Off and on ever since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers, I have often imagined many possible targets for terrorists. I have imagined the destruction of the Metropolitan Museum, for instance, and everything in it. I have also, over the years since 9/11, wondered which building in the world would represent the greatest loss to humanity. I mentally ran through all the candidates—Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, the Pantheon, Hagia Sophia—but I would always return in my mind to Notre-Dame de Paris as the building that would be the greatest loss to the world. I have specifically wondered what precautions were being taken to protect it.
I am truly thankful that it was not destroyed by a terrorist attack, but I am nevertheless inconsolable. The depth of my emotional attachment to Notre-Dame—it has drawn me back into its heart over and over during my life—has overwhelmed me. I have been literally sobbing off and on all day. I have nothing but pain in my heart. Grief for this building is different from mourning for a human being because it was the beating heart of Paris, a city whose allure has been unique for peoples around the globe. It angered me to hear the annoying, glib newscasters on television say repeatedly that it was “important to Catholics”…how extraordinarily stupid. Notre-Dame is important to humanity. The better broadcasters have begun to say that.
When I was about fourteen, I read Notre-Dame de Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo. It made an indelible impression on me and I avidly reread it more than once. Much later, I learned that it was this book, more than anything else, which inspired the restoration of the cathedral after the depredations of the Revolution. It is particularly heartrending today to realize that it was restored again only a few years ago.
The interior of the cathedral, while beautiful and soaring with three great rose windows, was not really the secret of its magic. It was the location. Its setting at the ancient heart of this uniquely lovely city, on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, is what made it such an extraordinary sight, one which has never ceased to mesmerize visitors from everywhere on the globe. Of the world’s cities, Athens and Rome are more ancient, and they have enduring power because of their place at the head of Western civilization, but Paris has beguiled the people of the world as no other. Its romance has never faded. The Seine, and the bridges over the Seine crossing the Île, have carried the life of the city since the early Middle Ages, and the great cathedral looming over it all has been its soul. That in itself is remarkable, since Paris has long since become a secular city, but the indistinguishable longing of the human heart for transcendent beauty has persisted and attached itself to the emblematic view of the flying buttresses on the eastern end of the building, seen from the river and the
Île St Louis. It is that view, even more than that of the western façade, that conveys the singular combination of power and mass with floating delicacy that made it unique. My mother thought of Notre-Dame as a woman: Our Lady. I always thought of her as a mighty ship, afloat on her secure island, receiving the world into her wake and embrace. Of all the views I have cherished in my life, it is that view that meant the most to me.
The Guardian of Britain writes today: “
It feels as though the very heart of France and the soul of Europe have been suddenly and viciously ripped out.” Even as the fire continues to burn today, people had already begun to talk of Europe again, the idea of Europe, and the fact of Christianity at the center of what “Europe” once meant when it dreamed of being its best instead of its worst.