Why Notre Dame Matters To Me…And Should To Us, Too

Image: Stephanie LeBlanc

I was a teenager the first time I visited Notre Dame de Paris. My father had died suddenly on the tail end of summer, a few weeks earlier, and I was about to start residential school in England.

My mother had booked a short trip to Paris right before my first day of school, long before we had learned the news about my dad. It was too much to think about. Should we? Shouldn’t we? And then, we both agreed that a change of scenery and leaving the geography of our tears would be helpful to us both. So we went.

Our first stop was to the cathedral. I remember that day well. The grandeur of the ancient stone building. The spire, grey clouds behind it. It had been raining. And the gargoyles.”Please let me enter and be safe here,” I remember whispering to the stone faces as I looked up. I was not scared of them. I had cried for many days. The gargoyles looked like how I felt.

Inside the cathedral it was dark and quiet and reverent.

The act of lighting candles that was familiar to the others around us, who easily picked up the wax and began the meditative ritual, was foreign to me. Nevertheless, I took a step forward and my mother helped me light a candle. I was nervous. Would everyone know I was an outsider to this faith? I placed my candle in the little metal holder.

The glow of the flame stayed.

The Rose Windows

Then I walked inside and I saw the rose windows. There was the echo, and there was the silence.

And I understood. The smallness of me. The largesse of the cathedral. The life. And death. And this stone edifice was still here.

No one said anything to me. Nor was anything explained. And yet…it was a language spoken. It is just how it was inside Notre Dame.

I am not a religious person. Yet, these places–the atomic memory of that place–communicated to me.

I write this as someone who has been to and in many places, and I can tell you…that you cannot explain it. You just can’t. And you don’t even need to subscribe to a belief, because I didn’t.

In that moment, it changed me.

It might have happened to you. You might have been exhausted. You might have been disoriented and confused by a place. And yet, it has happened.

Which affirms my belief that the places themselves matter. Humanity and our history leave clues for us to pick up when we are ready.

And that is why Notre Dame should matter to us.