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Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame, Paris, rear view. Photo by the author, 2015.Our first and only trip to Paris was in 2015. As is true for most Americans traveling to France, we left on a connection flight from New York to Paris in the late afternoon. With the seven-hour time difference and eight-hour flight time, the flight landed us at DeGaulle Airport the next morning.

Since we arrived at our hotel many hours before check-in time, we left our bags at the front desk, and, having nothing else to do, made our way straight from Place de la République to Notre Dame. (I recommend this, by the way; when you travel to a foreign city, always go to your number one destination as soon as you get there. The longer you stay in a place like Paris, the more things you find to do. You never have more time to linger than before you make plans.)

We crossed Seine river via the St-Louis bridge and approached the famous church from the back. It was a cool and wet summer morning and the sky was a ponderous gray that would later yield to a parfait French bleu. Here I took the very first picture I would take in France, in a little park with a green lawn and pebble walkways behind the Cathedral. The rays of flying buttresses looked like Notre Dame, but not really; approaching the church from the back is like seeing the back of Mount Rushmore before coming round to the front. It only looks like the place because you know what’s on the other side.

One of the things that impresses about Notre Dame, as with many gothic churches, is the detail. The sides of the church, as you walk around it, are a forest of gables, buttresses, minor spires, gargoyles, and sunburst stained glass windows that look dark from the outside. The details from every angle, including in recesses not easily seen from the sidewalk, suggest the craftsmanship not of construction crews paid by the hour, but by artists who were prepared to spend a lifetime on a building for the ages. Every person who worked on Notre Dame in the Middle Ages was in his mind creating something that would last a thousand years, at least. Today, I doubt there are many builders who give a thought to their work lasting even to the end of this lifetime, much less a millennium.

Now days, we think of an 80 year-old building as ancient. When Notre Dame was finished, the foundations were already a century old, and at least two generations of builders, probably more, had expended their lives on it. If how much you get out of a work depends on how much you put into it, the builders of Notre Dame must have put faith and love into every tap of the chisel, because if the building itself was not everlasting, it certainly fooled tourists like us into thinking it was.

The cathedral inside was everything I expected it to be. It was dark, as gothic cathedrals in my experience tend to be. Although we all read in school that flying buttresses create a support network that allows for vast walls with large stained glass windows, the reality is that flying buttresses can only do so much, and stained glass only allows in a limited amount of light. Even in full daylight, the inside of Notre Dame was cool and relatively dim.

The famous Rose Window in the north transept, which I read has survived the fire, was a masterpiece. I knew it from the pages of many Catholic texts I have read though out my life — it, like the Statue of Liberty, is so representative of the beliefs that undergird it that it is often reproduced, without explanation, as part of theological writing. I stood for a long time just to one side of the main altar and basked in its transcendence. Because it is so high up it can be observed from a distance away, which sets it apart from many of Paris’s great works of art (I’m talking about you, Mona Lisa) where one must compete with huge crowds to look at it. At a distance I could linger over it it as long as I wanted to, without interference. There is nothing I am more certain of than that the builders of Notre Dame designed the window precisely for that purpose, so anyone could spend as much time with it as he or she likes, in apprehending silence. Even eight centuries ago, they were thinking of sleep-deprived travelers like me.

Notre Dame, Paris. Photo by the author.The Rose Window’s glass cast red and yellow and blue resplendent shards of light on the marble floor. I don’t know if the builders thought they were creating an earthly imitation of heaven, but if heaven is a peaceful place, this was captured perfectly. Although Notre Dame stands at the center of one of the busiest places on earth, central Paris, it shut the noise of the world out more effectively than any secular building I have been in. Dark, cool, cavernous, silent, with puzzles of colored light in crossing beams from one end to the other, nothing in this world could say God any better.

Notre Dame is one of the most well-documented buildings on earth. It has been photographed and measured from every possible angle. Reconstructing it after the recent devastating fire will not be a problem. It will eventually look the same, feel the same, and possibly even smell the same as the church it once was. And I will be eager to see it again.

I have experience with reconstructed buildings. The Rotunda, the Thomas Jefferson-designed 1822 building that sits in the heart of the University of Virginia, was gutted by fire in 1895. It was completely restored in 1976 to its original specifications, and for the most part looks like its original self. France will do even better with Notre Dame, which I fully expect will be recreated in every detail, and, if you like things like electircity, running water, and sprinker systems, it will in some respects be better when it re-opens than it was the day before the fire.

If you are a materialist, and you believe that atoms are just atoms, that there is no God or transcendent meaning, the new Notre Dame will be the old Notre Dame. If one atom is as good as another, reconstructing it with new materials physically identical to the old will create the same old building. Wood, after all, is just wood, and rock is just rock. Glass is glass. One brick is as good as another. Perfect imitation is perfect re-creation.

If however, you are like me and believe in transcendence, you will believe that the new church will be worthy and beautiful, but not quite the same as the old. The new church will be built by secular carpenters, masons, and architects who are mainly interested in imitating the lost elements of an injured building. They will not be working with the same intent as the original carpenters, masons, and architects who built the cathedral in the thirteenth century. The original workers were not recreating an old idea; they were expressing their faith in God. The question is, can the new building be an expression of belief as well, and if so, what kind of belief?

For me, this is the heart of it: Will the new Notre Dame be the same building or not? This is a question not of exactitude, but of faith.

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