I am watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn on television from my living room in Toronto. I want to look away but I cannot. I have watched the spire collapse. I now see the glow from inside the church. It is bright orange. Now I realize it is Holy Week. And I think I hear the commentator say the historic church will be gone forever. It is too awful.
Tens of thousands of people around the globe are now thinking of their own visits to Notre Dame. Millions since it was built in 1163 went to their graves with their own stories of being inside its hallowed walls.
I have visited many churches in Europe but perhaps outside of St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame holds the most meaning.
My wife and I went to Paris in September 2006 to celebrate our 10th anniversary. There was no profound plan: Eat good food, absorb the gorgeous architecture and see the sites. Everyone should see Paris.
We stayed near the Jardin du Luxembourg. We could see rooftops from our room. The view was postcard-worthy. There was an amazing restaurant around the corner. The gardens were a dream. We bought wine for the room and cheeses and bread.
We walked for miles and miles. Eventually we made our way to Notre Dame, as most tourists do. We climbed the narrow spiral staircase, all 387 steps. I remember talking to a woman who was having a panic attack halfway up the stairs. I used to have terrible panic attacks so I was able to be reassuring. We were rewarded with a spectacular view at the top.
Then we went into the church proper.
Let me say this first. At this point I identified with no religion, though I considered myself spiritual. Religion seemed unnecessary. Jesus never spoke about building giant edifices. I used to think the money could be spent on something better. Churches were about rules. To me, sin was subjective.
In a word, I was clueless.
When we walked into the church, I remember being impressed by the number of people and the silence. It is rare to see large gatherings of people with no sound. I saw others dip their hands in the holy water, and I did the same. I am not sure why I did.
Then I saw something that has stuck with me all these years. The confessional, as I see it in my mind’s eye, was clear glass. I was surprised that I could see into it. There was a beautiful young woman, perfectly dressed, kneeling.
I think the hyperbeauty that struck me about her had something to do with holiness. Here was this woman confessing for anyone to see. Who does that?
At first I felt odd looking, but then it was hard not to look. The scene before me could have been a painting.
For many years I had been attracted to the faith. But I would keep talking myself out of it with what I thought was reason. If you had told me faith was higher than reason, I would have scoffed.
Once we left the church, we went for ice cream and then walked more and more. I did not obsess about what I saw, but it wormed its way into me.
I visited a number of churches over those two weeks. But that interior scene in Notre Dame is what I remember best. There was something about the rawness, the honesty, of someone confessing that I had never seen before.
I knew that she would find relief from her sins. But what about me? Who was I to bring my sins to? To logic? To reason?
By the time I the trip was over, something was stirring in me. I knew for certain that I needed to be baptized and start to live another life, a Christian life — which is what I did, though it took a bit of time.
Thanks be to God for that trip to Notre Dame.
Pray for the people of Paris and France.
Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.