Emily Robichaud: Notre Dame and why beauty matters

Notre Dame ablaze on April 15

Notre Dame ablaze on April 15

I’ve been reading a lot on social media asking why we should care about the Cathedral of  Notre Dame in Paris considering, for example,  that three black churches burned last week, coral reefs are dying, and the Catholic Church is rich enough to fix the cathedral itself.  (Worth noting-- the French government owns Notre Dame.) Some say that the news media’s focus on the story is further evidence of the West’s superiority complex and our devotion to dead white men.

Undeniably, though, we witnessed a collective emotional outpouring as Notre Dame’s wooden upper structures, including the spire, burned and collapsed. People mourned the vanished oak, which was already hundreds of years old when it was cut for the cathedral in the 12th Century. Some see this mourning as too ignorant of the real needs of the world. But what they miss in this puritanical resistance is that the beauty of such places as Notre Dame can encourage us to love others and the world.

Beautiful places lift us from the drudgery of everyday life -- the laundry, the kids fighting at bath time – and point us toward the divine.  Whether or not you’re a person of faith, Notre Dame bestowed upon most people who crossed her threshold the great gift of feeling that there is something much bigger than themselves.

In my early twenties I lived in Paris and New York City. In both places, I used architectural landmarks as a compass to orient myself.  I looked for the World Trade Center towers when I would exit an unfamiliar subway stop. Once I saw them, I knew if I was pointing north or south. In Paris, I would look for Notre Dame before turning right to walk up the hill of Boulevard St. Michel.

I wish I could say something poetic about the fact that I have now seen both of these places burn within 20 years of one another.

A few weeks before I turned 17, I made my first trip to Paris with my mother and grandmother. I had never been to Europe, never even been out of the U.S. save for a trip to Toronto at the age of five.  

I returned again to Paris at 20. I had cut off much  of my hair and was taking classes for a year at the Sorbonne and living with a French family in the 5th arrondissement. Notre Dame sat at the bottom of Boulevard St. Michel. That fall, there was a strike, whether it was the students or the teachers I can no longer recall, but I do remember that formal classes began scandalously late at the Sorbonne, not until late October. So there was a lot of time to wander the streets.

I considered Notre Dame my neighborhood church. Every time I would run down the hill to catch the Metro because I had missed the train at the less frequent RER train stop closer to my apartment, I would breathlessly bound down the steps and feel that she was just down the block and to the right. On days when I walked home from class at the Louvre, she would remind me to turn right up the hill of St. Michelle. If I had been out late on the Right Bank, usually in the Bastille or Rue Oberkampf  neighborhoods, drinking cheap wine and eating mussels, and the Metro had closed for the night and I was out of francs -- there were still francs then -- I would walk home. Often I would detour slightly so that I could stroll through Notre Dame’s little park and glance at her at night. The pigeons cooed and the rose windows beckoned and I would stop for a moment and admire her in the quiet. Sometimes there were a few lovers tucked into a dark corner of the park. Occasionally someone from a darker corner would call to me and I would  quickly move on.

On Sundays we were supposed to give our host families the day off. So I would roam the streets alone, often ending up at Notre Dame after moving from café to café in the Marais, and eating a stand-up dinner at the Finkelstein’s bakery, on the end of Rue de Rosiers. Notre Dame was a North Star in the foreign terrain I was aching to make my own.  I would walk through her doors once a week, sometimes only for a moment, enough time to look up and take a breath.  When I was feeling homesick I would stop and light a candle or say a prayer.

Why did so many people mourn Notre Dame as she burned? Of course, she has survived two world wars and many other disasters over 850 years. But more than that – in an era of fast fashion and cars that come from gigantic vending machines, dinner for your kids you ordered on the Internet a week ago that arrives frozen in a cardboard box— we crave the beauty  in such a place, especially -- for many of us -- the beauty of devotion, sustained dedication to a goal to that one would not see completed in one’s lifetime, faith set to action.

Notre Dame was built with hand tools.  It is the antidote to 3-D printed hearts and DNA markers and data mining. You feel time slow once you’re inside those doors.

She silently granted the gift of freedom from the tyranny of the self. You belonged to a metaphorical Greek chorus when you walked through those doors, one that had been singing its songs for many centuries. You sat in her pews and time collapsed, and the sense of the divine enveloped you.

Beauty is as essential to the human soul as air or water.  The French philosopher Etienne Gilson wrote: “The pleasures of art are among the great consolations of life; man should not feel ashamed of what makes him happy.”  

Notre Dame filled so many people with a divine joy. And that is enough. 

Emily Robichaud is a Providence-based writer and design historian.