears are the answer, and maybe they are not. But a humbled heart is a natural consequence, a somber spirit an expected side effect.
For my part, I am thankful to have walked into those doors. I am thankful for the existence of a monument that helps me grieve with a people, a nation, that is not my own. May its temporary loss remind us all that nothing is permanent, no matter how precious. And may it compel us to restore, to always rebuild. May we begin again.
A/N: Soon Crusoe World will publish a 3-Day-Itinerary to Paris that I wrote, inspired by the city that absolutely enraptured my heart as an 18-year-old. Notre Dame was a main feature of that guide, and whether it remains in the plan, I sincerely hope you will make this church, however damaged, a priority of your travels. My sappy heart imagines that even in the rubble, the building is a privilege to behold.
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