Only vaguely do I remember my time there. It had been a long, two-week trip. We’d seen a lot of countries, and a lot of churches. Basilicas, they were called, though I didn’t know the difference between that and a cathedral and a regular ol’ church. But we stepped into the French basilica, and I knew it was different.
I traveled in the tour group with my friend, Amanda. She was openly atheist, but seemed to know the rules in a church. She crossed herself with holy water, and yelled at me when I didn’t do the same. (“I don’t do those things!” I’d written in my travel journal.) I knelt with her in the pews (that, at least, seemed acceptable). I didn’t understand these rituals, but she respected a house of God, so I respected her.
I don’t have a lot of photos from Notre-Dame. I was a budding amateur photographer, and many of my vacation photos ended up dark or blurry. But the memory of Amanda kneeling in the pew, and the spiritual quiet of the basilica, is better than any photos.
Tragedy doesn’t hit me right away. When I saw news of the fire, it didn’t register. It was sad, in the way any fire is sad. But as the day progressed there were more and more reports, and photos from every angle. Later, when they began celebrating the saving of relics and stained glass, the severity began to sink in. I finally understood that this ancient, holy basilica had burned, and I mourned.
But in its eight-hundred-year history, this is not its first tragedy. There are countless stories of countless churches that have been demolished, burned, and rebuilt. When I visited Israel, I stood in the ruins of a 4th-century synagogue, which stood upon the foundation of a 1st-century synagogue. We marvel over the most recent (1,800-year-old) structure, but before that, it was something entirely different—something that had come down, for one reason or another, and was reconstructed.
So, yes, our initial reaction is to mourn the loss of beauty, the loss of history. But it hasn’t been lost. This is a part of its history, and we’ll witness its next life. No, it won’t be the same, but things seldom are. Like its reconstruction from the original Gothic into the Renaissance, to its subsequent plunderings and bullet-hole scars from wars, this is merely a passage. And, sometime in the future, it will experience change again.
I won’t forget those moments spent in prayer at Notre-Dame. The old Notre-Dame, now. Perhaps one day I’ll visit again, marvel at its reconstruction, and catch hints of its—and my—old life.