Notre-Dame de nos jours

Amongst the most misused words in the English language, ‘miracle’ must come pretty high up the list. There are few miracles, but we’ve just seen one. Experienced fire crews and numerous amateur commentators, media pundits etc were all pretty sure that the Notre Dame conflagration would effectively destroy the building,leaving it at best a stone shell. Yet here we are, the morning after:



It could be a lot, lot worse. It is frankly amazing that the stone vaulted ceiling is still mostly there – a tribute to medieval masons and the laws of physics.


However it was caused – and the media did their very best to avoid even hinting at arson – the outpouring of genuine horror and sadness was actually very heartening. Lots of staunchly irreligious people could sense what a loss this could be – and nothing to do with ‘artworks’, ‘treasures’ and all that. Most visitors don’t go near that stuff, they’re there for the building and its implacable spiritual presence.

I spent time working in a Parisian hospital in the 80’s – free accommodation and free food. It is the only place that I’ve worked where I was asked how I wanted my steak done at lunch (it was always rare, whatever I asked for), and everyone had a glass or two of red wine before the afternoon’s work. Great days.

As such I went past Notre Dame frequently, and I often dropped in. It’s a curious mix of taking it for granted whilst ‘routinely marvelling’ at its wondrous features. Not unlike living in Manhattan or the Piazza Barberini, but with that added, yet incalculable supernatural dimension.

Despite the scrum of far eastern tourists snapping away at the back during mass, it is a profoundly spiritual building, as any church should be. The extra bit that the confirmed secularists get right is that it does represent the soul of France. The wider picture that affects all of us who embrace the concept (which is a real thing, whether you admit it or not), is that it is at the heart of Christendom, a word that the modern world tends to loathe. The French liked to style themselves as the ‘eldest daughter of the Church‘ (despite the vindictive behaviour of the French state over many years) and it’s reflected by the numerous comments on Twitter and elsewhere, in claiming that the apocalyptic images of the spire falling at the start of this Holy Week, constitute a message to the citizenry and to the Catholic Church in general. Maybe they do. It certainly felt that way.

The further miracle is the avowed determination to rebuild that was immediately evident. Good for Pinault and  Arnault. The misunderstanding is when people talk about the cathedral being irreplaceable. It’s handy that the shell – and more – is still standing, but if the building is considered in the context of its function and daily activity (not the tourism), then it is indeed replaceable. A vibrant church does not need 800 year old timber beams. That kind of thinking is in many ways unhelpful and a sideshow. To pretend it’s the same as the already ruined Palmyra, or that it’s all about the 800 year old stained glass (as various people that I know have been doing) is entirely missing the point.

I note that Peter Frankopan proposed to his wife in Notre Dame. I also proposed in Paris – in a less iconic setting, I admit. Everyone who has visited the cathedral remembers it in their own way.

La Descente du Saint-Esprit ~Heures d’Étienne Chevalier, by Jean Fouquet, c1450 (now at the Met in NYC)

I was there in Holy Week in 1986, and thought I’d go to confession. Many of the big churches have confessions in different languages. The sign above the confessional, somewhere down the south aisle, indicated that the priest was a typically brainy Jesuit – I think there were 11 or 12 languages offered by the one person. There were two people ahead of me, so I figured that it wouldn’t take terribly long. The first guy went in, half an hour passed. Another 10 minutes, then he came out looking somewhat worn by it. Had he committed murder perhaps? The next lady went in, this would be quicker. Forty minutes later she too virtually staggered out. In I went, with my modest list of offences. I was also given forty minutes of a mixture of soul baring, benign inquisition and almost psychoanalysis. This was nothing like what I was used to. I left the confessional as a cleansed soul and mind, if a little shaken.

I’ve been many times since. A few years ago I was at the first mass on Sunday – walking across the Pont des coeurs in a virtually empty cityscape. Mass was moderately busy and the tourists were few and far between. At the distribution of communion, two eucharistic ministers were assisting the priest, one on each side of the main aisle. A Japanese couple were queueing for communion, but it gradually became evident that they weren’t familiar with the process, and were almost certainly not Catholics. The girl was respectful, but the man attempted to take the host away, then reluctantly ate it as indicated by a plainly furious eucharistic minister. I thought he was going to punch him, he was so righteously angry. And he was right to be so, having been unwittingly dragged into a possible sacrilege. That was the spirit of Charles Martel, and I have to say was entirely appropriate and admirable. That is, I hope,the spirit which will be stirred by the events of the last 24 hours.

Both these vignettes are the real Notre-Dame in my mind. One of the greatest ever loci for focussing on man’s relationship with God. They are variations on themes that have been repeated over the last 800 years, from when the new cathedral was not far from open fields, and visible from tens of miles away across the plains.

The magnificent rivals such as the nearby Eglise Saint-Eustache will stand in perfectly well, while the reconstruction gets done properly. And just maybe some good will come from all this.

Paris in 1615. Notre-Dame dominating, yet no distance from open farmland





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