The first time I saw her I was the age my daughter Isobel is now – 23. I was recently married to her father and it was my first time traveling abroad. What I remember from that first visit was how I felt the moment I entered the Notre Dame Cathedral: disoriented and awe-struck. I had never until then encountered a human creation that had lived for so long: more than eight centuries! Her oldness was new to me; the quality of the light, the way sounds reverberated, the smoke of the candles – the wind was knocked out of me.
I had an intense crush on Saint Joan of Arc (though I don’t remember when I first encountered her) and I wanted to be sure to find her memorial. I wasn’t a Catholic, never have been, but if I were, Joan would be my favorite saint, and not because she’s the patron saint of soldiers, but because she was misunderstood and disregarded (vast understatement) when a young girl, accused of being unhinged and ignorant, but eventually – alas, much after her death – honored for the badass girl that she was.
I lit a candle to Saint Joan of Arc and said a prayer, though the words I prayed I do not remember.
This past November 8, 2018 I visited them both again – the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saint Joan. I had traveled to Paris to spend a few days with my daughter. On my last day there I ventured off on an adventure while Isobel was attending a graduate school class.
I arrived at the cathedral just in time to attend the end of mass – the holy communion was just about to commence. I wanted to sit close-up to where the priest was, so I could hear, smell, and see everything. I decided out of propriety and respect to sit at the front edge of the section for visitors not partaking in the body and blood of Christ. I took my appropriate seat and engaged in meditation in the spiritual tradition I now follow.
Since the time I was a girl, I’ve been “saved” a few times, twice by Jesus and at least once by myself (with the help of others). I actually really dig taking communion, I’m a sucker for rituals, but I’ve only ever partaken as a Protestant. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a strange one: I respect and fight for others’ religious beliefs and practices (as long as they ultimately lead to peace and love); and I’m irreverent and don’t willingly nor uncritically abide by any tradition be it religious, philosophical or otherwise. And, since the time I was a little girl, I’ve been a spiritual seeker. No religion has been off-limits to my insatiable curiosity! But that, my friends, is an epic story for another time!
Once communion and my meditation session were over, I mused a while longer in the cathedral, absorbing her ancient air: candles, incense, the essence of all the humans of earth who have visited. Above me arrayed on either side of the vast nave were the flags of various nations. I was perplexed: Are these flags meant to symbolize the friends of France? The friends of the Church?
I recall that as I was entering the cathedral, I saw a news alert on my fancy-pants phone: There had just been another mass shooting in the U.S., in Thousand Oaks, California.
Before I leave her, Notre Dame, I light a candle to Joan of Arc.
Once I step outside her, I receive the following text:
P: “Thinking of you and thanking God for you…in the midst of numerous transitions.”
I reply: “I was thinking of you just now as I attended mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral! I was thinking of you as I witnessed the mass which I couldn’t fully participate in and then when I lit the cancel to Joan of Arc, I was thinking about how my “religion” can’t be contained. Which is also how I came to be thinking about you, because your “religion” can’t be contained either. And then, of course, because I was thinking of you, you texted me (or perhaps you were thinking of me, and I texted you).”
P: “Follow the religion of love wherever love’s carriage goes…how can love be contained?”
I reply: “Love cannot.”
This is beautifully written and mimics my experience 3 years ago while visiting Notre Dame. I felt a mystical and spiritual quickening in my soul.
I lit 2 candles..one for my Mama and one for my Daddy.
The Sun was shining through The rose Window and the Organ began to play. Mass had started.
Beautiful. Sad sad day. I cannot imagine how France and all her people around the world – regardless of their religious affiliation – are reeling right now.
I love to visit churches to feel the calm and smell the particular mix of wood and incense and as you put it, “essence of all the humans”. The moment I step inside I feel simultaneously insignificant and magnificent. There are so few places that can hold as much history and offer as much comfort and protection as Our Lady. My visit there as a 20-year-old is a moment I’ve always held in my heart. May her restoration be something we celebrate in our lifetime!