WIT welcomes Emilie Grosvenor as a guest poster. Emilie studied philosophy of religion at California State University, Dominguez Hills and went on to receive an MA in theological studies from Loyola Marymount University. She is a PhD candidate within the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews. Her research concerns the intersection of feminist Mariology and popular religion. Emilie currently lives in Scotland with her husband and two sons.
Notre Dame de Paris burned in the midst of current global crises and opportunities. Each day we hear of random acts of violence, the human and environmental cost of climate change, as well as the political unrest which plagues many of our nations. We are keenly aware of these evils. For those of us with access to the internet and smartphones, it takes a conscious effort to remain ignorant of world events. Coupled with this are our own personal problems. The demand for our attention is so great that we must choose what deserves our care and voice. The need for discernment has been heightened and with it, an opportunity to recognize our interconnectedness. Our awareness of being a part of this intricate web of existence is a recent phenomenon, and the nature of interconnection has only grown more complicated with the growth of a globalized economy.
In this context, social media was filled with seemingly competing reactions before Notre Dame’s fires had even been extinguished. News feeds lauded companies for donating extravagant sums of money to its reconstruction only to, moments later, lament that such attention be given to a building rather than toward solving the water crisis in Flint or recovery in Puerto Rico. There can be no doubt that Notre Dame de Paris is celebrated internationally, and as such a great deal of loss was felt when we saw her steeple fall. How then shall we speak of her when human beings, along with the rest of the living world God has created, are often ignored in their suffering? Notre Dame de Paris has meaning in so far as she gathers us in, providing a place of peace and constancy in the midst of struggle. In her we feel the littleness that connects us as creatures: that feeling of awe that points to something beyond the stone.
Much has been said the last several days about the historical significance of Notre Dame de Paris. The outpouring of love internationally has proven her to be a space that is not only precious to Roman Catholics and France but to people across nationalities, creeds, and cultures. I wish to bring another perspective to Notre Dame, that of a string connecting the generations of women in my family. Notre Dame de Paris, like many cathedrals consecrated to Mother Mary, was constructed to be a womb of mercy.
Medievalist, Peter Fingelstein, remarks that Notre Dame de Paris, along with other 12th century cathedrals, reflects the pervasiveness of the Marian cult in the middle ages. Cathedrals consecrated to Notre Dame were designed to make the church-goer feel as if they had entered the womb of the Blessed Mother, a place of infinite mercy where Christ resides. As Theotokos, or God-bearer, Mary is often associated with the temple, an architectural structure in which the Divine rests. Notre Dame de Paris is thus modelled after Mary’s body. The main entrance, with its vaulted shape, alludes to Mary’s anatomy. It is the virginal door through which we enter the womb of Mary and find Jesus. The vaulted interior has been argued to be reminiscent of her ribcage. The sun’s light passing through the stained glass windows is symbolic of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary whilst she remains a virgin. Fingelstein notes that to a contemporary mind, such symbology seems far-fetched but asserts, “The fundamental rule in an allegorical interpretation of architecture is that form does not follow function but symbol.” Roman Catholic theology in the Middle Ages emphasized the role of Christ as Judge, and Mary as all-merciful mediatrix. Therefore, beginning with plans for its construction in the 12th century Notre Dame de Paris was made with the intention of being, for Paris, and all her pilgrims, a womb of mercy that provides a space for the faithful of all walks of life to encounter Christ.
In Notre Dame we receive the Eucharist, and are birthed out in communion as the Body of Christ, ideally ready to act as his hands and feet in the world. However, for the women in my family that lived through the first half of the twentieth century, mass and the liturgy were not the times in which the presence of God was most keenly felt. The men, the celibate, and the elderly had a far greater chance of appreciating the liturgy than a woman with three small children in tow. This is not to say that they did not attend mass, but that personal connection and quiet moments with the Divine were more likely to take place on an afternoon when a baby was unexpectedly napping in the landeau and there was time between errands, or when a grandmother had the children for the afternoon and one could escape with her rosary to kneel before St. Therese. When the children got a bit older they could be shown, as I was, how to pray before La Sainte Vierge, how to whisper, how to be soothed by God’s presence, how to light a candle.
My grandmother was born in Avlon, on the outskirts of Paris in 1905. At nine years old, she first experienced what was to become an unfortunate recurring experience in her life, that of being left behind to fear and hope during a time of war. Lighting candles and praying before the Virgin is where the women in my family, in all our difference, find common ground. Mary is the great equalizer. Notre Dame, while an active parish, was not our neighborhood parish. Notre Dame was a place of pilgrimage within the city. Notre Dame is a place of refuge, a place to flee to your mother’s arms at times of great importance: whether the time be marked by danger, joy, or hope. It was the place to make the ultimate supplicant prayer that a father return home from the Great War.
When my grandmother became an adult and worked in the heart of Paris, Notre Dame de Paris and La Chappelle de la Médaille Miraculeuse became more regular, sometimes daily, destinations for prayer and consolation. She credited the rosary and these visits to la Sainte Vierge with finding my grandfather, her husband of 61 years. During the occupation of Paris she, her sisters, and my great-grandmother said their chapelet, lit candles, and begged for courage, for protection, for liberty, to be able to feed their children, to see my grandfather again. Notre Dame is where prayers were said for my mother’s cousin, a young boy who died of cancer in the midst of the occupation with little to no pain medication. Notre Dame holds all these prayers within its walls, and so many millions more.
At a time when Paris was under the shadow of the occupation, and evil disguised itself as normalcy, Notre Dame continued to provide refuge. Its immensity helped Parisians to feel their littleness, reminding them that God was greater than their current circumstances. When bombs fell over Paris, Notre Dame remained, thus becoming not only a source of spiritual nourishment, but historical hope. Notre Dame remained behind with the women of Paris. She would shelter them, and accompany them in their time of trial. Finally, she became the ultimate symbol of liberation for the French people, my family included, when De Gaulle marched through Paris after Germany’s defeat, entering Notre Dame, as the city shouted the Magnificat.
Notre Dame de Paris continues to humble us, even in her burning. My dear friend, Jessica Gerhardt, a youth minister and musician, shared the thought as Notre Dame was still in flames, Behold I am creating something new… In her burning we remember that as a cathedral she is but stone, and will eventually return to dust as we all will. Her architectural beauty, expansiveness, and stained glass point to something greater: an eternal, ineffable love and mercy that the greatest of monuments can but hint at. The building has meaning in so far as it is a concrete place wherein we are physically gathered in Spirit and have been for centuries. This has only increased in the decades since the liberation of Paris. Pilgrims from all nations and faith traditions wander or sit in silence within her walls, placing our feet on floors worn from the feet of others long since passed. Notre Dame serves as a reminder of our connection to others across space and time. In her womb we are reminded that we are knitted together, and are therefore bound to each other. Recognizing the infinite mercy of the divine we can go out and have the courage to be that infinite mercy to others.
Perhaps this is the reason I found myself filled with hope when hearing that the burning of Notre Dame had inspired people to donate to the southern Black churches which had recently become victims of arson, when I saw Parisians, typically so averse to religiosity in the public sphere, kneeling in the streets in prayer, and when the Bishop of Paris used his words to comfort those of Sri Lanka rather than only to lament the loss of part of the Cathedral.
Some of the elders in my family worry that they will not have the chance to walk into Notre Dame de Paris again in this life as the long process of reparations begins. There is a grief associated with this end to what is familiar and accessible. Yet there is also an opportunity in this crisis to remember what Notre Dame de Paris reminds us of and calls us toward: the reality of Spirit that pervades our history, making new life even when every last stone is sand. May we all point toward the divine as Notre Dame de Paris, continuously gathering people in steadfast mercy, ever aware of our interconnection and responsibility within God’s Kingdom.
- Fingesten, Peter. “Topographical and Anatomical Aspects of the Gothic Cathedral.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, no. 1 (1961): 3-23. doi:10.2307/427347.
- Gonzalez-Andrieu, Cecilia. Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012.
- Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
- Rausch, Thomas. Eschatology, Liturgy, and Christology. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012.
- Tracy, Kisha G. “Why You Don’t Need to Be French or Catholic to Mourn the Notre Dame Fire,” The Washington Post. published 17 April 2019, accessed: 12 May 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/04/17/why-you-dont-need-be-french-or-catholic-mourn-notre-dame-fire/?utm_term=.57fa4db5f41b
- Wilson, Brittany E. “Mary and Her Interpreters,” Women’s Biblical Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, 514–5. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.