Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre Dame

Not going to lie, when I came home from work late at night, exhausted and stressed, and found that Notre Dame was on fire, I felt inexplicably raw. While I practice Christianity, which people often lump together with Catholicism, I don’t have strong religious ties to Notre Dame. I didn’t have the time or mental energy to sit down that night and parse together why I was feeling the way I was feeling. It was only when I was sitting at a coffee shop the next day, trying to focus on my novel-in-progress, that I realized I had to figure out why I felt ready to cry in public, why I felt frantic to know if Notre Dame was okay, when it seemed like everyone on Facebook was panicking and saying it had burned to the ground.

It is difficult to imagine something that seemed to promise permanence reduced to ash. Notre Dame is centuries old—it has outlived so many generations, it is meant to outlive us all. Now, especially, it feels important to have something to cling to, some symbol of stasis. When you watch that very symbol burning, hot and bright, it shakes something in you, down near your foundations, leaves you feeling a whole lot less grounded, a great deal less safe.

Here’s the thing, though. Notre Dame did burn, but she did not burn to the ground. While the iconic spire did collapse and most, if not all, of the upper roof is gone, the lower part of the roof is still there, minus three holes. The structure itself is sound—the stone the building was built from created a heat shield, which saved the building from a great deal of damage.

Let’s take a look at what was and wasn’t lost. Yes, the rose-colored window is gone. However, it was, itself, a replication of the original, as were many features of Notre Dame. When I read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, back in high school, I won’t lie—I snoozed through most of it. I couldn’t understand why he spent maybe a hundred pages talking about the architecture of Paris, talking, at great length, about Notre Dame. What I couldn’t appreciate, even immersed in the medieval history studies which I loved immensely, was that Hugo didn’t write that book for readers of the future. He meant it for the Parisians who had been letting Notre Dame fall into ruins, who had left it to rot as an eyesore. Were it not for him, the church would have been lost to us a couple centuries ago. If you didn’t believe in the power of literature before, I hope you do now.

The roof itself was constructed of thirteen and nineteenth century wood, which means not all of it was original material. This is the case across the board. The church has been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, like some weird jellyfish life cycle. We don’t see it that way, normally, because our perspective is limited to modern day. Not all of us think in centuries, but there it is. For decades, there has been a plan in place for disasters like this. The trees needed to rebuild the cathedral supports are already ready to be harvested. There is something truly, deeply religious about praying for peace and planning for war—the Bible is filled with that sort of practice. Imagine if all of us lived more like this, enjoying the stasis of the normal, yet ready in case things go south, with seven years of grain stored away for when Egypt is struck by famine. What I’m saying is, there was a disaster plan in place, and the firefighters followed it. The art, the altar, the furniture, so much was saved. And the famous gargoyles? Those weren’t even on the roof at the time of the fire. All sixteen had been removed four days previous in preparation for the restoration work that was already underway.

Nothing has been permanently destroyed here. Had Notre Dame burned to the ground, we have the knowledge to build an exact replica. The parts of her that were lost will be rebuilt faster than ever. And let’s not forget that it was insured, which brings me to my next point. If you’re deeply moved by the sight of a burning church, examine your faith, see the parts where it has been singed over the years, work on rebuilding yourself. If you feel the need to pray, pray for those affected by the fire in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was burning at the same time as Notre Dame. And if you feel the need to donate money, donate to the three churches in Louisiana that burned over a ten day period.

Here’s the thing I want to leave you with, before I retreat back to my reclusive state, as I have taken an impromptu hiatus to recover mentally from an ongoing stalking situation: it can be easy and all too satisfying to give in to despair, to panic before you have all the details. Don’t do that. With the internet, we have a wealth of knowledge at our fingerprints, and the onus is on us to make sure we’re passing along accurate information. So before you write that dramatic post about how Notre Dame burned down and you always wanted to go there and now you’ll never get to, please search out the facts first, to spare yourself—and others—unnecessary pain.


  1. This is such a good read! Your points are well taken.

  2. Well said Liz! Very proud of you! Hugs!

  3. Great post, Liz! I too wept when I saw the Notre Dame burning. When I went to Paris the Notre Dame was my favorite thing that I saw. I held back emotions until I knew the verdict of the travesty and I thank God for letting the Notre Dame and much of its precious artwork still remain with us. The Notre Dame is a huge symbol of faith whether you’re Protestant or Catholic.