I first saw Notre-Dame in 1979, and it was the first Gothic cathedral I had ever seen.
Houston, where I lived then, wasn’t known for Gothic architecture. Moscow had only one, quite ugly, late-Gothic church, and even that had been converted to a recording studio. And my interest in Our Lady was at the time purely academic, which is to say tepid at best.
It so happened that in the evening of the same day the magnificent German organist Karl Richter was playing Bach at Notre-Dame, and my interest in both Bach and Richter (whose harpsichord performances I had heard at Moscow Conservatory) was closer to febrile than tepid.
There I sat for three hours, listening to music by the greatest composer played by the greatest organist in the greatest cathedral. That was as close to ecstasy as I had ever come – the combination shook me up, and at first I thought the effect was purely aesthetic. Yet the next day I realised it wasn’t that, at least not just that.
I’ve never had just one mystical, Damascene event that would open my eyes on the spot. Rather my road to Christianity was long and meandering, and it was cumulatively signposted by many experiences. But if I had to single out the most powerful one, that was it.
Since then I’ve visited most of the great cathedrals of Christendom, and a few of them are probably as glorious as Notre-Dame, some perhaps even more so. But none has come close to usurping the special place Notre-Dame claimed in my life.
How many others could tell similar stories? Thousands? Definitely. Millions? Probably. Tens of millions? Possibly.
For Notre-Dame, Our Lady of Paris, has stood, nay towered, for 850 years. It took a hundred years to build, from the mid-twelfth to the mid-thirteenth centuries.
As with all great cathedrals built at the time, some of the funding came from the Church, some from wealthy patrons – and much of it from private worshippers, many of them impoverished, who each donated what he could, if only a small brass coin or two. Most of them weren’t interested in French Gothic architecture. All of them adored Our Lady.
The Lady suffered through the ages, and how she suffered. Modernity was adumbrated by the Huguenots who expressed their urgent need to obliterate – sorry, I mean to reform – Christianity by destroying and vandalising its ancient shrines. Notre-Dame was bruised and vandalised, but it wasn’t destroyed. Our Lady still stood.
In 1793, when modernity was in full swing, and cannibalistic revolutionaries were murdering thousands of people and devastating hundreds of churches, Notre-Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being.
Intoxicated by their love of reason, the ghouls caused untold damage to Notre-Dame. Many of its treasures were vandalised or stolen. The 28 statues of biblical kings were mistaken by those champions of reason for French kings and summarily destroyed. As were all the big statues on the main façade, except that of the Virgin herself.
Those reasonable ghouls took their revenge on Our Lady by replacing her on several altars with the Goddess of Liberty, and then – as a taste of things to come in the Soviet Union – converting the cathedral to a warehouse.
All in all, some 80 per cent of Romanesque and Gothic churches perished during the revolution and the first post-revolution century. But Our Lady still stood.
The twentieth century, specifically in France, saw no pressing need to raze Notre-Dame: it was enough to vulgarise it, to abuse the cathedral’s sacred meaning. Ushering in their much-vaunted laïcité, the French government turned all churches, including Notre-Dame, into its possessions.
But not into their cherished possessions. Starved of funding and bereft of parishioners, hundreds of churches (including some in my neck of the bois) have gone to wrack and ruin.
Notre-Dame too has had its share of neglect. The Republic, in its munificence, has granted the monopoly of religious worship in the cathedral to the archdiocese. What it has never granted beyond a derisory level is funding.
And it takes money to maintain the ancient structure through the centuries. Visitors bring in some income, as do the few remaining communicants. But the government wouldn’t loosen its purse strings. Money is needed for more important things, like importing millions of immigrants, financing the catastrophic unemployment rate and saving ‘the planet’.
Let’s also not forget blowing countless millions on silly projects that seduce large wads of voters. And, in a country where 92 per cent of the population describe themselves as atheist or agnostic (one day someone will explain to me the valid difference between the two), the Catholic vote is trivial – certainly as compared to, say, the Muslim vote.
The archdiocese has managed to keep Our Lady upright thanks to its tireless fundraising all over the world, mostly in the US. But centuries of neglect have taken their toll.
Before now Notre-Dame has had only one major restoration, in the mid-nineteenth century. It was inspired by the popularity of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – not by a sudden religious revelation. (I could never understand what made Hugo so popular, but then there’s no accounting for French tastes.)
Since then nothing, apart from sandblasting the grime off the blackened cathedral and restoring its limestone to its original colour. Still, black or beige, Our Lady stood.
But she tottered. She never had systematic loving care, which she deserves for both her spiritual meaning and her physical beauty. And when a major restoration project finally came, no thanks to the government, she was too frail to withstand it.
I don’t know what caused yesterday’s inferno – I don’t think anyone knows yet. But even assuming that no anti-Christian Herostrates set the cathedral on fire, neglect alone could have made the disaster possible, nay likely. Our Lady still stands, but only just.
Now Manny Macron and Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, are shedding crocodile tears. They promise to spare no expense to rebuild the cathedral, having given none to protect it. Rebuild as what, one wonders.
A mosque? Another KGB centre, like the smaller one close to the Eiffel Tower? A warehouse, for old times’ sake? Or will Notre-Dame still be allowed to attract millions of Nikon-snapping tourists from all over the world?
Our Lady has stood for 850 years, come what may. Those who know how should pray that she will continue to stand in eternity, warding off all ill-wishers. Prayer is all that seems to be left.