The first time I heard of Notre Dame, was in high school Art History class. We studied the cathedral as an example of Gothic architecture and we memorized terminology and floor-plans. We learned of cross-vaults and flying buttresses. But there was something else: The light in our teacher’s eyes. The awe in her voice as she described centuries of craftsmanship. Her gravitas as she tried to open our self-absorbed teenage eyes to the existence of something so much bigger, and grander, and more significant than anything we would have encountered at that age. Learning about this building ignited my imagination. The thought that places like those were not just for movies or books, but actually existed, launched grand dreams within me.
The first time I visited Notre Dame was on a cold, rainy December morning in 2014. Like almost every other tourist in Paris that day, we were desperate to get out of the freezing drizzle. With scarcely enough time to glimpse at the apostles guarding the entrances, I was carried into the cathedral along with a wave of other people. It was not at all the kind of visit I had imagined. The side-aisles were crammed with moving bodies, silently shuffling along in a dim gloom. Nervous to keep my young children in sight, and pick-pockets at bay (the carnal amid the sublime), I could only sneak quick peeks, or quietly point my children’s attention to the rose windows.
Just before the throng carried me out the doors, I stepped between the rows of pews. My husband, who instinctively understood the gravity that moment held for me, took the kids and whispered, “We’ll meet you outside.” For a brief second, I allowed my gaze to travel up the tapering columns, letting them fulfill their purpose. They drew my eyes, and my heart, past the crisscross vaults and decorative ceiling, heavenward. For perhaps two deep breaths, I beheld the worship offered by craftsmen centuries ago. And added my own. For a breath or two more, this travel-weary sojourner found peace.
The next time I saw Notre Dame, was on a bright blue, summer morning in August 2017. Once again, we were making the most of a long layover, exploring the parts of Paris we hadn’t visited the first time around. Notre Dame was not on our itinerary, as we had seen it the previous time, but we happened to walk past it on our way to catch our water-taxi on the Seine. I asked my family to slow down, to spend some time taking in all we missed that rainy December day. We talked about flying buttresses and structure. I admired tarnished bronze kings who climbed towards the tall spire and the delicate lace that trimmed the roof line. The Lady shimmered pure and white in the early morning sunshine, showing off amid vivid green and white gardens.
All throughout that morning in Paris, as we traveled along the Seine, or walked Paris’ streets, Notre Dame spires and towers were comforting beacons. She was a guide to navigate our way back home.
I wonder, in all the centuries you have graced the earth with your beauty, how many dreamers did you inspire? To how many travel-worn pilgrims did you provide sanctuary? How many lost and lonely did you lead back Home?
This often-lost traveler and dreamer thank you.
‘Till we see you again,