“There are places I’ll remember all my life…” ~ In My Life, The Beatles (Rubber Soul)
When I consider the lyrics of And If Venice Is Sinking by the Spirit of the West, I inevitably think of places like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. “‘Cause beauty’s religion and it’s christened me with wonder.” Not only is Notre Dame the very heart of one of the world’s most beloved cities, but it is also smack dab at the Point Zero mark of that city. There is an octagonal brass plate embedded in the ground just outside the front doors of Notre Dame. It’s marked, “POINT ZERO – DES ROUTES DE FRANCE”. The point from which all places are measured. If the heart is at the centre, then this would be the literal heart of Paris.
When I was in Paris in 2014 for the Left Bank Writers Retreat, I stayed just down the street from the iconic Catholic cathedral… on Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île. I made it a point to walk by–to touch–the cathedral every single day I was in Paris. I discovered that if you go just after sunrise, you can beat the throngs that appear and line up outside its front doors for the remainder of the day. You could have the entire inside of the cathedral virtually to yourself. This is what I did. And it was lovely. I was able to walk through the history housed in the massive cathedral at my own pace and marvel at the myriad of relics found under it impressive roof. And instead of feeling ill at ease by all the watching eyes of the gargoyles looking down from above, I felt protected. They were patrolling the heart of Paris, keeping everything in their arrondissement safe. And who was I to question that? They had been looking down on Paris for 750 years, give or take. Those gargoyles? They are my saints. They are enough religion for me.
Our Lady of Paris suffered another setback yesterday, but she will rise again. She always does. She has, after all, survived even the French Revolution.
Inside Notre-Dame, I found a model of Notre-Dame. I hope they removed it before the most recent restoration project began.
In 1831 Victor Hugo featured Our Lady in his famous literary masterpiece The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. This is how I fell in love with the cathedral. I found her in a book.
The preface of Hugo’s book explains how graffiti was its catalyst…one word–ANArKH–engraved by hand into the wall in Notre Dame. That always shook me. It stayed with me…the spark that created a masterpiece. I could visualize that becoming, that blossoming, that eruption of creativity. It’s how ideas come to writers. It’s remarkable that we get a glimpse into this secret insight in the preface of Hugo’s book. It, in itself, is a gift. Anyway, the end of the preface is as follows:
“The man who wrote that word upon the wall disappeared from the midst of the generations of man many centuries ago; the word, in its turn, has been effaced from the wall of the church; the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth. It is upon this word that this book is founded. March, 1831.”
Being a character in a novel has its perks. For Notre-Dame, the biggest perk became renewed interest and, ultimately, a restoration—which saw the addition of the iconic spire that toppled yesterday in a fire. That spire took many hearts with it when it fell into the flames. But don’t lose hope. Vive la France, Vive Paris, Vive Notre Dame. She will rise again. It may take some time, but she will do it. She sits inside the literal heart of a great nation and she is that great nation’s heart. They won’t let her die.