April will now be remembered for the tragic burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The vivid image of the spire in flames falling to the ground, and this 12th century structure, engulfed in flames will forever be a sad part of the past. Maybe saddest of all is it happened during Holy Week. All over the world Christians are reliving Bible history and the story of Jesus Christ, and then the place that supposedly holds a part of the crown of thorns goes up in flames. But, miraculously the crown had been taken from its original location. Not sure if this really happened, where it actually is, and whether or not it’s wishful thinking. Whatever the case, it is a lost treasure, but hark, the French will take 5 years to bring it all back to life. To our good fortune the facade, with all the gargoyles, and the two towers are still intact. Something to build upon.
The burning of Notre Dame set my memory in motion to when I was a small Catholic girl who faithfully went to church, every Sunday and every day during the school year in Catholic school. There was no other way. Though I am not practicing now my feeling about my early religiosity comes back to me. I was fearful of the church, and the nuns and priests who darted around in their dark garb, with their rosaries and keys clanging and dangling down the side of their dress. They were a symbol of the necessity to never break the 10 commandments, to go to confession, and to always be a good girl, for if I wasn’t I would burn in hell, and the spend time with all the fallen angels. A lost soul, condemned in the eyes of God, was the last thing I wanted to be. But, oh temptation was so near at hand. It seemed like breathing in air was a mortal sin. There were so many sins I wasn’t sure what was ok, and what wasn’t, and come time for confession, I was at a loss at how to form my words. Fortunately, I only got ten Our Father’s and ten Hail Mary’s to say, so I must have been doing ok. Good thing, because they were the only prayers I had committed to memory, except for “Now I lay me down to sleep.” My mom never pressured me into going to confession. She was a converted Catholic, and she knew better. I was fortunate to be brought up with her sanity, for she married into a staunch French Canadian catholic family. If she didn’t convert she wouldn’t have been able to be a part of the family. Even as a convert she was viewed as a renegade.
There was a good side to my Catholic upbringing, because I got to read all the stories of the saints, and bible stories like Noah’s Ark, and last but not least, I was intrigued by the mystery of Christ, how he was betrayed by Judas and lied to by Saint Peter, and how he had to spend the whole night in that garden that is a long word and starts with the letter G. Then there was Holy Thursday, the last supper, and finally, Good Friday. Our town respected this day. All the stores closed down before noon, and everyone went to church until 3 o’clock and contemplated the agony Christ went through as he hung on the cross, and died. There was a movie too, called “The Robe”. This made it ever so vivid. Christ in his last minutes uttered; “Forgive them lord they know not what they are doing.” My dad owned the theatre and he played this movie every Easter week, year after year.
But even today, with the burning of Notre Dame I think back to the good feelings of my church upbringing. Getting a new hat, gloves and a new dress. New patten leather shoes and spending Easter Sunday with a very large family. Annabelle, and Ray, Father John, and Grandma, and all the cousins. Back in the day, I’m sure my ancestors visited the Notre Dame in France in the 1600’s, and if not Notre Dame, the cathedral of Rouen or the one in Caen, where William the Conquerer is buried. They are all from the same time. We had to keep up the religion of our family from centuries past.
It was around 1984 that I entered the Notre Dame, the one and only time. I remember the experience vividly. It was filled with people, but it was pitch black. This was before they started to spiff it up, for the tourists, with inside lights illuminating the sacred artifacts, and all the architectural details we see in pictures today. No, it was dark, and people kept talking loudly, and over the loudspeaker every couple minutes you would hear “Shhhhhhh! Silence!” in French. “You are in a house of worship.” Nobody obeyed, but I did, because I knew how to show respect for something beyond myself, far-reaching, learned from my sacred and holy upbringing. It was not the sins, or the threats or the fear of going to hell that stayed with me, but the mystery of the unknown, the inexplicable that I may never have pondered if it weren’t for my religious childhood. Even Willa Cather, and Hart Crane, non-Catholic writers knew that Catholicism imbued something greater than life. This is why when the Cathedral of Notre Dame went up in flames, so did the hopes of so many believers, as they stood by and cried out in disbelief.