When I was seventeen years old, I climbed the old, worn, stone stairs in a tower and made a promise to a building.
I don’t make it a practice to speak to buildings. This building was different. Notre Dame de Paris is holy. And I don’t necessarily mean that in the religious sense, although it is that too. The New Testament word for holy is “hagios” and it means set apart, sacred, worthy of veneration, different than the rest. Perhaps it was that hagios that made me take a moment, at the top of the right front tower of Notre Dame, place my hand on the cold stone and whisper “I’m gonna come back, I promise.”
When I was thirty-five years old, I kept a promise to a building.
My Mom and I took a trip to Paris, and we spent Easter at Notre Dame. We arrived early in the morning, it was drizzling and grey, and there wasn’t a huge crowd.
We took part in Easter services and decided to go walk around the neighborhood and have lunch before we came back for an afternoon organ concert at the cathedral. As we turned to leave our seats in the front of the cathedral, we saw that the church had filled up behind us. Walking out of the heavy front door, we were met with a huge crowd, waiting to get into this sacred space.
People. As far as we could see. It was then that I was reminded that this building, this marvel of medieval construction, this landmark, this church, was also a home, a heart of a city, and all of these people wanted to go home for a few moments. People had built this building, to the glory of God, and they took 182 years to do it. Generations of people, knowing they would never see the final product – knowing that their children and their grandchildren would also never see the final product – lifted stone, built a wonder.
Walking in, it’s dark. The building takes you on a spiritual journey. In the beginning, there was darkness. It smells of cold, of stone, of candles. As you walk further into the building, the sky opens up, and there is light – with stained glass windows sending shafts of colors everywhere. As you get closer to the heart of the building, it feels open, and you can’t help but look up, into the heavens.
People did this. Inspired by God, people did this.
Today, when the news broke that Notre Dame was on fire, it felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. I thought of the people. So much is tied to that building. Paris, while not a particularly religious city, loves Notre Dame. Notre Dame is the center of the city – kilometre zero – the space from which all places in Paris are traditionally measured. It is, quite literally, the heart of the city. I thought of the shop owners, who make their livelihoods with Notre Dame through their windows. The historic English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. is practically at the foot of the cathedral.
Thank you all for your concern and messages of support. The bookshop and our team are safe. We share in the heartbreak felt by everyone in Paris, France and around the world. #NotreDame
— Shakespeare&Company (@Shakespeare_Co) April 15, 2019
I thought of a bustling cafe we went to. Cafe le Petit Pont, just down the street from Shakespere and Co. You can look at the cathedral while Paris bustles right beside you.
Notre Dame part en fumée ce soir en même temps que le cœur des parisiens et des français… 🖤#seine #notredame #notredamedeparis #lepetitpont #paris #france #fire #incendie
I thought of all of the people who had visited her. I thought of all of the people who had hoped to visit her someday. I thought of all of the people who had been inspired by her to create art – Hugo, Proust, Matisse, Gilbert. I thought of the people who had built her. I thought of the people who worshiped there.
For all of these people, this building was more than a building. It was special. It was set apart. It was singular. It was holy. Hagios.
Tonight, I am finding myself talking to a building again. Long distance.
Dear Notre Dame, I can’t promise that I’ll be back, but I hope with all of my heart that YOU will.