When I first walked into the cavernous nave of the Notre Dame Cathedral during Easter Week 1975, I was a senior on a swing through Paris with my high school French club.
We were goofy teenagers, geeked out on the thrill of climbing the Eiffel Tower, seeing the Mona Lisa with our own eyes and trying to sneak wine into the rooms of our hostel when the chaperones weren’t looking.
But on the cloudy afternoon of our trip to Notre Dame, we stepped off the bus and into a time tunnel whisking us back nearly a century.
With the cornerstone laid in 1173, it took roughly 200 years to complete the structure to the form recognized for centuries to follow. On Monday, it took mere hours for fire to destroy key portions of the storied structure.
Parisians gathered along the banks of the Seine to mourn and pray as the world watched on TV, millions rewinding old memory footage of their own visits to one of the world’s greatest houses of God.
I have two reels; the first, as our high school class wandered the broad aisles that Easter season, shoulder-to-shoulder with worshipers from around the world sharing the goal of remembering Christ during the holiest of weeks.
The second is from three years later, when the teacher who made the annual trip with his students fell ill and called to see if I would be part of the chaperone team for the class of 1978. I remembered my own eye-opening, heart-opening experience and told them not to take this visit for granted. We would walk where the faithful of the middle ages had walked, where Napoleon was crowned, where American soldiers celebrated the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
They showed appreciation, and my own appreciation was heightened the second time around.
In four decades, there has not been a third. I’ve had the good fortune of some additional European travel in adult life, with the kids along as they have grown older. I had held out a Paris trip on the horizon as a special occasion, perhaps as our son graduates high school in two years.
Paris is still there. We could still go see it from the top of the Eiffel tower, we could still visit the Mona Lisa. But I don’t know when I will be able to show them the images that burned onto my memory forty-plus years ago: the majesty of the stained glass, the ethereal echo of the choir, the work of countless artists who crafted what they expected to be permanent tributes to God, Jesus, Mary, the apostles and the saints.
The Notre Dame fire reminds us that nothing of this world is permanent. It can all be swept away in a single event. Our own lives can be as fleeting and fragile, and we unite in gratitude that none were lost in this tragedy.
Yet from this trauma, we will be reminded of something else: the irrepressible human spirit. It is not just the French and not just Catholics who will offer prayerful support for a rebuilding in the coming years. The world is already taking the opportunity to mix determination and love amid the tears and loss.
As the first photos were released of spotlit firefighters entering the cavernous cathedral for the first time, we saw that while the exterior had been ravaged, much of the interior has been spared, including a bright cross that reflected the bright light from its place atop the altar.
Of course this is a profound loss. Of course it hurts. But it also serves to remind us that the elements of this life are temporary, even the churches we build and the crosses we install inside.
What they represent is eternal. The rebuilding of Notre Dame will be a testament to our grasp of that, and a sign that no fire can burn away the resolve of the faithful.