by Rico Austin, class of 1998
This is an award-winning essay originally published by the Arizona Author’s Association.
It is with heavy heart and trembling hands I write of Notre Dame Cathedral in less than a year after having seen this national and international treasure.
Shared, erred strokes of the keyboard are struck with haunting glances at the television as the genius thirteenth century, constructed structure of Notre Dame Cathedral is infernally engulfed, sending the iconic spire colliding downward into an enclave of other molten destruction. The only positive instrument I can now give is to remember its existence and beauty by written word and photos, hopefully to help future generations apotheosize the complex architecture and magnificent beauty Notre Dame once held.
This story composed on April 15th, 2019, was planned to be written a few weeks later of celebration and memorialization nature; but as Citizens of the World we realize that many phenomena will not and can not be controlled or predicted.
The pain felt is not so much because of Notre Dame being a place of worship as I am not of the Catholic faith, although I have attended a few weddings and fewer funerals at Catholic cathedrals in my 59 years walking this planet; but, of the historical and architectural significance which is revered.
Before sharing a few parcels of last summer’s three-week vacation which is a standard summer holiday for many Western and Eastern Europeans, (to US working citizens, is an opportunity rarely taken before retirement) I will for the sake of history and knowledge expand upon the greatness of Notre Dame as it deserves such reverence in light of the darkness that has befallen this most visited and widely-recognized monuments of the city of Paris and the French nation. Over 12 million visitors yearly worldwide walk through its grand entrance into one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture formed into a medieval Catholic Cathedral. What sets this cathedral apart from the earlier Romanesque style is the innovative practice of the rib vault and flying buttress along with the mammoth and kaleidoscopic rose windows along with the plethora of its sculptural elaboration.
The cathedral was initiated in 1160 under Bishop Maurice de Sully and largely completed by 1260 and was altered frequently in the centuries that ensued. In the 1790s, Notre Dame suffered desecration during the French Revolution when much of the religious symbolism was marred or destroyed. In 1804, the cathedral was the scene of the Coronation of Napoleon as Emperor of France. Popular passion in the cathedral blossomed quickly after Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published in 1831 which thus led to a large-scale restoration project when the iconic spire was erected, from 1844 – 1864. The liberation of Paris was celebrated within the walls Notre Dame in 1944. The cathedral celebrated its 850th anniversary in 2013 which brings us to April 15th, a day which no longer will be remembered only as Tax Day or the early morning that the unsinkable RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea.
On April 15th, 2019, the cathedral was entangled in flames and sustained serious damage, including the ruination of the entire roof and the main spire with significant devastation to the rose windows. Fortunately, the stone vault remained largely intact and the interior with minor casualty. Many of the artifacts were rescued and President Emmanuel Macron communicated that the Cathedral will be rebuilt. Too, French billionaire Francois–Henri Pinault declared to pledge €100 million towards restoration endeavors as other donations are speedily on the way.
This positive development informed via media outlets has lessened the hurt which has given room for nurturing hope that the Notre Dame will once again rival visitors’ attention of the Eiffel Tower.
Perhaps one of the reasons I so heavily grieve the ruination and despoliation of this cathedral, is that on the vacation of a lifetime for both my wife and I, we never actually entered into the holy walls of Notre Dame. Two different days we passed by the cathedral, once by bus and once by boat, each time seeing the throngs and lines of visitors awaiting their entry at viewing magnificence, and we making the poor decision of not coveting the wait. As I write this, not completely certain if what I am feeling is partial anger at myself or complete sorrow even though pictures were taken at the top of the Eiffel Tower with Notre Dame fully erect and undamaged.
There have been two occasions other than losing a dear, loved relative or friend in death of which I have grieved: in 1997, the final day of August when Princess Diana of Wales had been killed in an accident while being chased by the paparazzi as she and her lover sped away in a Mercedes, navigated by an intoxicated and drug inducing driver. The Princess was in Paris at the time. I wrote of her untimely demise and of her undying, nurturing spirit that very instant, as I have done with this travesty. The other occurrence was on September 11, 2001, a fateful day that cannot be erased from many an American’s troubled mind. This time my sadness was dealt with in an additional manner, I hiked the Grand Canyon alone for two days, reflecting upon my life and of my loved ones. I lost a fellow student from Thunderbird School of Global Management that damning day – Mr. Ernesto Solar. He the equivalent to the other 2,996 humans who lost their lives, was just living life, innocently working as 19 evil hijackers ended the prior freedoms US citizens had known. Upon returning home from my spiritual outing amongst nature my pen wrote of the beauty and breathtaking panoramic vistas of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
On that very exact day, I too, vowed to myself never take anything or anyone for granted and to live my life without regrets, which surprisingly, I am writing of an opportunity not taken – promenading through Notre Dame.
Sometimes it takes sadness or the devastation of something to bring me back, back to my first love of writing.