‘The heartbeat of our story’, said Archbishop Vincent Nichols on the radio this morning. He’s right. And it’s why, for a moment last night, my heart stopped and then felt broken. The unmistakable image of Notre Dame on my Twitter feed, caught in a casual glance at the screen when I should have been looking away.
He was responding, of course, to the words of others. The French lady on the pavement who described it as France’s story. The French President who described it as France’s imagination.
Loss of life must always concern us first and foremost. But that sense of priority rendered the building, itself, no less precious in those anguishing hours yesterday evening. Not just because it is man-made, the product of two centuries of human endeavour, in which, perversely, lives will have been lost.
But also because, as the scenes of its capture by fire unfolded, its vulnerability was ours, its losses ours. Our longing that, somehow, we wanted to be saved. A reflection of the longing that sacred buildings induce in us, even among the most secular.
And, wonderfully, in the spirit of France, Notre Dame is both sacred and secular. A house of God and a place of the people.
I will not have been alone last night in feeling that its potential destruction was emblematic of the schism we have created both on the edge, and at the heart, of Europe. Leavers and Remainers alike will have looked on aghast.
And still, it was a profoundly European, as well as French, moment. A symbol of our shared medieval history, yet utterly part of modernity.
Like many too, I recalled my first visit there, and to Paris. As a wide-eyed student in the summer of 1981. My first trip abroad at the age of 20. A rite of passage. Indelibly part of my story.
A friend tweeted that it was the last place she’d waved goodbye to her friend, lost to AIDS, the modern version of a plague redolent of the world when the cathedral was built. Its loss was her loss of him, all over again. I understood. That’s what places do. They write themselves into our stories.
Her memory took me to St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Another medieval relic, which my late partner, also lost to that terrible epidemic, brought me to in the summer of 1986. I was blinded as I stepped into its shadows from the heat of the sun. That moment will always be about him, as well as the building itself.
And then, another unmissable instant when, in the first few days of 2013, my husband and I walked by Notre Dame on a cold clear evening. Unforgettably, we just strolled in. No queues, no barriers. Candles burning, choir singing.
‘O still, small voice of calm.’
Every time I’ve passed it since I’ve wanted to recapture that moment. I never did, nor could have. But we had it. The immeasurable luck in that.
In the cold light of this morning, there was more hope than we dared hope for as we went to sleep. News that it stands wounded but defiant, that human endeavour will rebuild it. The Crown of Thorns secured from the burning wreckage. The stained glass that might even be salvaged.
Yes, I know it’s a building. Yes, I know that the millions needed could be used to alleviate human suffering. But these things needn’t be alternatives.
The heartbeat of our story. Mine too. My youth and middle age. The Christian in me, the Catholic even. The European, and the Francophile. A part of me. Parts of me. And so many stories, like mine.
We make places — and places make us. We trip over the resonances in them. And last night, I did.