Why I’m writing a poem for Notre Dame

It felt like a punch in the gut: Notre Dame is burning. I didn’t believe it till I’d gone to Twitter, seen the videos. Horrible. I couldn’t stop looking.

Why is a fire like that? Why does it hold us so? A terrible beauty? It had something grand about it, momentous. It really was beautiful and horrible all at once. I’ve read about fires in cathedrals, Coventry, Chartres, St Pauls… Cologne. I’ve read about the destruction of cathedrals… but to see it unfold before my eyes…

Everyone becomes a poet, says the poet. And it’s true. Bella sat down and a poem formed itself before the fire had burned out. And I started hunting for words, it’s like a hunger, the need to fight destruction with creation. As if mere words could pile stone on stone and undo the toppled spire and remake the beauty. The words wanted to spill out. Like spring flowers that insist on blooming. Like tears that insist on falling. Like the catch in my voice when I told the kids: Notre Dame is burning.

I posted a small immediate reflection on Facebook:

This photo and the caption:

I keep thinking of this image and these lines:

“And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.

The fire, the rose windows, the crown of thorns, Holy Week, and T.S. Eliot

And in the comments I continued to think through my reaction:

I also keep pondering the meaning of a gothic cathedral: the Gospel made of stone and glass, the good news made visible for the illiterate to learn their faith. The beauty literally pointing to heaven, showing forth the light of Christ. And a lecture I recall on the theology of stained glass that maintained the light passing through the glass is a metaphor for the incarnation: the word made flesh, the light taking form from the glass and bringing us the light transformed.

And more Eliot:

“Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.”

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

This is why poetry is important. Poetry in the writing or the remembering and the reciting. Art gives shape to all kinds of grief and loss and other feelings too complicated to name.

+ + +

Why didn’t I feel the same hunger for words and horror too strong for words over the martyrs in Sri Lanka? The people who died in churches and the people who died in hotels– all the men and women and children who died horribly. Perhaps because people die horribly every day. Even on Easter. Even at Mass. I do care. It’s not that I don’t care. Please, please understand that. But I said a prayer and then. Said another prayer. Lord, have mercy. Lord, grant them rest. Lord, oh have mercy. And tears came to my eyes, but I confess I wasn’t glued to the story. And I did not need to hunt for words… But it’s not new. Sadly. It’s a usual horror. People killed brutally. Suicide bombers. How terrible that is a phrase that feels usual. Too too terribly quotidian. It certainly has and does inspire poets, but it did not tug my heart that day.

Whereas an 800 year old cathedral… that’s an event of a lifetime. Like planes crashing into the World Trade Center. There’s something about a fire. Thank God no one was killed. Thank God the church didn’t fall. I shouldn’t care so much. But I do.

Oh yes a single human life is worth more than any building. But the heart mourns what it knows and loves. And I loved that church. I have a connection with it that feels more strong than my common human bond with those poor martyrs. That sounds terrible. I’m a terrible person to admit it. But… if I’d met them, if I saw their faces. If they were more than a story. Oh I could care. I could. But also I could not. There are thousands of people who die every day. I cannot bear that much pain. Only Christ can. I will let him.

But … I walked in that church. I prayed there. I wanted to go back when the scaffolding was off to see the clean facade. I have studied gothic cathedrals. I have fallen in love with their artistry. I have fallen in love with art. Have you never lost your heart to a song, a painting, a statue, a building, a flower? I am human. Art moves me. Beauty moves me. And so does destruction. I care. I care about the fall of a sparrow, the death of a child, and the destruction of anything beautiful made by divine or human hands. It’s not either or. I can be both. I can mourn both. But I can’t mourn all with equal fervor. God can, being infinite. But I have my limitations. My sad, pathetic limitations.

But I think my poem would have been stillborn had there not been an outcry, a reaction, against the very grief: Who needs churches? It’s just a building? Why so much sadness for a building? Shouldn’t we be focused on Christ? On feeding the poor? On the environment? Shouldn’t the money be spent elsewhere? Why should it be rebuilt? Let it burn! Let it topple! Why shouldn’t it be rebuilt in a modern style? Who cares?

And at that my heart hurt. And hurt. And hurt. Because what a cathedral is… is a symbol of love not of hatred, of hope, not of despair. To respond to it with so much venom and bile. Oh how could you?! how could you? That.. that’s a wound in my heart. Like a suicide bomber in a church: wanton, hatred, ripping through the good, the beautiful, the human. Callous. How could anyone be so callous?

A cathedral is a poem. A cathedral is an expression of the Body of Christ. An embodiment. A love song. Look: it’s a cross. Look, it is the Body of Christ. The apse is the head, the transepts the outstretched arms, the nave is the body. It’s Christ on the cross. And the altar is at the heart. It’s a Bible built in stone, so that poor, illiterate people might know the Gospel, know Christ, know beauty. It’s a masterpiece. It took more than a hundred years to build.

Think of that. A century. Think of all those people too. I care for those people too. I love them, the builders. The sculptors, the painters, the masons, the carpenters, the glaziers, the architects and all the anonymous crowds of people crawling like ants over the giant form for so many many many years. And the donors, the priests, the penitents, the worshippers. Those who gave their all and never saw the completion of their work. Those who lived and died and loved in a project that was bigger than any single human life. A work of art that took hundreds of people hundreds of years to bring to this moment. Unrepeatable. Precious. A feat for the ages.

Neal Stephenson got it in Seveneves: Notre Dame filled with music while the earth burns. My friend Erin says: I thought it would survive till the end. How could it not?

God exists. God is real. More real than anything. And a cathedral bears witness. It testifies to faith and love and hope. It testifies to God’s presence among men. And to humanity’s hope for heaven. It is a sign of contradiction, a wonder of the world. Oh how can anyone not see all of that? It hurts. Hurts my heart that anyone can respond to that love with hatred.

And then there is this, my friend Kate says it well, about the way individual loves teach us how to love, how loving that which is familiar can teach us to love that which is foreign, that universal love for the poor, the alien, the environment, must always, always be rooted in the particular loves:

A friend of mine has been driven to anxious distraction today by a health crisis in her husband’s family. No reasonable person would think to scold her for being more heartsick over an in-law than she would be over a distant friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s brother. That much grief and worry over every suffering person would be unsustainable. It would be paralyzing. The only way to equalize them would be to remain as faintly and distantly dismayed by the family member’s illness as we are over the distant acquaintance’s injuries.

This, you see, is where this impersonal universalism inevitably leads us: to the corrosion of our humanity. Because, of course, the truth is that my friend does not love the friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s brother less for loving her own father-in-law in particular. The reverse is in fact observably true: her compassion for strangers is enriched by her love for those closest to her. She sees her lost brother in every addict; she sees herself in every motherless daughter.

By knowing and loving particular people, she has learned better how to love people in general. And there is no better way to begin to love Humanity than knowing that it is made up of individual humans, each of them a person as deeply real as we are ourselves.

and then:

Nobody is obligated to feel deeply, emotionally moved by the immolation of Notre Dame–or any other loss or tragedy. But when you are struck more fiercely by some one particular grief or joy or fear or hope than another, you should know it for what it is–a tutorial on the passions and movements of your own heart, and an opportunity to grow in understanding and compassion for the hearts and lives of others.

And my poem, my work in progress, is not very good. But writing bad love songs is what lovers do. I’m a lover. I’m writing a love song. Bear with me. It may never see the light of day. I may not publish it here. But I’m working on it. It’s growing quietly in the dark. Bear with me, I’m growing a love-child.

+ + +

In 1994, I was studying in Rome. My dad urged me to visit his cousin in Paris. Go see Scotty, he told me. Dad hasn’t seen him in ages, but Scotty had hosted my grandmother and various cousins when they have visited Paris. I nervously wrote down Scotty’s number and quakingly called I’m not sure how I managed to get the words out, but I invited myself to Easter with his family and he graciously accepted. More tourist than pilgrim, I wanted to see the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Cluny, Sacre Coeur, and Notre Dame. I was willing to put up with a bit of social awkwardness to do so. And to make my dad happy.

I arrived on Holy Thursday. Good Friday was April Fool’s day. A foolish mixed-up day. When I got to Paris I dropped my bag at Scotty’s office and then headed to the Louvre. At the end of the workday he put me on a train to Boissy-Saint-Léger, he had to work late.

I got off on my own at the stop and his wife, Danielle, picked me up and drove me to their house. I remember she had a baguette with her, for dinner. And that they had a baguette shaped built in bread box in the kitchen.

I slept in a room with a sloped ceiling and real shutters on the windows, had a fish put on my bedroom door for April Fool’s day by young Christopher or maybe it was Lucie.

I went to the Musee de Orsay, the Cluny, the Opera House, Sacre Coeur, and walked along the Seine. I bought a copy of La Princess et le Petit Pois because it charmed me.

And on Good Friday I went to Notre Dame. The facade was shrouded in scaffolding like a curtain. I was a tourist in jeans, shrouded in a bulky wool sweater from Greece with a striped head scarf and hiking boots. Was it a pilgrimage or was I sightseeing? I wasn’t really sure. I had limited time, so I didn’t join the prayer service. Instead I walked along the edges of the church, praying and looking. Feeling awkward, uncertain. Slightly disappointed, tired and overwhelmed by it all. But I was there.

I prayed there in that place where so many people have prayed. Maybe I even lit a candle. Or maybe I saved my francs. I can’t recall. My memories are hazy after so many years.

On Easter Sunday I remember the olives and the paté and the cookies. And a salad of dandelion greens— amazing.

But I don’t remember much else.

We went to Mass at the American church, an accommodation I didn’t really want but didn’t know how to turn down. I’d have preferred Mass in French, but was too shy to let these French relatives know I’d studied French for two years. I didn’t feel capable of holding a conversation and was too awkward to expose my bad American accent, my terrible grammar, and my faltering vocabulary. Alas.

They drove me past the Tour Eiffel on the way to the Gare de Lyon. And then I went back to Rome.

+ + +

25 years later… when Notre Dame caught fire on Monday of Holy Week, I was there again. Forty-something me sitting at my dining room table telling my children about teenaged me at Notre Dame on Good Friday. How could I not cry out? One would have to have a heart of stone.

So . . . I will write. I’ll write for the anonymous stone mason who gave the best years of his life to make something that would last. Because he loved Our Lady and her Son. I’ll write for the glazier who was wounded on the job and could work no more and who drank himself to death. And the architect who never saw the church finished, who cried himself to sleep over his fears for the never to be realized dream. For the carpenter who missed his family. For the peasant who gave his only coin. For the pilgrims who walked for days. For the penitents who knelt in prayer and whose souls were saved to be more gloriously alive than any cathedral. Above all for that– because cathedrals proclaim the saving Gospel and win souls for Christ. And win souls.

Oh and for Father Fournier who ran into the cathedral while it was burning to rescue the crown of thorns and the other precious treasures, the chief of which was the Blessed Sacrament. For Father Fournier who performed Benediction in the empty, burning cathedral. For Father Fournier who proclaimed the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament on a television interview during Holy Week, because he loves Jesus, he loves souls. For him and for the firemen and for the people of Paris and for all lovers of art and beauty and for all lovers of Christ and his Mother.

I’m writing a poem for Notre Dame. It might just take a while. It’s not a quick take. It’s burning away in my soul, a slow smolder.

6 Responses to Why I’m writing a poem for Notre Dame

  1. MrsDarwin April 24, 2019 at 8:50 am #

    “And the fire and the rose are one.”

    …oh my goodness. How could he know? How could he know?

    I love your reflections on grieving for Notre Dame vs. grieving for the Sri Lankan martyrs. You’ve captured my thoughts exactly. I can’t wait to read your poem.

    When a woman is in labor she groans aloud because her time has come, but once the child is born she rejoices that a man has come into the world — I wish I remembered the quote exactly, but it suits writing as much as any other labor.

  2. Melanie Bettinelli April 24, 2019 at 9:45 am #

    “How could he know?”

    Right? It’s just too perfect. Prophetic. It’s chilling.

    I know Eliot was a fire warden in London during the Blitz. He must have seen many fires…

    Right now I have eleven pages of draft. I’m not sure any of it will see the light of day. There are a few small piece which I think might be good. But so many words I’m in love with and can’t bring myself to kill even though probably it needs a ruthless editor. I think it’s at the stage of needing to be put into a drawer to lie fallow.

  3. Penelope April 24, 2019 at 4:57 pm #

    When I was following the news of the fire at Notre-Dame, some of what kept running throught my head was the WWII fire wardens in London, protecting St Paul’s … This is a lovely reflection and out-crying, Melanie. Thank you for sharing it here. I, too, was blessed to visit Notre-Dame in my teens, …. as an awkward unchurched midwestern girl, longing for God, running in and out of churches across Europe, searching and searching …

    • Melanie Bettinelli April 29, 2019 at 11:23 pm #

      Thank you, Penelope.

      Yes. The fires in St Pauls. Especially as seen through Connie Willis’ stories.

  4. John Whitehead May 7, 2019 at 8:54 am #

    The last time I was in Notre Dame was also when visiting a relative who lives in Paris (my sister) while I was in Europe studying (although in Athens rather than Rome). It was in 1999. I remember being struck at the awkwardness of so many crowds of tourists in what was supposed to be a house of worship. Still, I went to confession there, so the visit was well spent.

    Thank you for your thoughts on the importance and simple human reality of love being specific, tied to specific people and places. This is complicated emotional territory, and you articulated it well.

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