I’ve been processing the near destruction of Notre-Dame. This is a difficult thing to do, for a few reasons.
The first and not the least: I stood in front of the cathedral and wandered its archways almost exactly a month ago. To wake up to the news that it was burning was rattling.
I’m not Catholic, and I’m also not Parisian, so I don’t want to compare my feelings to anyone that I feel would be more directly affected by this event. But I want to explain why I’m struggling with the news, even if only to myself.
This event is a stark reminder that history and its events are living, breathing, and ever-changing. Too often, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that history exists only in a textbook, detached from the day-to-day we live. Notre-Dame is 850 years old. It has seen so much history. It’s survived near destruction before, with political unrest and the French revolution, and survived WWI and WWII nearly unscathed.
And yet, it is a physical, fragile thing. In a matter of moments, we almost lost it. In a matter of moments, first responders managed to save a magnificent, iconic monument to not only religion but to the city of Paris.
Now, this is where I lose people. This is an empath thing, so if you’re one of those, you’ll understand this next part. For those who don’t have this particular idiosyncrasy, I’ll do my best to explain:
When I stood in front of that building, and inside that building, I didn’t see only an architectural wonder. I didn’t only see a physical monument to faith. I saw the hands that built the place over the course of two centuries. I felt the high emotions of the people searching for faith, the people that wanted to ransack the place during the revolution, the love, the awe, and the pain the place has inspired over the centuries. I saw not the stone and the stained glass, but the heartbeat thrumming below the surface. Those walls and floors and windows are alive with the souls that have experienced them.*
I cried when I saw the news. But not because a building burned. The weight I feel over this is a metaphysical, spiritual one. It’s heavy. Watching the dense smoke billow out over the city of Paris, I cried for the ages-old emotions—hope, despair, love, fear, faith, awe, pleas to a heavenly power—that were being tossed to the wind. The raw, unfiltered humanity that brought the monument into existence was being released into thin air. It hit me like a shockwave all the way across the world. No amount of assurance that relics were saved is going to change that feeling.
I am glad for the history that was able to be saved. I am in awe at the physics that still keep the stone arches standing. I am amazed at the vision of the people that brought the monument into being 850 years ago. I am so grateful I got to see it mere weeks before this happened.
But I am still heavy. I am still heartbroken. I will still cry. Because we didn’t just lose an old spire, ceiling, and stained glass. No, so much more than that is gone. And I’m so sorry that it is.
*Just a side note on this empath thing: this is not something exclusive to historical monuments. I feel it in ordinary houses, when I walk by lamp posts, specific trees in the forest, etc. The historical places are heavier, but that’s because they’ve seen so much more.