On losing a place

Monday evening in Paris is mid-morning in my West Coast home. It was a chilly first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, and as I wrote and drank coffee beside the fireplace, a message from my daughter in Paris popped up on my screen: this photo.

It was the gut punch felt round the world. The roof of Notre Dame in Paris was disappearing in flames. A second message, from a friend in Bretagne, provided a French TV link, so we watched. And watched.

We grimly viewed feeble water spouts shot from the street; they seemed only to fuel the nightmare. We saw smoke pour through a stained glass window. We witnessed the 19th-century spire’s collapse and an aerial view of Our Lady’s interior engulfed in flames.


I knew the Crown of Thorns was cherished as most valued relic of the treasures inside. I remembered waiting in line one Good Friday to venerate this relic, now encased in an acrylic sheath. I knew it would be on display this Friday for veneration by the faithful and inspection by the curious. The Easter Vigil would be slotted for six days hence, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.—à vingt heures—with the caveat: Would Notre Dame survive?

More than a decade earlier, two of my high school kids and I had spent Holy Week in France, wandering from Paris to Poitiers to Tours and back to Paris—and Notre Dame. I now relived every detail of that week, beginning with Palm Sunday, when church bells across the city rang incessantly from ten in the morning til after noon. We were staying on the rue des Écoles on the Left Bank at the time, a five minute walk to the Seine and Point Zéro, the marker in front of Notre Dame from which all distances in France are measured.


That Palm Sunday we saw families strolling home from mass with their armloads of branches. At home in the U.S., we pinch a couple of scrawny palm leaves between thumb and forefinger as we enter the church on Palm Sunday. At home there are no palm branches. In France the faithful embrace arms full of boxwood boughs to round out lavish white rose and lily bouquets for Easter Sunday’s afternoon feast.

The following weekend we joined the Saturday vigil. Imagining the cathedral would be packed, we arrived an hour early and selected seats halfway back from the altar. The great space was lit only by fading daylight. Each woven chair held a small white candle. A cupped paper fleur-de-lis encircling the candle would capture wax drippings as mass proceeded. (Some would catch on fire, their owners blowing frantically mid-mass to put them out.)

Daylight continued to dim. I stared into the vault, studying ribbed arches, the exquisite, now darkened, candelabra strung along the ambulatory. I imagined the hunchback gazing down from the choir far overhead. The crowd silenced in the blackened space as Cardinal Lustiger, himself a converted Jew, lit the paschal fire, soon blazing alongside the altar, flames leaping, casting wavering shadows and a vista of Notre Dame’s architectural bones.

Gradually, lit from the paschal fire, an unwieldy five-foot Easter baptismal candle flame would spread to each of our tapers until the flickering sanctuary reflected each face radiant with surprised, expectant joy.

The rest is as you might envision. This Feast of Feasts ended with the pipe organ pulling out all stops, dissonant chords echoing off the ancient stones. As we departed, close to midnight that vigil of Easter, the bells of Notre Dame burst forth again, and a group of Nigerians re-lit their candles and sang and danced on the parvis under the bell towers. We stopped along Île St. Louis for un cornet, a cone, of Berthillon sorbet, meandered “home” to our quartier across the Seine, and tucked in feeling filled up, complete. We slept with our windows open to the street sounds and smells of Paris at Easter.

Now we have the same iconic photo images of “our” Notre Dame as in anyone’s personal scrapbook: the cathedral from across the quai from St. Julien-le-Pauvre, or from beyond the flying buttresses to the garden of Pope St. John XXIII, where we would gnaw ham and gruyère baguette sandwiches and drink Orangina.

Yes, we took her for granted. We have lived in her and around her; we have loved her. Now she is lost to the future, even as we tenderly hold her, a piece of our life, our own place, our owned memory.

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