Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Our Lady of Paris

Notre Dame Cathedral -  Paris 2007
photo by author

Our Lady of Paris
by Gregory E. Larson

          Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss.
          Multiple emotions flooded over me yesterday as I stood in front of the television, aghast at the scene unfolding at Notre Dame in Paris. A conflagration of epic proportions was out of control at the heart of the cathedral. Where were the pumps? Where were the standpipes with hoses and nozzles at strategic locations?
          I have no answers.
          My thoughts went back to my teenage years of the 1960s in Western Kansas. My interest in architecture had taken root and I adopted Notre Dame as my personal symbol of Western Civilization. At that time, it seemed to me that the cathedral was the perfect building in the perfect city. The edifice was situated at the east end of the Isle de la Cité and appeared to have naturally grown out of the ground on the banks of the river Seine. Yet it seemed light years away from the sparsely populated plains of Kansas. I vowed to make a visit, and pay homage to Our Lady.
          Forty years later, on a Sunday morning in June, I fought off the jet lag while I stood in the verdant park on the east side of Notre Dame. I could hear strains of the organ playing inside the cathedral during an early mass. Our Lady didn’t disappoint me. She looked more elegant in person than in all the photos I had seen. I walked out of the warm, sunny morning and into the dark interior, and was amazed the public was allowed to walk the perimeter of the sanctuary while the morning mass was underway.
          The next day, I was compelled to take the tour of the exterior, which included a climb up the bell towers and a walk along the parapets. The views of the cathedral and the surrounding city made my heart sing. Far below the gargoyles were cars, motor scooters, busses, tour boats, and sidewalk cafés, all full of tourists and locals moving about on a Monday morning. My pilgrimage was complete. No doubt — this was the heart of Paris and my heart was so close to this symbol of Western Civilization. Our Lady held me in her arms.
          Even on the rooftop, the cathedral was chock full of stone carvings, copper statues, and artistic details. Grotesque and mythic creatures leaned from the edges to ward off the evil spirits. An angel stood at the peak of nave’s gable, blowing a horn of stone.
          Just before climbing the countless steps back to the ground, our tour guide let us inside the top of the south belfry to see the large bell that was a key element in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
          Those memories are significant now that most of what I saw that day is gone.
          Our Lady was more vulnerable than anyone imagined. A tinderbox waiting for a spark. I hope they rebuild her, although it will never be the same.
          Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss.

Author's note: All of the photos shown below are ones that I took during the tour of the bell towers in June 2007.