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Why we wept when Notre Dame burned

Places and buildings retain memories of their own.

Fire Breaks Out At Iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral In Paris
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burns while the Eiffel Tower beams light nearby.
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

My center of gravity in Paris is on the left bank, the corner of Rue Saint-Julien le Pauvre and Rue de la Bûcherie, where Shakespeare and Company — the famous English-language bookstore Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast — is nestled within sight of the Seine.

I’m no Parisian, but I’d like to think I’m no longer merely a tourist. Thanks to work obligations, I’ve spent weeks and months at a time in Paris over the past five or six years, mostly in the summer. Whenever I return, even for a short visit, I go straight to the bookstore, which seems to always be sprouting new nooks and crannies; one year a cafe, one year a room for comics. Last year, it had added a whole room of art and design books, with a velvety couch. There’s a bookstore cat that slinks about the place.

I go back to Shakespeare and Company because it’s comforting, and because it offers me, with my poor French, a language break. But it’s also the starting point for a ritual. First, I buy a book. Then I go across the street to Café Panis, where I order an overpriced and ridiculous cocktail involving a marshmallow that they make for tourists. I sit as close to the front of the cafe as I can, and I sip the cocktail, nibble the marshmallow, and look at the spire and flying buttresses of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris.

When I’ve paid my tab, I cross the bridge over the Seine to the Ile de la Cité, the little island in the middle of the river. It boasts an outdoor market; some cafes and crêpe stalls and glacier carts; government buildings; the breathtaking, light-filled Gothic church of Sainte-Chapelle; and, most prominently, the cathedral.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris at night.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris at night.
T.G. Wilkinson

In front is a plaza, for many years called place du Parvis Notre Dame; controversially renamed for Pope John Paul II in 2006, it is now officially “Parvis Notre Dame – place Jean-Paul-II.” I try to find a spot to perch on a low wall and watch the long, long line of tourists and supplicants waiting to go into the cathedral. It’s free to enter, but you have to wait with everyone else to get in and hope time doesn’t run out before you reach the door. I like to watch people crane their necks upward and gawk into the sun as they try to see the full glory of the cathedral’s front, with its intricate carvings that resemble bone and represent the history of the church — the “cloud of witnesses,” as the Bible puts it.

Notre Dame has existed since 1180, when work began. It was largely completed by 1260, though work continued long after that. The weakening spire was replaced in 1786. Over the centuries, the church survived riots, revolutions, invaders, and occupations. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned and later married there. When Paris was liberated in 1944, the city celebrated a mass at Notre Dame.

Among the precious artworks, jewels, and relics stored inside are, according to tradition, both a purported piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and the actual crown of thorns he wore. They bring out the crown for veneration, but only on the first Friday of the month, and every Friday during Lent, the penitent season before Easter.

It was Lent when the cathedral caught fire, less than one week before Easter. I saw it like a lot of the world did: on Twitter. It did not look real. Smoke billowed from the orange-red flames leaping through the roof. I wondered how a stone church could burn. Because of the traditional shape of a cathedral, it must have looked like a burning cross from the air. I watched the videos of the spire falling. I felt sick.

Gargoyle Trio
Gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre Dame.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Being a lifelong Protestant, I am supposed to be skeptical about relics, but as more videos rolled through my feed, I found myself thinking obsessively about the crown of thorns, which I have never seen, and whether it was safe. I have been inside the cathedral, of course, and in the cool underground crypt, and in the treasury where artwork and relics and silverware are kept. But I’ve never been inside on a crown veneration day.

The cathedral is the heart and memory of the city

The first time I visited Paris, I didn’t even go inside Notre Dame. The line in the plaza was so long that my friends and I opted to walk around in the rose garden behind the cathedral instead. It’s one of the most serene places I’ve been in Paris.

Gently etched into my memory is the feeling of slowly following the paths, talking to a friend about some big life choices I was facing, then sitting down and gazing up at the buttresses, trying to figure out how they worked, feeling tiny next to them. The arches seemed eerie to me, like skeletal ribs, which I suppose is kind of the idea. Following the Apostle Paul, Christians refer to the church — the people, not the building, but I think the metaphor works here — as the “body of Christ,” and I remember thinking that if this was a skeletal stone ribcage, it encased a heart and lungs.

A beating heart is not a bad way to describe what Notre Dame means to many people, and to Paris. It’s the most visited monument in the city. Most anyone who’s been to Paris has at least walked by. Parisians live in its shadow. The nearby chapel Sainte-Chapelle, another truly stunning work of Gothic architecture, is smaller and suffused with stunning, rosy light, and if you go there first, you can really feel the contrast with Notre Dame. Despite its famous rose windows (which were thankfully saved from the flames), the cathedral is much dimmer, the air heavy with centuries of incense and prayers and songs and sorrows. It is the site of beautiful history, and of dark times.

A few years after my first trip, I was teaching in Paris, and my husband and I spent most of the summer there. Two friends were in town after their wedding, and one of them got sick with the flu. So we swooped in and tried to help them make the best of things by taking the healthy friend out for the day. We went to Notre Dame.

What I remember of that day, as the three of us walked around the building, is the hush I felt. We sat in the pews and listened to the building. We found the stands of votives flickering along the side of the building, and we put a few euros in the box and lit some, representing our private prayers.

Votives in Notre-Dame.
Votives lit in Notre Dame in 2015.
T.G. Wilkinson

I remember feeling ghosts in the place. Holy ghosts? Technically, I don’t believe in ghosts. But a place like that defies your doubts, whether you’re doubting what you feel, or dead set against everything the place stands for, God and Jesus and the saints and the crown of thorns and the whole cathedral. Notre Dame doesn’t need you to believe in it to exist; it’s just there. It feels like it always has been, and always will be, world without end, amen.

I am grateful to see that the damage was somewhat contained. It can likely be rebuilt, something that’s happened before. The relics and treasures, the crown, are safe, thanks to the chaplain of the Paris fire brigade. The spire fell, and the roof burned, but Notre Dame still stands. I’ll be in Paris this summer with my mother, who’s never been to Europe, and I will at least be able to gesture at it from the Café Panis, and describe the times I’ve been there before.

Places and buildings, I believe, get heavier and more brooding with the weight of memories, almost as if they retain memories of their own. You can feel that weight most anywhere throughout the world — especially, I suspect, if you’re used to the newness of American buildings. In reality, it’s just wood and stone and dirt. But I prefer not to let literalness get in the way of remembering how small I am, how insignificant in the flow of history and time. People have been baptized and married and buried in the cathedral, and I’ve just stood in line for a while to take a gander and light a votive. I’m not all that important.

Yet the building is important. It is, in a way that’s dwarfed by what it means to the French and to Catholics, important to me. It seems to have collected my memories, all the dozens of times I walked by on my way to somewhere else, or the night I stopped nearby to hear a band of middle-aged Frenchmen playing “Sweet Home Alabama” in its shadow, or the many times I’ve perched on the wall and watched the lines of tourists squint into the sun. Or the nights I sat in warm summer air outside Shakespeare and Company, listening to a visiting author read from their novel, sipping wine out of a paper cup and letting my eye roam over the buttresses and the spire I could see just across the river.

Fire Breaks Out At Iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral In Paris
The Cathedral of Notre Dame burns.
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

I have heard it said that people in relationships “deposit” bits of their memories into their partner, or spouse, or a person they love intimately. We come to rely on others we trust to retain part of our own memories; over time, what we remember is shaped just as much by the other person as by ourselves. So if our “selves” are, in essence, the product of our memories, then when one partner dies, the surviving person loses part of themselves.

That is why, even though there are beautiful old churches all over Paris and France and Europe and the world, the thought of losing a landmark like Notre Dame matters so much to so many. Without doubt, we ought to cry and rage much more than most people do when churches and mosques and synagogues become targets of hate. Some of those buildings are as old as Notre Dame; all are loaded with meaning.

But this is something different, something that just happened because of a mistake. And a senselessly burning landmark brings the sudden realization that everything that seems permanent could go away. It is frightening, in an existential way. It is why some Parisians reportedly wept and gathered to sing near the cathedral, even if they hadn’t set foot in it for years. It is why people around the world, many of whom never actually worshipped there, started recounting their memories of visiting on a class trip, or just walking past the place.

It’s not just that nothing lasts. It’s that when things are lost, part of our memory, both collectively and individually, begins to fade away. There’s a kind of sacred solemnity to that realization, even if you’re not religious. History and memory are bigger than us. And a building like Notre Dame, which has walls and arches and buttresses that contain centuries of history, a work of praise to God and a testament to the outstanding artistry of generations of craftspeople, is where we deposit some part of a shared history, in all of its messiness and failure and glory.

I only recently realized the plaza outside Notre Dame is notable for more than the cathedral and the long lines. On that plaza in front of the church, set unassumingly into the stone, is the French kilometre zero or Paris Point Zero — an octagonal brass plate that marks the point from which all distances in France are measured. People walk over it all the time. But some people spin in a circle atop it in hopes of having a wish granted, or kiss their beloved to mark eternal devotion, or consider it simply a place to mark a new beginning.

That means right outside Notre Dame is the literal, geographic heart of Paris, and above it arches the body of the cathedral, with ribs protecting it, and inside breathe the prayers of centuries of supplicants. Like all monumental achievements, it is bigger than the sum of those who have been part of it. In 1831, Victor Hugo wrote of Notre Dame and other great works of human genius that they are “the deposit left by a whole people; the heaps accumulated by centuries; the residue of successive evaporations of human society.”

“Each individual,” he wrote, “brings his stone.”

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