Cathedral Essays

Darkness crept across the landscape outside that Paris Sunday evening, and the great stained glass windows in the cathedral dimmed and faded out. Worship attendants began straightening the altar area, seats were cordoned off; lights switched on, and the soft notes of the organ began to fill the place.

No sounds were heard but the shuffling of a thousand feet across dusty stones, the muffled voices of the curious. The tourists began to drift out, and the worshippers took their places, the seats filled.

Ordinary Parisians went to the cathedral to hear Mass, to light candles during solitary prayer, and to bear witness to baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

In a largely preliterate age, Notre Dame’s sculptures and paintings were sources of religious education. Reims Cathedral in the north of France caught fire during the First World War and the Frauenkirche in Dresden was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Our first visit was in February 1998, and just after we returned to Washington D.

C., I opened a meeting of our church board, which I then chaired, with these reminiscences: Eight days ago, Nichole and I were in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. A very model of Gothic architecture, it is a museum of statues, gargoyles, stained glass windows, exquisitely carved screens, and paintings. Thousands of others milled through the cavernous nave with us, gawking at the shape and soaring spaces of it all.Every time I have visited Notre Dame and looked up at its facade, one thing has struck me: the amount of faith and civic pride needed for so many to work on a project that they’d never see completed in their lifetime.They worked to eat, of course, but for many of the laborers on the site, their real reward was spiritual.Laborers cut and hauled stone to the site, mixed mortar, forged iron, and carved wood.The very island on which Notre Dame sits had to be enlarged to make room for the vast new church by workers who drove piles into the river bed and moved mounds of rubble.Correction: The Frauenkirche destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 was in Dresden, not Munich.Yvonne Seale is an assistant professor of history at SUNY Geneseo, where she teaches courses in medieval and digital history.Right to the present, they’ve provided spiritual comfort to countless people. It took decades of work, but both have been reconstructed. Much of its exterior sculpture was destroyed during the French Revolution, while almost all of its bells were melted down to make cannons. Yet Paris’s cathedral recovered to witness the beatification of national heroine Joan of Arc in 1909, and the celebratory Mass which was sung to celebrate the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944.Monday’s fire was not the first and won’t be the last destructive force to batter Notre Dame.Notre Dame was instead the cathedral of ordinary Parisians.Since the Middle Ages, it’s been the backdrop against which the city’s inhabitants have lived their lives.


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