Mike texted me this morning and told me that Notre Dame was on fire.
I’ve been working the last week on a hard deadline (you’ll see the big announcement on Wednesday) so I took one moment from what I was doing to pull up a fresh browser window.
I don’t know what I expected. But not that.
My throat did that thing when I’m going to cry. I instantly shut it down.
“No time to feel this”, I said to myself. “Have to finish work. Have to teach. We will feel this tonight.”
Now it’s tonight. I’m safely home. All duties completed. I can sit here with a dark glass of red wine and feel every last bit of this.
Here is my story about Notre Dame.
It was 2005. I had just finished releasing my first album of all time. To celebrate our anniversary, my first husband (because now I’m the person with two ex-husbands. Hair flip.) and I were headed to Europe for a month. England, Germany, Italy, and France. There may have been other places. It’s a blur.
I had never traveled like that before. Not just overseas, but for that long. This was pre – Sit Kitty Sit. I hadn’t learned how to be on the road like that yet – I was uncomfortable most of the time and not having as much fun as I had anticipated.
By the time we got to Paris I was burned out. Cranky. I was irritated with myself that I was seeing all these things I had always wanted to see and I was just – meh. Look – Big Ben. Meh. Look – the German countryside. Meh. Looks like Wisconsin.
You get the idea.
When I headed to Notre Dame that afternoon I had zero expectations. We’d already seen about nine thousand old churches. So many, in fact, that we had created a game of finding John the Baptist in the engravings/stonework/stained glass/ what-have-you at every church we’d been too. (Hint: he’s typically the bro carrying his head under his arm)
The line to get into the sanctuary was too long so we bought our ticket for the tour that went up to the tower and waited in line. I was bored.
The smell is the first thing I remember. When I finally stepped out of the sun and into the tower to start climbing the steps. I still remember that smell. Cold. Maybe damp. And… old? Old in a way that felt unique. That caught me off guard. I remember reaching out to touch the wall and being surprised at how cold it was considering the other side of that stone had had the sun shining on it for most of the day.
The steps were stone. They went up in a spiral. They were slippery and worn down in the middle. From that many feet. For hundreds of years, our human feet acted like water and wore those stones away. I had never seen that before.
Okay – you have my attention.
There were a lot of steps. At one point the tour guide pointed out a tiny room off the stairs. The opening was maybe half the height of a regular door. You had to bend in half to walk in or squat down and scuttle. I recall the guide saying something about that room being mentioned in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. I hadn’t read the original book though, so that didn’t resonate with me. The room did though. No real explanation for it being where it was, or any obvious use for it.
I don’t really remember reaching the top of the stairs. I vaguely remember the single-file walking space to get out on the balcony in front of the tower. I remember lingering there with my hands on the barrier looking down on the courtyard I had previously been standing in. The sun was behind us at this point so I was in the shade. There was a nice breeze. The view was pretty.
The man next to me moved along to investigate something else so I was able to scoot over and be dead center on the balcony. I was in no rush to move from here. I was intrigued, but still overwhelmingly “meh”. I remember so acutely the conversation I was having inside my head:
“Kathryn Ann, for God’s sake. You are standing on the front of Notre Fucking Dame. Above the most famous piece of stained glass on the planet. You are in Paris. Paris, France! Look at this view. Feel the breeze. Smell the smells. Snap out of it. SNAP OUT OF IT. “
I couldn’t snap out of it. I remember sighing in frustration at myself.
There was a docent who was basically camped out up there. She was relatively petite and sitting in a metal folding chair that was behind me to my left in a spot that was as out of the way as possible. I noticed her out of the corner of my eye as she checked her watch and then stood up and ducked through a door behind her chair. Literally ducked. I remember thinking “Are all the doors in this place so small? Why?”
That’s when the whirring started.
It startled me – and everyone around me too. We all collectively froze giving each other the “what the hell” look that transcends language barriers.
The bells started ringing.
I don’t remember if it started with one bell and then the others joined in.
I don’t remember if there was a specific melody.
It wasn’t deafening – it was liquifying. My physical body became part of everything around me. The stone. The air. The sound passed through all of us and out further…further…further.
It was so loud that I flung my arms over my head and yelled “SANCTUARY”. It didn’t matter because no one could hear me. I couldn’t even hear me. Tears filled my eyes. For the only time in my life, the hair on my arms stood straight up.
Little kids and most of the adults clamped their hands over their ears in what looked like mime-laughing. Everything around us vibrated. Birds burst out of the trees across the park. The people in the courtyard below turned their faces collectively up at the towers. A beautiful shift in color.
It went on for so long that my breathing returned to normal and the chill that ran through my body settled – and the bells were still ringing. Bit by bit they slowed and stopped. I felt… clean. Fresh. Awake. Different. I remember wondering if I had just been baptized by something far more mystical than I ever imagined.
I vaguely remember looking at the gargoyles. Going inside part of the tower to look at some of the bells on display. I remember getting the gist of a conversation in French between another visitor and the docent – she went inside because she had some protective headphones back there.
Then we went back down to ground level and into the actual sanctuary of the church.
I’m going to preface this next bit by telling you that I grew up in The Church. There are at least three Lutheran pastors in my family I can think of at the moment and a handful more that hold other professional-level jobs in the Church. I was fully immersed from infant on.
But I never really “got it”. There were times here and there that I thought I felt a minute spark of the wonder and amazement that I saw other people experience. There were parts that I enjoyed – but mostly I went through the actions not really connecting to most of it. I never understood how people could be as “in” to God as they were. I just didn’t feel it.
And then I stood in the sanctuary of Notre Dame.
It was beautiful – but that wasn’t it. And it was architecturally impressive – but that wasn’t it either. And it wasn’t the partial light through the stained glass. And it wasn’t the prayer candles flickering away. And it wasn’t the lingering smell of incense from earlier services. All those things alone would have been lovely and soothing, but none of those things made a real impression on me.
I felt it from the second I walked in there. I walked past the small groups of gawking tourists to a place further back where it was quiet. I stood there. I looked up to the ceiling. I felt small and huge. I felt in awe and at home. I felt heard. I felt truly HEARD.
For the first time in my life – I was in the presence of God.
I’m not even going to lie. The first thing I said to God (quietly in my head) was “Holy shit. Is THIS where you’ve been the whole time?” And God answered with a chuckle: “Can you blame me?”
Nope. I sure can’t.
So I’m here to tell you if you ever felt like you were reaching out to God and God wasn’t there, or you felt like you got God’s answering machine, there’s a really good chance that’s because God was at Notre Dame.
God and I talked about a lot of things that afternoon. I’m not going to bore you with the details. It was good. There were tears. It started the long term relationship we still have today. When I feel out of my depth or overwhelmed, the “happy place” I still go to in my head is chatting with God inside Notre Dame.
I snapped out of it. Finally. For the rest of the trip, I stopped being meh. I think for the rest of my life I mostly stopped being meh. While I’ll never be religious (until I start my own cult) I have always been a very spiritual person. I absolutely believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that The Universe (aka ‘God’) messed with my schedule enough that day to get me up on that tower at the right time that day to Wake Me Up. I believe that every other person up there was there for a reason that was unique to them as well. Even the people those bells had no effect on whatsoever.
There is a reason that Notre Dame is so beloved by so many people across the world. The history and beauty are only part of it. There is real magic there. I was only there for one afternoon and it changed my life. I cannot even imagine what the people of Paris and all of France are feeling now. I mean, I’m crying all the way over here in California and I’m just a moron with feelings. I’m nobody.
Dear France, I have no right to say anything to you – but I’m so fucking sorry. I’m so. So. So. Sorry. I will cry with you. If you need volunteers when it’s time to rebuild I’m there in a heartbeat.
To me – Notre Dame is a place. Not a building – a place. It’s the energy. The history. The prayers. The people. You don’t have to believe in God or religion or anything to feel how special it is there. Notre Dame the building may have burned today – which is an overwhelming tragedy – but nothing can truly touch Notre Dame. Not hammers or earthquakes. Not wars. Not storms or floods. Not even fire.
All my love and gratitude,