Jim Furlong: In the Ashes of Notre Dame

There is a kind of a funny feeling in writing about the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is so magnificent and I am ordinary. It humbles me. I have been there several times, most recently a few summers ago. More about that particular memory in a moment. 

How did he do this?

The thing that grips me about Notre-Dame, more than the spires or the buttresses or its treasures is the date of construction. It was started in 1160 and finished more than a century later. Imagine a financial and philosophical commitment by a government, a people, a few kings and an emperor (Napoleon was crowned there) to a building erected to the glory of the Virgin Mary. 

“That most glorious church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars.” 

Now the timeline of construction stretches out closer to two centuries and in reality Notre-Dame has always been under construction. For example, its iconic flying buttresses were not part of the original building. Now it stands, and it does still stand, as the finest example of French Gothic architecture. Everyone knows that but; how did he do this? How could workers in 12th century France construct, without great machines, something so big, so detailed, so magnificent? Well one of the answers is … money. The other is commitment. When that happens in a nation you get something like the Notre-Dame de Paris. 

Now my strongest personal memory of Notre-Dame comes from being lost in Paris on a warm afternoon in 2016. Wife Judy and I were on a short three-day guided tour of Paris and had become separated from our guide and group. 

We were having lunch in a little café and, intoxicated by Paris and perhaps wine, stayed too long and missed our friends at a muster point on the Left Bank just across the Seine not far from Notre-Dame. We hadn’t just missed it. We were off by nearly an hour but we knew the group was going to Notre-Dame. How to find them in a crowded cathedral in tourist bloated Paris? 

Deeply felt connection

The answer was technology. We were wearing those tourist radio guide receivers that let us listen to a commentary from a tour host. Across the bridge to the Ile de la Cite we entered the cathedral and turned on the receivers. We started roaming around the crowds listening to the signal of a tour guide getting stronger or weaker. Inside of five minutes Judy found the group. They were familiar faces right in front of the high altar of Notre-Dame. It is the same high altar we see in the pictures of the charred and burned out cathedral today. 

This is a story of continuity. There is a line of time that stretches from Bishop Maurice de Sully and the laying of the Notre-Dame cornerstone in the year 1160 to my wife and I standing lost at the high altar of the same cathedral in 2016. It is a strange and deeply felt connection across the centuries. I can’t explain it but it is real.

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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