The devastation of Notre Dame cathedral

It was difficult to explain to my colleagues yesterday why the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was so devastating. There is simply no equivalent in the United States of a building that has such a rich historical, spiritual, artistic, and even geographical significance to an entire nation.

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In both a literal and a figurative sense, Notre Dame cathedral represents the heart of Paris — and of France.

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It has been a touchstone for millions of people in moments of both grief and joy.

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It also has been one of the few constants across centuries of human history: For more than 850 years it has survived invasions, plagues, revolutions, and floods.

So it felt inconceivable yesterday to watch the flames engulf the roof and see the spire collapse into the glowing furnace where only two hours before a priest had been holding mass. I kept thinking it was a nightmare, except that I couldn’t wake up.

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This morning there were glimmers of hope that at least the bones of the ancient structure might be saved.

And the bell towers survived — along with the enormous bourdon Emmanuel, which dates to 1686 and was the only bell at Notre Dame to survive the French Revolution. (Already this morning its Wikipedia entry had been updated: “It was not affected by the fire of April 15, 2019.”)

The new bells that were installed in 2013 seem to be okay as well.

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But so many other questions remain. What of the stained-glass rose windows? One Twitter account says they “exploded.” (Probably untrue.) Another says the upper halves melted. (Sadly, more plausible.)

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And what about the enormous paintings and frescoes in the chapels that surround the ambulatory — and the sculptures, and the priceless hand-carved wood panels?

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We’ll have to be patient in the coming days for more answers to emerge. But for now my profound admiration and gratitude go out to the 400-plus firefighters whose skill and courage prevented a total loss.

Even if only its shell remains, I will return to Notre Dame again and again during my next visit, as I have always.

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… because you don’t have to be Catholic or even French to appreciate the beauty and significance of this monument to hope.

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“Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives … so I solemnly say tonight: We will rebuild it together.” — President Emmanuel Macron

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Update • Posted April 17, 2019: The immense 13th-century rose windows, the Great Organ, and much of Notre Dame’s art have weathered the historic fire. And the rooster  — which contained three important relics — that fell with the spire has also been found among the rubble. My grief has turned into hope that Our Lady will rise once again from the ashes.