I am reminded of this story today in light of the devastating fire at my church.
In 2007, I took my daughter, my friend, and my cousin on a weeklong trip to Paris. We rented an atelier in the 6th, we shopped, we ate, we toured museums, and we even bought tickets on a bateau mouche for a nighttime tour of the Seine to see all the important monuments lit up. I had a fabulous time because I adore Paris in a way I have never felt about a place where I lived. I cherish my home town in Michigan, I delight in Chicago, I feel comfortable living in New York, and I am constantly challenged by Madrid, but I adore Paris. It holds my heart.
It was on this trip in 2007 that I finally fell in love with what is arguably the heart of Paris: the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In one of my Columbia University art history seminars, we studied medieval Paris and how this huge building went up. I learned how it replaced earlier churches, how it influenced other buildings, and how it helped to establish “Gothic.” I read Victor Hugo and learned how he felt about the atrocities of the French Revolution mobs that decapitated the sculpted figures of the biblical kings that spread out along the façade, thinking they were depicting the French aristocracy.
But through all this study, learning about all this conflict and chaos, I could not find my way around this building so that it would start to feel like anything but a bus station. To me, it was a tourist trap of the worst kind. I resented standing in line to get in, I hated the way nobody looked up at these wounded and restored sculptures on their way in, and I thought the machines that spat out gold coins with the image of the church were crass and out of place in what should have been a more solemn house of worship.
This particular trip in 2007 was a photo tour, though.
I had a new point-and-shoot camera and I pointed and shot everything that came into my view finder. I thought maybe if I could focus on detail and not the whole experience of Notre Dame, I might find the essence of history that I was missing. So I sat down in front of the building, on one of those stone slabs about 100 feet from the front doors, and I started taking pictures. I zoomed in on faces and objects in a way I hadn’t before, figuring, in the worst case scenario, I might get a nice screensaver out of it. I walked up to the façade and took close ups of the doorways and the small stone sculptures that were so important to the first visitors in the year 1250 and are nearly incomprehensible to most tourists now. And even though I know that most of this sculpted façade dates from the mid-19th century renovation and not the 13th century, I started to make the connection.
Our trip was nearly over when my daughter told me she would volunteer to get up just before dawn with me so I could take pictures of Notre Dame before daylight, when maybe all the tourists would still be in bed. I was really touched. We set an alarm, hailed a cab, and found ourselves standing on the opposite side of the plaza in the dark and, once the cab left, we were completely alone. There were no tourists or school groups. There were no hordes of confused- looking “If this is Tuesday, this must be Paris” bus people. It was just us and the sky was not yet ready for daylight.
We made our way across the empty plaza where we found a middle-aged man in a porter’s uniform, smoking a cigarette just outside the door on the right where most people enter Notre Dame when it is open. We walked up to him and started to make some small talk about the weather and how different everything looked at this hour compared to later in the day. We were just two American tourists and this was his break in the routine that would prepare the Cathedral for the first Mass at 7:00 a.m.
And then he asked us in.
We smiled and he just opened the door and we walked inside. Unlike any other time of day, the Cathedral was empty; cavernous and empty. All the way up the center aisle, there was someone carpet-sweeping the floor around the altar. The lights over the altar were lit, but the rest of the nave was dark. And it was in that instant that a thousand years of history came swirling around us. I felt the thrill of King Louis IX as he approached the altar in 1249, walking barefoot, carrying his latest treasure: the Crown of Thorns. I felt the arrogance of Napoleon in 1804, surrounded by minions and sycophants, as he snatched the emperor’s crown for himself. I suddenly understood why Hugo wanted so desperately to defend this church and why Viollet-le-Duc took such care in saving it. Even though the room was silent, I could hear Gregorian Chant hanging softly in the air above the heads of countless medieval pilgrims.
We walked out into the clear morning air and the porter took our picture sitting in two empty sculpture niches outside. We looked like two American tourists on our way back to the bus, but, in fact, we were two New Yorkers, too stunned to speak, wanting to savor the moment we had spent in this Cathedral all by ourselves, lost in the crowd of history.
We were only inside for a few minutes. It never even occurred to me to take out my camera.
If you would like to read more of my stories, please consider “Prayer Beads on the Train.”
This is an excerpt from that book.