The Spirit of Notre Dame Is Alive!

Napoleon’s coronation as “Emperor of the French,” was a sacred ceremony held in the great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in the presence of Pope Pius VII on December 2, 1804

Watching the live news coverage of the devastating fire in Paris on April 15th at the Cathedral of Notre Dame brought tears to my eyes, and as I wept with the rest of the world, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience in that city as a young man, which included a particularly poignant memory of attending a Catholic Mass there at the heart of the city. During my very first visit to Paris in the autumn of 1976, I had the opportunity to walk freely about on the streets and, like many first time visitors, I fell in love almost immediately with the beauty and history that is everywhere in Paris. Standing in front of the great Cathedral, I was awestruck and set up my camera on a tripod to capture the moment:

As a young American soldier stationed in Europe, I had accumulated enough time as a ranking NCO to be permitted to have a job in my off-duty hours, and I chose to work in the recreation center as a clerk. Before long, I was assisting clients with travel plans and made a few contacts with the tour agency that was under contract to provide tours for American soldiers and their families. They eventually hired me as a tour guide and I really looked the part:

One of my first assignments as a tour guide brought me to a hotel in the heart of the cosmopolitan capital of France. I could see the spires and towers of Notre Dame from my hotel window:

During my visit, I decided to attend Mass, and afterwards, on the steps outside the church, a group of Frenchmen in hunting attire, serenaded the parishioners with an impromptu concert. It was clear that the well-dressed man at the top of the stairs had made a request, and after the performance, I snapped a quick photo of the crowd’s reactions:

Shortly before departing Paris to return home, I lost my wallet and my military identification card, which required me to get a police report of the loss in order to travel back across the border into Germany. The local police station was unable to provide the document, and I had to be transferred to the Police Nationale headquarters in the center of the city. At the time, I was fluent in German, and they found one of the officers who could translate from the German into French, and it gave them quite a giggle to file the report for an American speaking German:

The night before I was to depart, I took a walk from my hotel to see Paris at night, and dug up these two images from a spectacular fall evening on the streets:

The news from Paris this week wasn’t all bad. Many of the worst outcomes that MIGHT have occurred seemed to be mitigated by the reports of the mostly intact structure of the Cathedral remaining, as well as this news item about a heroic effort by the firefighters who worked a minor miracle themselves which appeared on the internet:

Merci, Père Fournier! Dieu vous bénisse!

The chaplain to the Parisian fire brigade has been hailed as a hero after it was revealed he led efforts to save the priceless holy relics and art stored inside Notre-Dame Cathedral. The story of Father Jean-Marc Fournier was reported by Christian journalist of French Catholic Television station KTOTV, who revealed the chaplain went into the burning cathedral to retrieve relics and art before they could be damaged by fire and falling debris. Reports state the priest formed a human chain to carry the items away from danger.

–excerpt from a blog entry posted in “Fr. Z KUDOS,” and tagged Notre-Dame de Paris.

While we all feel the loss of much of the historical and spiritual values represented in the fire-ravaged damage, the human spirit and the spirit of the people of France still shines through.

Vive La France!

4 thoughts on “The Spirit of Notre Dame Is Alive!

  1. Of all your postings, John, this one strikes me as one of the best. Your personal observations and adventures, along with the photos you shared, made me feel as if I were right there with you, in Paris. It is a delight to discover you had the opportunity to meet Paris’s finest, and how well you were treated, and even welcomed, by them. There is so much to admire about you, and I do. Thank you for this touching and revelatory posting.

    1. Jaff,

      You are very gracious in your evaluation of my posting, and it seems clear that my earnest desire to share my experience succeeded in some important ways. It was important to me personally to explain how my connection to the Cathedral was more than just the concern of loss for the people of France, and to share what I felt for certain many other people all over the world were feeling in the same way. This was personal for me, just as I’m sure it was for millions of others who had the benefit of having experienced Notre Dame.

      Many of my experiences as a younger man, particularly those which took place in Europe, altered my view not only of the world beyond America, but of life itself. The challenge for me has been to express the extraordinary nature of my experiences in a way that can be appreciated by those who have not had such events in their own lives. The subjective experience of human consciousness has elements and characteristics, which in spite of frequently being deeply personal in nature, reflect a degree and quality that may be described as being shared in the sense that all sentient humans can understand. Your suggestion that my descriptions made you feel “as if I were right there with you,” indicates this unambiguously. Everyone who has enjoyed the privilege of walking through Notre Dame Cathedral brought something different to the experience, and some may not have been so clearly impressed in the same way that I was during my visit, but it seems likely to me that many others shared something similar to what I felt in that place, and the human spirit within ME, was disturbed profoundly as I witnessed the creeping destruction of that sacred place in a way that cried out for expression.

      I’m working on a follow-up posting about these events and hope to continue to illuminate the deeper connections to the human spirit in my future postings.

  2. John, I loved your post. I also visited the Cathedral with my late husband and our niece.  My niece and I recently shared our fond memories of our visit and how we thought my husband was seeing it from heaven and maybe with a tear in his eyes. He loved his visit to Paris.  Thanks so much for sharing this. Love you…Patrice. 

    1. Patrice,

      Your sentiments are widely shared by all of us, and what a gift it is to have such wonderful memories to reflect on from an amazing time in your life. There can be no doubt but that the destruction of such a sacred and revered space was an event of epic proportions, which have clearly reverberated through the temporal world, and likely disrupted the spiritual realms in ways that we cannot know precisely, but which nonetheless were commensurate with the magnitude of that event.

      Because we know that our loved ones revered and held as sacred such places in this life, it is not that much of a stretch to suppose the same holds true in the next life.

      Perhaps there was some degree of divine intervention that spared the Cathedral from total destruction…or maybe it was just the heroic efforts of the French firefighters, inspired as they were to give there all in defense of that sacred space. We cannot say for certain, but inspiration is a spiritual phenomenon and my money is on a combination of the two.

      Your love is returned to you with equal enthusiasm and I appreciate your comment very much….Johnny

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