Our Lady is wounded but not broken

John Harrison

It is strange indeed that the fire which gutted Notre Dame Cathedral on the night of the 15th of April can affect one so greatly, whilst one is so far away; sitting in Moscow watching the news. It has moved me in a way that only a major, shocking world event can, perhaps more so, as the absolute insanity of what is going on in the world, particularly over the past few years, has almost completely numbed my ability to be shocked. But there I was, deeply worried when I saw the first images of flames shooting though the cathedral. That worry soon turned into fear and then sorrow.

Perhaps it is because Paris is such a popular destination for many Russians and foreigners living in Russia. Most of us, if not all of us have been to Paris on holidays, to recharge our batteries or just simply to escape the never ending re-creation of Moscow, Russia, Russians and ourselves. Perhaps it is because of the many very close Russian and French culture ties, so deeply reflected in Russian literature and history. Perhaps it is because of the power of that building itself, situated in the very heart of France’s capital and the nucleus of her religion. Perhaps it is a combination of all of these factors and more.

It was heart wrenching to watch as the fire raped the ‘forest’ of 13th century wooden ceiling beams, eventually forcing the collapse of the roof in some parts of the cathedral, whilst the spire gracefully but purposefully fell. Perhaps most touching was to read about the thousands of Parisians who lined the Seine watching, praying and crying, helpless to do anything else. They looked and saw an external representation of their spiritual hearts succumb to the flames. The Catholics amongst them could have perceived all the forces of the devil. This is Holy Week. Millions would have been looking to Notre Dame and the holy relics which the cathedral guards. But there were not only Christians who lined the river last night, thousands and thousands of ‘ordinary’ Parisians looked on, helpless, mesmerised by the force of inevitable destruction which to them may have seemed to be only the worst of many recent attacks on their quiet and dignified civilisation.

It was strangely comforting, not being French, Catholic or even particularly Christian, to hear that the Crown of Thorns, the tunic of Saint Louis and many other works are now safe. However news of the saving of these relics is somehow not enough. Clearly Notre Dame Cathedral occupies a certain central place in the equilibrium in our inner cultural maps of the world. Our Lady is a compass point in what we call western civilisation. I am experiencing cultural disorientation whilst sitting in my flat on the Garden Ring. It will pass, how strange.

All is not lost, as we read (Tuesday) that the fire did not destroy the two main towers, the great bells that Quasimodo rang are still in place, they did not fall, as they did not in the past, although challenged by insurmountable odds. This time, 400 fire fighters skillfully saved the building from complete destruction. The facades and main stone structures remain, although severely wounded. Our Lady is vulnerable yet tough. It is amazing to hear how pledges for money to finance a massive reconstruction program, destined to last at least decade according to French president Emmanuel Macron are flowing in from all over the world, even as the last of the fires have yet to be put out. There is some strength left yet in that civilisation.

Here are a few photos from a 2006 visit, as a personal tribute to this magnificent building.