Our Love for a Cathedral

I turn 30 next month. I will be spending that occasion in Indonesia, my 40th country. You might think with this country count that I was raised in the oil business or something, but in fact I didn’t leave the United States until I was 16. That first excursion out of the US was a stunner of a trip - ten countries in a month. My father had spent a year in Germany as a kid and wanted to take me to the places he had seen now that I was old enough to appreciate them.

We began and ended this vacation in Paris. The first foreign site I ever experienced was the Eiffel Tower. We saw Napoleon’s massive coffin (overcompensating much?). We went to the Louvre and the Orsay. We explored beautiful, quiet, tree-lined boulevards and neighborhoods. We ate the best food I had ever had (soon to be replaced with the best food in Switzerland, then Italy, then Austria, then Germany. God damn Europe does food well).

And we went to Notre Dame. And it was there, in that building, that I realized that I wanted to see more. That I was going to be a traveler. That I would dedicate my life to seeing the world and to experiencing as much as I could in the short time I was allotted.

I couldn’t believe how amazing the cathedral was. Coming from the US, I had learned about historic sites at school and seen them in movies, but we have nothing like them. In fact, save for the American capitol building, I had not really seen any truly impressive example of architecture before. As far as the cathedral’s age was concerned, I had seen a few Native American structures that had been built around the same time as the great cathedrals, but they hadn’t struck me in the way Notre Dame did. Don’t get me wrong, the pueblos that are strewn across southwestern America are fascinating. But they are interesting due to their age and the fact that they help make the daily lives of those tribes come alive. The buildings themselves are nothing to write home about. Notre Dame was my first truly old structure that was also an eye-popping example of architecture.

And what a building to be a 16 year old American’s first impression of a truly magnificent piece of old architecture. The latticed ceiling, the arched granite, the weathered black and white tiled floor, and, of course, the giant rose stained-glass windows. My god, those windows. I have been head over heels in love with the cathedral from the first second I went inside it. I have since been to god knows how many cathedrals across Europe, and they are all impressive as hell. But none are Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was also, basically, my first religious building, as I was raised in a non-religious household. Sure, I had gone to weddings and funerals in plain American churches, but I had never been inside of a house of worship that had been built to inspire the masses. And inspire it did. One of the days that we were there that trip, we went to a Sunday service. The cathedral remained open during the service, while tourists shuffled along the sides. Dad and I stopped at the southern half of the transept to watch a bit of the service (almost in the exact spot the photo on the right was taken). As I looked at the northern rose window through the haze of incense and listened to the choral vocals echo off of the medieval stone, every hair on my arms stood up. I took the moment in like I never had taken in a moment before, and, frankly, have rarely done since. And in that moment, I questioned my agnosticism. How could something so incredibly beautiful have been built for nothing? I also got chills just thinking about what on Earth a 14th century devout peasant must have felt if 21st century, teenage, agnostic me was having this reaction. It is one of the most powerful moments of my life and has always stuck with me. If you told me that I only had five minutes left to live and I could spend them anywhere, I would, without hesitation, say that I would want to go there. To one last time stand in the southern transept, staring at the rose window through the incense while listening to that beautiful choir echo off of those columns and arches.

I currently live in China and was asleep when it happened. I woke up to several missed calls from both my mom and dad, and texts that didn’t make sense. Their words did. But my brain couldn’t make sense of them. What do you mean Notre Dame had a fire? It’s been there for hundreds of years, it survived many wars, what do you mean it’s been destroyed by a fire in 2019 while I was asleep? (thank god we have since learned that the damage isn’t as bad as initially thought.)

To say that I was devastated is an understatement. I cried on and off all day, and walked around in a daze. It was as though somebody close to me had died. I was going through the motions without really knowing what to do. It might seem silly to mourn so much for a building, but Notre Dame is a lot more than 'just a building'. Today is day two, and the true damage is starting to emerge. It appears as though the rose windows have survived, as has much of the floor and most of the structure. For as upset as I was yesterday, today I feel hopeful that this was merely a blip in the cathedral’s life. It has stood for hundreds of years before we were born, and will still be here after we are gone. It is still awful to have lost the wooden roof (though to be honest, I won’t mourn the loss of the very out-of-place steeple), but it could have been so much worse and yesterday I was so scared that it was. I will miss the building for the next few years, but it will be rebuilt and will be just as beautiful and, given that so much seems to have survived, will still feel at least somewhat historical. In the lifespan of a great cathedral, this will be a mere blip. Now I mostly selfishly mourn for the fact that I will not be able to visit for a long time, and that my parents will probably never get to visit it again.

This is just my story about Notre Dame. Everyone who has visited has their own, and there are over 800 years of stories of people who have loved that cathedral. As the mass outpouring of grief shows us, this building was a lot more than just a pretty mass of granite. It is a symbol of Paris, of France, of western and human culture. The videos of Parisians gathered near the burning building and singing hymns were incredibly poignant, and I am grateful for the existence of smart phones so that the world could see that coming together of humanity to honor art and culture.

With the shock wearing off, many people have begun to make the argument that our collective response to this event is perhaps overblown considering the silence that so many human tragedies are met with. On the one hand, I agree with the premise of the argument. After all, nobody was killed and it was 'just' a building. On the other hand, art and culture is what makes humans human. It is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I used to work in development aid. I currently write about immigrant rights. I am the first person to say that we need to care more about the plights of our fellow humans. But humanity is not a zero-sum game. We can care about humans and culture in the same moment.

As such, any lover of history and preservation must first be incredibly grateful to the Parisian fire fighters. After a section of Windsor Castle burned 20 years ago, a pane of stained-glass was added to the restored windows that depicted the fire fighters. I am sure that Notre Dame will respond with their own form of gratitude to these brave men and women.

In addition to thanking the fire fighters, we all need to be more aware of conservation efforts. As the mass grief over this incident has shown, historical and cultural sites are important. Yet the money required to ensure that beloved sites is not there. It is owned by the state of France (not the Catholic Church, which is a common assumption) and the money simply wasn't there to make the much-needed restorations As this article from 2017 states, "the government owns the cathedral, and the Catholic archdiocese of Paris uses it permanently for free. The priests for years believed the government should pay for repairs, since it owned the building. But under the terms of the government’s agreement, the archdiocese is responsible for Notre Dame’s upkeep, with the Ministry of Culture giving it about €2 million ($2.28 million) a year for that purpose. Staff say that money covers only basic repairs, far short of what is needed....To the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care. “France has thousands of monuments,” says the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media. Among them, Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case. “It will not fall down,” she says."

There is a reason many historical sites have entrance fees, sometimes seemingly steep ones. I will admit with shame that I have not visited sites because I was put off by the fees. But as this loss has shown, it’s not the sites being greedy. How can I, a traveler and history addict, be so selfish as to deny them much needed money. This is not to say that the government is off the hook. I am a liberal, I firmly believe that it is the role of the government to ensure that important national sites are taken care of. Now that I understand the consequences of defunding these sites, I will begin to campaign for changes to the system. But I will also stop complaining about entrance fees. In fact, I will pay the fees and donate a few more dollars to boot. I hope that you will be willing to do the same.