Why Are We So Moved By The Notre Dame Fire?

Though there were fortunately no deaths, the fire was a startling, almost existential kind of loss.

You do not have to believe in God to understand that Notre Dame is a holy place. Its exceptional composition, of stone, glass, oak, and lead, was assembled by human hands from 1163 to 1345, culminating in a feat of French Gothic architecture — a work now so monumental it resonates as nearly mythological. A relic allegedly containing Christ’s Crown of Thorns has resided in Notre Dame for ages, brought to Paris by Louis IX via Constantinople in the 13th century. Construction had already been underway by then on the cathedral, modern implementations like flying buttresses altering its ascent — the external stonework supporting the weight of the ceiling, allowing for the walls to extend higher, leaving room for countless windows and the spilling forth of euphoric light. Pointed arches, rib vaults, and piped masonry of ingenious design together created a sense of verticality, to render the sublime.

Like many people, I saw the fire on my phone’s screen in real time. Flames ripped through the 856-year-old medieval wooden roof known as “the forest,” quickly desecrating one of the most iconic structures in the world. Photos soon flooded my timeline, from the Obamas to high school acquaintances: decades-old snapshots, a friend’s mother smiling beside a stone gargoyle; young Sasha and Malia lighting votives in the nave; the cathedral’s spire at night, extending heavenward from a miraculous illumined body, the whole form some divine lantern that had descended above the Seine — all but remembrances now, as angry plumes of smoke billowed from Notre Dame’s torched silhouette.

Some viewed those shared vacation photos as opportunistic plays at grandstanding; others considered that process a way, perhaps, to concretize their grief. Unlike the recent, horrific bombings throughout Sri Lanka’s churches, there were no casualties. And yet the fire seemed to prompt a global, collective mourning for loss of the startling, existential sort. Notre Dame de Paris took 182 years to erect. Generations of families had come and gone without ever seeing its completion. Situated in the heart of Paris, Notre Dame serves as a geographical beacon, a symbol of the city and also of its people's endurance, having survived two world wars, the French Revolution, and the Hundred Years’ War. An estimated 13 million visitors tour Notre Dame every year, making this ruin tangible to so many near and far. But why did anyone feel connected to its destruction so intimately?

I couldn’t peel my eyes away from that 90-meter spire as it seethed in the heat, going brittle before cleaving in two. The sight made my stomach turn. “It was like we were watching something happening to a beloved friend,” said one Chicagoan to the Tribune. I did not share this sentiment at all. We were witnessing something far more humbling: the sacrosanct and singular decimated in an instant — the puncturing of a communal naïveté, as if what we hold sacred could last forever.

When I first visited the cathedral, I had already lost my faith. I was 20, living in Paris for a few months, alone abroad for the first time. When I’d left New York for the trip, no one there knew of my former identity: Little Deacon.

I’d grown up in an all-Korean Presbyterian congregation in Southern California where my parents had served as elders. Our church had been a humble operation, off the 10 in El Monte, blocks from the hot dog–shaped Wienerschnitzel stand and a regional bus depot. On the church lawn, someone had constructed a tiny Korean traditional house, a giwajip, detailed with its quintessential tiled rooftop, eaves curving skyward like a skirt pinched in fingertips before a curtsy. A miniature door had been built at its base beyond which — youth group lore had it — an Asian hunchback-like troll resided. The main attraction, the church behind the giwajip, had been a Western construction, plain brick and cinderblock mostly, nothing fancy. All the families gathered in the cobwebbed basement lined with chipped linoleum, and sat at the sagging particle board tables for bowls of kimchi stew and bibimbap at post-service lunch. The main sanctuary boasted barn-high ceilings and plaster walls adorned by a few rectangular, grape-colored stained glass windows — unremarkable but pretty dappled panes I stared into on many mornings during the Korean language sermons I could hardly comprehend.

I’d seen statelier churches than ours, in pictures anyway. In fact, for an elementary school project I’d poorly reconstructed the oldest building in California — Mission San Juan Capistrano — out of beans (“a mosaic,” I’d alleged to my teacher). I couldn’t afford the professional craft store model kits, so I fashioned bells from garbanzos, tiled speckled pintos in place of the yellow sandstone, and clumsily assembled a split pea roof with Elmer’s glue. The beans kept popping off during my presentation. Nothing holy or profound to be reckoned with here. I’d rendered a flattened world that conveyed nothing of the mission’s history dating back to 1776, nor its Spanish Colonial style, nor the calm of its sonorous clanging bells.

We were witnessing something far more humbling — the puncturing of a communal naivete.

I had no need for magnificent or historic surroundings to inspire my faith though. I’d discovered that God, however intangible in the physical world, had created the universe and all of us in it; and He had chosen me (me!) to be worthy of His love. If I could honor Him in my actions, I could retain that love, which also held the power to answer unanswerable questions, like what happened when we died, and when we got to heaven, what could we expect to find there?

I possessed, too, an early inclination toward self-flagellation; not yet a teenager and readily repentant, I feared I might lose the gift God had given me — what I’d longed to receive from the people in my life: unconditional love. So I “body worshipped” and Bible studied and wept and prayed. At school, I was Four-eyes and Chicken Legs with a minefield of acne hidden behind a curtain of oily bangs. At home, left often alone, I belted out the lyrics from my Christian rock CDs until hoarse in the throat: Someday she’ll understand the meaning of it all...I want to fall in love with You...What will people think when they hear I’m a Jesus freak? The church was merely a vessel where I could access a pure, uncontained, rapturous joy — the joy of being saved.

But then one day, I stopped believing. Something had shut off inside me. “There are places in this world where / you can stand somewhere holy and be / thinking If it’s holy then why don’t / I feel it…” Carl Phillips writes in Cortège. A terrifying reality trembled open. And the sudden absence of faith emptied me out in immeasurable ways I could not yet name.

It had been years since I’d visited a church when I stepped into Notre Dame. My parents had split and left our home congregation, but by then I’d already ceased “walking with the Lord,” as they say.

I had forgotten the landmark was also a place of worship, and I was initially struck by the spectacle of piety to which Catholics seemed so unwaveringly committed. I spent much of my time staring into the rose windows, the north wheel in particular: its intricate, jewel-like stained glass depicting Old Testament prophets and kings on medallions radiating outward from its center in multiples of eight, totaling 88, the repetition of eternity through which prismatic sunlight glowed.

Entering this space is meant to be transcendent, bringing you closer to God, who on all other occasions according to Timothy 6:16, “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” The experience is what some call a taste of the “beatific vision” — in Christian theology the moment at which one at last encounters God in heaven, seeing Him face to face, a personal reception — the payoff of salvation so to speak, through intellectual and spiritual epiphany.

I did not experience the beatific vision on the many trips I took to Notre Dame. Rather, I returned over and over to be in the presence of an unfathomable existence, to witness a miracle in a tangible way — the kind of awe-inspiring grandeur reminiscent of feeling saved.

The extent of what has been lost is abstruse. Notre Dame is a space where Napoleon had once been coronated, that with its rose windows, portals, transepts, or the 18th-century 8,000-pipe Great Organ, commands you — whether or not you answer — to believe. I did not answer, but I could stand in that holy place, skimming the edge of a familiar, faraway joy.

Of its structure, all but the spire and the roof have been salvaged. Optimists remind us that the cathedral had been damaged before and restored. It will be rebuilt again. French President Emmanuel Macron hopes to revive the cathedral within five years; others estimate the undertaking will, at a minimum, require a decade or two, meaning that it is likely some will not live to see its completion — a fact worthy alone of memorial, however that might be parsed. The most sacred idea we may all have shared was that somehow the cathedral had not been bound by time. To witness its destruction reminds us of personal reckonings, how holy places can urge us to access some buried sense of wonderment — to stand in awe of an exquisite thing made to seem eternal. ●

Jennifer Hope Choi is the recipient of the Carson McCullers Center's Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship, the BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellowship, and the B. Frank Vogel Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her essay “My Mother and I Went Halfway Around the World to Find Each Other” is anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2018, selected by guest editor Cheryl Strayed. Her writing is forthcoming or has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, the American Scholar, Lucky Peach, Guernica, BuzzFeed Reader, Catapult, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir.