The Sunday Edition

Notre-Dame de Paris is France's 'symphony in stone' — Michael's essay

Much of the history of France has played out within its great walls and the plaza in front. Its two stone towers, miraculously saved, are as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower or the paintings of Picasso.
A view of the debris inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral this week. (Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters)
Listen3:57

To look into the burnt-out heart of the great building is breath-stopping.

To watch the flames over and over again against the twilit Paris sky is to be plunged into some harsh medieval painting of destruction and despair.

Parisians wept in the streets. Some prayed. The president of France choked up as he tried to reassure his people and the world that it will be rebuilt and within five years.

Because the inferno began on the first day of Holy Week, the most solemn days in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, some questioned the motives of the divine.

It has stood in the same place for eight centuries. It has survived wars and revolutions, invaders and insurgents.

Much of the history of France has been played out within its great stone walls and the plaza in front.

Its two stone towers, miraculously saved, are as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower or the paintings of Picasso.

If the great Gothic cathedral had voice embedded in the stone and buttresses, it would speak to the timeless history and culture of the French people.

A crane works between the two towers at Notre-Dame Cathedral on Thursday, days after a massive fire devastated large parts of the gothic structure. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

I first looked on Notre Dame back in the mid-'60s, when I was living in London.

I wanted to spend a month or so in Paris. I moved into a tiny room in a tiny pension on the Île Saint-Louis. From my small window I could see the rear of Notre-Dame across the Pont Saint-Louis.

To walk into the building for the first time is both gratifying and diminishing. It is more than a church.- Michael Enright

Every morning, over an espresso breakfast, I could stare at and be absorbed by one of the greatest works of humankind.

To walk into the building for the first time is both gratifying and diminishing. It is more than a church. Standing in the place where Napoleon was crowned Emperor is exhilarating.

But that feeling gets pushed aside by the majestic challenge of the actual construction. You feel a bit smaller realizing that thousands of workers took a hundred years to build it.

One of my favourite old movies is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda.

The film is from the novel by Victor Hugo and was published in 1831 when Notre-Dame was in grave disrepair.

He called the cathedral a "vast symphony in stone."

The popularity of the novel stirred renewed interest in the building and started a renovation program that lasted decades.

Fire officers survey a section of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on Tuesday, following a major fire. The fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, causing the church's famous spire to collapse. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

By week's end, hundreds of millions of dollars had poured into France from people around the world.

What was it about a fire in a French church in the middle of a French city that struck such sympathetic nerve endings in ordinary people?

Yes, Notre-Dame belongs to the French. But in an uncontested way, it belongs to the world as a symbol and a challenge.

In a world as crazily unstable as ours, we need symbols — symbols we can see and touch and reach out to.

In the timbered ashes of Notre-Dame, there are the stirrings of hope for the next challenges to build something that will outlast us.- Michael Enright

I think we are hungry for a sense of continuity with the past.

We might be thinking to ourselves, if they can build something like this given what life was like 800 years ago, maybe we can learn once again to do something great.

Easter is the feast of resurrection and renewal. In the timbered ashes of Notre-Dame, there are the stirrings of hope for the next challenges to build something that will outlast us.

Even if it takes another 800 years.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.

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