Medieval Beauty in the Heart of a Modern City: My First Visit to La Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

 

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Appropriately enough my wife Sharon and I paid our first visit to Notre Dame on a Sunday during what was also our first visit to Paris. While fully aware, based on the friendly advice of Parisian friends, that Paris is much more than its “tourist attractions,” we nonetheless felt drawn toward the medieval heart of this very modern and secular metropolis. Neither of us are Christian, however, both of us—like countless people around the world—grew up hearing about this legendary place. So, we simply wanted to see it with our own eyes.

What we saw that morning was simply magnificent! For me the source of my experience wasn’t in Notre Dame’s relationship to the biblical God but to beauty and grace—it was the aesthetic experience that filled my heart with joy. The high ceilings, the stained glass windows, the carvings, statuary, and paintings, which transformed the interior of this church into a world unto itself, left my eyes straining to take it all in. It was like slaking a thirst I didn’t even know I had until I was here. However, the experience was more than visual. At the same time a mass was underway the perimeter of the cathedral was swarming with visitors, silently watching the ritual, taking pictures, occasionally lighting a candle (including making the suggested donation), then moving on. The mass in turn was performed flawlessly as word, music, and ceremony came together in an orderly universe of Catholic worship.

Then there was the journey up to the top of the tower where the gargoyles keep their watch over the city. You stand in a line outside of the cathedral, which moves sporadically until you’re finally let into the tower’s entrance. You climb several stairs to a room where you wait, buy souvenirs, and tickets (unless you have a Paris Museum Pass). From there it’s a long steep climb up, nearly 400 steps in all in a narrow spiraling stairwell. As for the view, even in a modern world of skyscrapers, the view from atop Notre Dame is nothing short of extraordinary! It is from this vantage point that you can finally appreciate why this place, not just the building, is so special. As you see Sacré Cœur and the Eiffel Tower in the distance, as well as the Seine and the city below, you may sense as I did that you’re in a space whose sanctity extends deep into the earth below and goes back innumerable generations into the mythic past. I hope my photographs do this place some justice. Please click on the picture above to see more. Thank you!

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