The Four Times I’ve Seen Notre Dame* or How Tragedy Can Create Community

Notre Dame Paris Travel
Renee Wilmeth and Becky Lukovic at Notre Dame in Paris, November 2016

*with apologies to Dave Chappelle

On April 15, we watched Notre Dame of Paris burn. As the flames spread, we all prayed the structural integrity of the building would hold and contemplated the very possible loss of the finest example of Gothic architecture in existence. We watched as the spire crumbled and cried.

And then something amazing happened. As the fire threatened to consume 800 years of history, people came together. My Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds were suddenly filled with friends posting photos of Notre Dame. They shared stories of what the landmark meant to them through weddings, vacations, and Mass. I’ve long said it’s impossible to take a bad photo of Notre Dame and it’s true. And every photo of those windows, bell towers, buttresses and spires, brought us together telling the story of how important this symbol is to us all. So, here’s my story.  I’ve seen Notre Dame four times.

1) I grew up in a small town in the narrow Oklahoma Panhandle. The Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas are remote, populated with farmers and ranchers who have survived decades of tornados and drought. It’s the heart of the Dust Bowl and the wind blows all the time. (Fun fact: average yearly rainfall is 18 inches.) The flat, treeless, scrubby range is populated with cattle, windmills with the occasional drilling rig or irrigation pivot, and still, you have a horizon-to-horizon sky that offers the best sunsets I’ve seen the world over. My father was a retired Army Colonel and an accomplished private pilot, so I was dragged all over North America on my parents’ travels. Climbing pyramids in the Mayan jungle or examining Native American art in the Canadian wilds were the norm for our family. I went to Oklahoma State University and studied journalism and public relations. I also minored in German, chosen solely because it fit my schedule. The summer before my junior year, I spent four months in northern Germany on a work-study program.

My best friend was in a language program in Paris so we met up for a few days. It was my first time in Paris and I soon found myself on the Isle de la Cite in the famous shadow of Notre Dame.  I was stunned. The carvings, the figures, the symbolism, the detail on the north towers, the statues, the flying buttresses, you couldn’t stand in that grand sanctuary and not be overcome with the majesty of it, not to mention the brilliance of medieval architects. For the first time, I truly understood the connection of the city to its past and its present. It was a reminder that every country and culture has its own history and that our art tells our story. The first time I saw Notre Dame cemented my knowledge that art in all its forms would always be a part of my life.

2) After graduation, I took a technology publishing job in San Francisco and lived there for nearly 10 years. The world of Silicon Valley, corporate executives, start-ups, expensive rents, and worldwide travel for work was exciting. The stunning beauty, the hills, the Bay, and even the fog made it all worth it.  (Fun fact: I raced sailboats for many years in San Francisco Bay.)  In 1998, I transferred with my publishing job to Indianapolis assuming it would be an easy stop on my way to New York City. But I also found I had no need to move since I could easily be in my office in mid-town with little trouble. I liked Indy’s pace, cost of living, and the ability to make a difference right here at home. I found a group of wine-loving friends who goes to Burgundy each fall for an annual celebration of the new vintage, but in 2014, I found myself taking the trip alone. I planned a stop in Paris because I love nothing more than to wander around taking photos in foreign cities. Using those famous towers as a landmark, I once again found myself at Notre Dame. While photographing the detailed façade, I noticed something. The front courtyard is always awash in people, but I saw it was more than just a waiting area. It was a gathering place. People were meeting friends, playing with children, or posing for family photos in front of the iconic north belfries. It was like Paris itself – alive and vibrant. It was also a meeting place and a church, where people came together over a common sense of purpose. On my second trip to Notre Dame, I was reminded that landmarks create a gathering point bringing us together as a community.

3) The third time I saw Notre Dame was in 2016. My friend Becky joined us on our annual trip to Burgundy. We are simpatico when it comes to our love of food and wine, so our itinerary was mainly restaurant reservations and wine tasting appointments. However, we added a few extra days in Paris since Becky hadn’t been to the City of Light in a long time. (Fun Fact: There’s a Champagne bar at the top of the Eiffel Tower.) When I travel alone, I’m sure I spend far too much time sitting at cafes sketching and writing in my journal. It’s how I came to the Indianapolis Art Center. I began taking drawing classes so I could sketch on my travels. But Becky had a long list of things to do, and one was climbing to the top of towers at Notre Dame.  I was skeptical.

On our last day, 90 minutes before our train, we arrived at the appointed spot with our tickets. We were ushered inside a tower and began to climb stairs. We climbed. And climbed. And spiraled.  (And I stopped to huff and puff.) Then we climbed some more. However, as we stepped out on the first level, and then the top level, what a gift! The view with all of Paris was stunning. The iconic gargoyles – right at eye level – were keeping their watch over all of the city. And I found myself facing some of my favorite statues in the world, the saints and apostles descending from the spire with Joseph about to lose his balance and Thomas looking back into a window. Even later as we ran for the train, I was so grateful to Becky for insisting we see this spectacle of Paris. It was reminder that Notre Dame challenges us to be open to new things and constantly experiencing the world, seeing through new eyes those things we think we’ve seen time and time again.

4)  The fourth time I saw Notre Dame was just last year. My friend Dawn and I took the inaugural flight of Delta’s new non-stop service from Indianapolis to Paris! Dawn had been there the year before with her husband who after a few days declared he’d had enough of museums, art, and churches. She had missed Notre Dame. We signed up for a tour of Gothic Paris and walked all over learning the history of Notre Dame, its role as a city and church center, and what made it so architecturally and artistically unique. (Fun fact: Originally, the stone facades were painted in bright and beautiful colors.)  As we toured the inside with our guide pointing out art in hushed tones, a peace came over us all. Even in the crowds, the noise, and the priests trying to maintain order, we were overcome with the majesty of the space. Even far below the soaring vaults, there was the idea that somehow together we could all be a part of something so big, so important that it couldn’t be possible otherwise.  At the end, we stayed. We sat sill in chairs for a few minutes contemplating our places in the world. We prayed. We cried because that majestic open space under those soaring vaults can overwhelm you with emotion. It was a reminder that we are all connected. Art brings us together as friends, family, and citizens of the world. Seeing Notre Dame is a reminder that we can all make a difference if we just allow ourselves to consider our own role in the world. It’s a reminder to seek our own landmarks and use them to bring people together to create something bigger than any single one of us. Notre Dame teaches us that together, we build communities around our own landmarks.  And that no matter where we are in the world, we are all part of Notre Dame.


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