After living in Paris for much of 2017, my last week was the one between Christmas and New Year’s. On December 22, I stayed out all night with a couple of new friends and we bar hopped from speakeasy to speakeasy. I meant to post about it here but I never did (maybe I will get around to it one day…).
The idea to visit a bunch of speakeasies in one night came to us after we discovered a shared passion for exploring the city. The challenge to stay out all night was my addition to the plan. I believe that spending 24 hours wide awake in any given city reveals otherwise unknowable things about it and also inspires high-on-life-low-on-sleep euphoria that forever solidifies one’s connection to it.
That’s exactly what happened on that night in Paris. We visited four or five speakeasies between 10pm and 4am. After we decided we had had enough of bars, we made a last-minute change of plans and wandered around until we found a 24-hour brasserie close enough to the Seine to hop out at dawn and watch the sun rise over the river.
The brasserie happened to be just across the bridge from Notre-Dame, and as we walked across the plaza in the first hints of light, I realized that the cathedral would open to the public in just fifteen minutes. Nobody was waiting outside, so after another last-minute change of plans, we were the first to go in when the small entrance within the huge wooden doors opened.
I had passed Notre-Dame many times during my nine months in Paris, but I had only been inside once before, on a family trip to Europe when I was 13 or 14. It was so packed that I could barely see a thing, and I was therefore underwhelmed. This time, the cathedral was nearly empty, very dark, and decorated for Christmas.
The stained glass in the rose windows looked black; it was still too dark outside for the colors to shine through.
Although the light inside came from electricity, there was so little of it that the cathedral resembled how it must have looked when candlelit hundreds of years ago.
The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps falling and snatches of a hymn being sung by choir members near the altar. Maybe they were practicing for the next night’s midnight mass, or maybe they were getting ready for the first mass that morning. I walked through the nave feeling the sacredness of the space, the peacefulness of the moment, and a deep gratefulness for having visited Notre-Dame in such a special way.
Watching the cathedral burn this evening was heartbreaking. Notre-Dame connects millions of people who have been awed by it for over 850 years, and if that chain is broken it would be a tragedy for all of humanity. But it would especially be a tragedy for all those who have not yet visited and felt its power.
That goes for people of all religions or none at all. Notre-Dame belongs to all of us – the “notre” is everyone’s “our,” not just Catholics’. I’m not a religious person, and if I were it would be in the Jewish and not the Catholic faith. Yet cathedrals move me in a way that feels unexplainable, given my lack of belief. Actually, it is entirely explainable. Gothic architecture objectively evokes an emotional response, a sense of wonder and holiness. While cathedrals hold a special purpose and meaning for Catholics, they are special, full stop, for everyone.
In my opinion, Notre-Dame is not among the most beautiful of Paris’s cathedrals, but it is one of the most magical. It has towered majestically over the banks of the Seine since the 1100s, when Paris was in its infancy. Created by humans in a remarkable feat of engineering and ambition, it has witnessed and outlasted countless other human dramas including the Revolution (and all those other counter-revolutions and rebellions I once learned and have since forgotten about) and two World Wars. It was around before the plague! Almost every important figure in French history must have been inside at some point.
It is a beloved fixture of the Paris landscape, at its heart and in its heart. As I said, I’m not religious. I identify as agnostic, and if I had to choose one way or the other, I’d say I don’t believe in God. But in spite of that, I found myself praying this evening. “Please, God, in whatever form you take, let there be some sort of miracle that allows Notre-Dame to escape nearly unscathed. Please let nothing truly irreplaceable be lost. Please let it be possible to rebuild so that people still feel connected to humans who lived a thousand years before them. Please let Notre-Dame continue to survive threats of destruction, just as it has done before, as a testament to the sacredness, ingenuity, resilience and beauty of humanity itself.”
That December morning in Notre-Dame, we only spent a few minutes inside, because we didn’t want to miss the sunrise entirely. I took for granted that the cathedral would always be around, but the dawn would only last a few more minutes. We quietly left the cathedral and walked around to the back of it, where these views awaited us.
My heart aches to think about the view looking back at the people in those buildings tonight.