A bronze star is embedded in the pavement in front of the medieval cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. It marks the official center point of France. It is the starting point for all distance measurements from Paris.
And it’s more: Notre Dame cathedral is the starting point of much of Western culture.
Its construction began within a couple decades of the death of Peter Abelard, who established Paris as the center of European learning, at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris – “Our Lady of Paris.” (The school existed before the medieval structure.)
Construction of the cathedral was underway when St. Thomas Aquinas, a giant in philosophy and theology, was teaching and studying in Paris. Much of the current cathedral would be familiar to him. The cathedral and surrounding university district are and have long been known as the “Latin Quarter” of Paris. Notre Dame is where many of the ideas of the university were formed.
The long and heavy oaken beams that comprised the roof supports were harvested by hand. Those timbers, more than 50 acres’ worth, were cut and shaped a long time ago – before the first stories of Robin Hood were told.
This entire newspaper could be filled with a mere outline of the notable events that have taken place at Notre-Dame de Paris.
A week ago that ancient roof caught fire. Television reporters talked of the “massive” fire (even though fire is a reaction and has no mass) at the “iconic” structure (even though icons are pictures within a church, not the church itself). Their all-too-typical resorts to cliché were probably due more to ignorance than to malice.
Those who love the Church and those who love the history of Western civilization watched in anguish. Late in the evening an aerial photograph showed fire filling the entire cruciform cathedral. The walls might be saved, but the contents were surely all destroyed.
Late that evening I wrote to a young friend, a seminarian: “I just watched thousands of people, thousands of them, outside Notre Dame cathedral. They were singing beautifully. It is after 2 a.m., and they are there, singing. Many of them are the choirs of the parishes all over Paris and France. The reporter asked one of them, a guy maybe your age, what led to their being there. ‘When we heard about the fire, we went to our church to pray,’ he said. ‘We heard that the firemen maybe couldn't fight the fire, so we came here to pray.’ Which they have been doing, in song, for seven hours now, and they're not going anywhere. And the singing is positively angelic.
“I think that as the smoke clears, we will find some miracles within. I do not think that this would happen without something good and wondrous coming of it.”
The next morning, good and wondrous things were indeed revealed.
The great vault, the ceiling high above, had mostly held. The relics housed in the cathedral – including the Crown of Thorns and the tunic of St. Louis – had been saved, as was the Blessed Sacrament. Amazingly, the relics in the rooster atop the spire that had collapsed into the flames were saved, as was the copper rooster itself – it hadn’t melted.
The many priceless works of art, though smudged by smoke and in some cases soaked, were saved and can be restored. The largest musical instrument in the world, the Great Organ of Notre Dame, with its 8,000 pipes, suffered only a little water damage. The three famous rose windows, among the most meaningful stained-glass windows in the world, were all intact.
Two of the miracles particularly touched me, one in a humble and tearful way and one in a kind of triumphant way.
The first was the discovery of the votive candles.
In the Latin and some other orthodox churches, the faithful may light candles for their particular intentions. These are in banks of candles, row after row of them, some burning, some not. After the fire was out, firefighters found that the votive candles that had been lit were still burning, while those that had not been lit remained undamaged. Imagine that, after the intensity of the fire that had just taken place there.
The second was the altar.
With morning’s light came the pictures, showing the gold cross and the 1725 Pietà statue, “Descent from the Cross,” by French sculptor Nicolas Coustou, both above the high altar. All were intact, the fire having been just another of the many things they have witnessed. Meanwhile, the post-Vatican II altar, at which the priest faces the congregation rather than the crucifix, was surrounded and partially covered by rubble. The focal point of the traditional Church survived the fire. What the Church has become, not as much.
In the modern era – in, I suppose, any era, but especially now – we tend to deny miracles or, as they are more accurately described in scripture, “signs.” But they are around, large and small. Some of us remember Pope Benedict’s resignation in February 2013 and how lightning struck the Vatican hours later. Some of us remember small miracles surrounding events in our own lives, signs that often serve as reassurances. Notre Dame de Paris has now had its own signs.
Much money has been pledged to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris. There is some sort of architectural contest for a design to replace the fallen spire – our tendency being to build monuments to ourselves, something that never crossed the minds of the builders eight centuries ago.
That’s why churches used to be, as Notre Dame is, cross-shaped, but after Vatican II, churches shaped like flying saucers, ice cream cones, plane crashes and such sprouted up. They’re already talking about doing something like that to Our Lady of Paris. Heaven forefend!
Perhaps it is better to pause and consider what was saved from the terrible fire, and whether that declares a choice far above our own fickle fashions. Notre Dame is timeless. It is the center.
“Permit me a memory,” wrote the gentle and brilliant cultural expert Jay Nordlinger last Monday, while the cathedral was in flames. “When I was a freshman in college, I referred to the little plaque on the plaza outside Notre Dame. It marks ‘le centre de Paris,’ I said. My (French) professor responded, ‘De l'univers, mon ami. De l'univers.’”
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.