Weeds: An instant in history
It was Monday of Holy Week past. I was hoping to end Lent on a high note, wanting to get my soul in a better place for Easter. It hadn’t been my greatest Lent. I gave up some beer and spent some time with scripture. Should have been less of one and more of the other. A bit of guilt, I was having a Catholic moment.
I was in the house around noon, texting some with daughter Abby. Abigail is attending graduate school at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. In France, the well-known university is called “Sciences Po.” Its campus is a couple blocks from the center of Paris.
The exact center of Paris is Point Zero. That is a bronze plaque set in the cobblestones directly in front the Notre Dame Cathedral. Literally everything in Paris is measured relative to Notre Dame. It is the physical and metaphorical heart of the city. As you know, that heart was severely damaged.
About 12:30, Abby texted, “Don’t be scared, but there’s a fire.” Even in the spare language that is texting, that left plenty of blanks to fill in. It was evening there, and I thought she might be back at her place on the outskirts of Paris. I texted back, “Your apartment?”
“Notre Dame” came Abby’s reply. Now I thought she was making some kind of joke. “I’m going to send video,” came next. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I Googled Notre Dame. Among websites about the history and architecture of the grand cathedral was a single lone reference to a fire.
Then came Abby’s first video. In it, there were sounds of sirens and people yelling. I could tell she was moving toward the church. In front of her were the iconic bell towers of Notre Dame. Behind those, smoke and flames were visible.
A minute later came another video. More sirens and people running. Then, Abby’s camera view dropped suddenly down to the pavement. A few minutes later, she told me that a piece of burning ember flying out of the blaze had landed on the scarf she was wearing.
In Paris, 4,288 miles from Sleepy Eye (I looked it up) and seven time zones away, my daughter was instantly sharing the frantic scene. Technology we take for granted was allowing us to communicate in a way that would have been pure science fiction when I was young on the farm where I sat talking to Abby.
It was 7:30 in Paris. It was one of the first warm spring evenings there. Abby and some classmates had been going to one of the charming sidewalk cafes around there when they found themselves amid chaos. Abby posts things on Instagram, so friends in several countries were living the terrible moment with her. A classmate’s father works for the Boston Globe, and for while one of Abby’s videos was posted to the Globe’s website.
We were using a family text group. Pam joined in from New Ulm. “It’s heartbreaking.” By coincidence, oldest daughter Anna was flying back that day from Paris where she spent a week visiting her sister. Around 3:00, she landed and found out about the fire when she turned her phone on. Her text came, “Holy bleep, what happened?”
I called Anna; she was crying. With Abby, they had spent most days near and around Notre Dame. A Paris without the 800-year-old monument was unimaginable to Anna like millions of others.
I was to Notre Dame in 1977. I spent a few days in Paris when I was in Europe for a college semester. I have an odd memory of being on the bridge next to Notre Dame where a crew was filming a Jack Palance movie.
Pam was also there in 1977 on a different college program. Then when Anna graduated from high school, Pam and college friend Katie took their similar-aged daughters to Paris. That probably had something to do with Anna going to school and working there as a young adult a few years later.
Pam and 13-year old Abby went to visit Anna. Now Abby has returned there for graduate school. So all the women in my family felt connections to the event that was leading every news broadcast. At some time in our texting and calling, we all referred to tears.
Sometime that day a horrific image came to mind of our own cherished church In Sleepy Eye being ablaze. For all the flaws human beings carry as individuals, the fact that we can come together and build remarkable things like Notre Dame and St. Mary’s in Sleepy Eye may be as good a proof that God dwells within us as there is.
As dark came to Paris, the colors of the fire took on an even more sinister hue. Abby’s videos now were not filled with frantic running and screaming. Now came pictures of quiet resignation among the observers. At one point, Abby texted me that she was going to video-call, and I shouldn’t say anything. She was in a group of people observing Mass on the street. Even in French, the cadence of that was familiar to me.
Later in our afternoon, now close to midnight in Paris, came video of people softly singing hymns, the flames flickering in the background. These were haunting, yet beautiful moments. People were bound together by calamity they were witnessing. A reminder that no matter our differences, we can unite and care about something bigger than our individual selves.
Since that day, many words have been written about the fire at Notre Dame. Obviously this most Catholic of places, one of the most recognizable on Earth, burning during Holy Week lent itself to metaphor. And, yes, many writers couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of this given the current damaged state of the Catholic Church.
A fire is a natural disaster. The church abuse crisis is very much not a natural disaster. It is a human disaster, caused by layers of sin. By late on Monday, there were pledges to rebuild Notre Dame, a task that will be immense. We are seeing that rebuilding the Catholic Church will also be a giant undertaking.
Sin chars and damages the soul, to follow the metaphor further. Lent is an opportunity to clean some of the soot from our souls. I had a few days before Easter to redouble my efforts, to work on my own spiritual rebuilding project. Hopefully Notre Dame will be restored in my lifetime. My soul’s going to take all that.