I and many, many people were rocked this week by the fire that broke out at Notre Dame Cathedral Monday night. I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled series of posts on recent short stories to share how Notre Dame Cathedral has figured in my writing, which points in many ways to my feelings about the cathedral. A beautiful architectural treasure, it’s also a touchpoint with history. I visited the cathedral in 2012 and 2016, and characters in my Phantom trilogy visited in 1881. The ability to visit the same place that was standing centuries ago is breathtaking.
More than that, Notre Dame is a constant. I’m so relieved that the most recent news suggests Monday’s fire marks a new chapter in Notre Dame’s long but continuing story. For a few hours, it looked like it could be the end of the story, and I found it impossible to imagine a world without Notre Dame Cathedral by the Seine.
Which is exactly how it appears in my Phantom trilogy as well–Meg in particular views it as a reliable source of constancy. Outside of the Opera Garnier (which is the setting for probably 90% of the trilogy), Notre Dame is the number one setting, woven into some of the most meaningful scenes, and a symbol of stability in an unstable world. Some passages were seeming painfully ironic on Monday–now, perhaps, they’re just a little more poignant?
Here are a few Notre Dame passages from my novels.
In Book One, Meg believes she may have to leave Paris soon, and looks for some comfort in the face of those worries.
I kept walking forward because it was the easiest direction, gazing into the distance without paying attention to the view. I had been staring at Notre Dame’s towers for at least a block before I properly realized it.
I could go there. I didn’t know anywhere more serene, stable and unmoving than Notre Dame Cathedral. Where better to go when my world had fallen out of balance? And it couldn’t be anything worse than the last visit for now. Beignets and booksellers’ stalls were fleeting, the Opera Garnier might close its doors to me, but I could always go back to Notre Dame. Maybe not soon, not if we moved away, but Notre Dame would never be gone. I’d be back someday.
I walked east along the Seine, took the Pont Neuf bridge across to the Isle de la Cité. The Seine sparkled below in the sunlight, so much more cheerful than I was feeling. I made my way through the narrow streets on the island, and as I approached across the last square those looming stone towers seemed to cut into the sky. It wasn’t the friendliest of buildings, but at this moment that solid sternness felt reassuring. I knew where the door to the towers was, and the priest sitting by it barely glanced up from his hymn book to give me a nod, acknowledging that visitors were allowed this afternoon. I stepped over the threshold, lifted my long skirts a few inches so I wouldn’t trip, and began the climb.
It was hundreds of steps up, most of them in a tight, circular stone stair. The stones were smooth from centuries of footsteps, shallow depressions worn into the center of each step. At intervals, narrow windows pierced the wall, each one showing a little more of the city as I went higher and higher. I could see the Opera’s roof before I was even halfway up. My legs were strong and my breathing good from years of ballet, but I was still glad to see the top.
When she descends the stairs again, she briefly goes inside.
The cathedral inside was cavernous and dim, the ceiling feeling barely lower than the sky outside. Colored light streamed in through the rose windows, cutting pink and orange rainbows through the shadows. The silence had a heaviness that was different from the silence of the stairwell. That had merely been the absence of noise. This silence had a presence, made up of solemnity, dignity and tradition. The incense smelled different here than it did in other churches, a smokier scent. Or maybe it wasn’t the incense that was different, just that there were so many candles, around every statue and in every niche. Something in me relaxed, just a little, as I inhaled that familiar scent.
I had been coming here for Easter morning mass for six years, and I knew the way to my favorite statue. It was of the Madonna and Child, much friendlier than some of the sad martyrs in other niches. I fished a centime out of my bag, dropped the coin into the small metal box nearby, and picked up a taper to light a candle in the racks around the statue.
Meg also thinks of Notre Dame when the chandelier falls, in a line that seems particularly ironic at the moment…
“What was that?” Philippe demanded, for the first time a tremor of fear beside his anger.
“That, my dear comte, was death.” The Phantom’s voice was icy, as he jabbed one finger towards the auditorium, out of sight beyond the stage curtains. “That was Götterdämmerung and the Last Trumpet and the sun crashing out of the sky. That was the chandelier falling and it is your fault. I might have stopped it if I wasn’t here dealing with you!”
It took me a strange length of time to make sense of his words. The chandelier? Yes, it had been swinging, but that was just smoke and mirrors, like the flaming skeleton. The chandelier could not fall, not the enormous, glittering, multi-ton chandelier. As soon say that Notre Dame’s centuries-old towers had gone pitching into the Seine.
Notre Dame figures in a more light-hearted scene in Book Two, on Easter Sunday.
I scanned along the stone walls, and was nearly to the back of the church before I saw an alcove with an unusually solid shadow, one that touched his hat when I approached.
“Good morning,” I answered, smiling despite how odd it felt to see him outside the Opera. Odd, incongruous—but still good to see him. I wondered inconsequently if he’d notice my yellow dress, new for Easter. He was dressed just as usual in his cloak, with a black felt hat. A full-face mask today, the cream-colored one that just showed his eyes and a squared-off space around his mouth and chin. “What are you doing here?”
Erik shrugged, setting his cloak rippling. “I came to hear the music. You were right when you said they’re very good.” From him, this was the highest magnitude of praise. He then made a show of looking up at the sky. “Clear day today—there must be an excellent view from the towers.”
I felt wary…but excited too. What plot was behind that so deliberate comment? “Yes, but with all the crowds for Easter, they have the towers closed.”
A smile spread below his mask. “To most people.” There was a door behind him, and now he reached back and pushed it open a few inches, far enough to reveal a stair within.
My thrill of excitement grew, though I tried to keep it out of my voice, tried to remain practical. “How did you find an unlocked door?”
“What makes you think it was unlocked when I found it?” he asked, a new glint in his green eyes.
I looked quickly around; no one seemed to be noticing us. “You can’t break into Notre Dame,” I hissed, torn between genuine unease and that teasing thrill of delight.
“Of course I can. Big old church like this, not even a challenge. Their security measures are 600 years old.” He turned towards the door, swinging it open farther.
“That’s not the point!”
“If you say so.” He looked back over his shoulder, one foot across the threshold. “Are you coming?”
“Yes,” I said, already stepping forward. Vague moral outrage was no competition for the lure of an adventure. And I had never been able to resist following Erik. Not even when I was twelve years old.
Near the end of Book Three, Erik goes to Notre Dame and…I may need to revise a few sentences in here about fire!
Notre Dame was still open, though mostly deserted this late in the day. No one paid any attention to him among the welcoming shadows. At least, not until he had lit half the candles in front of the bronze crucifix to the right of the door. Then a priest in a black cassock came gliding up to inquire if Monsieur needed assistance.
“Yes.” Erik paused, taper still in hand. “You can tell me how many candles there are.”
The priest looked at the rows of candles in front of them. “You mean here?”
“No, no, in the entire cathedral. I want to light all of them.”
“Are you aware there is a recommended donation per each—”
“Yes, I know, that’s why I’m asking.” Erik shook his head, and brought a paper note into his hand with a snap of his fingers. “Never mind, this should be enough.”
He handed it over, and the priest nearly dropped the paper as he looked at it. “A thousand franc note—!”
Erik resumed lighting candles. “It’s a very large prayer.”
“Do you need any assistance?” This in much warmer tones. “Anything at all?”
“No.” He stared meditatively at the flickering flames. “Except that I prefer not to be disturbed.”
“Of course, Monsieur!”
And he wasn’t. And when he had made his way all around the cathedral, and banks of fire glowed in every possible space, he came to a final halt in front of a statue of the Madonna and Child. It seemed the friendliest choice. She had clearly been a better mother than his ever was—and a child Jesus was less off-putting than the sad-eyed man on the various crosses around the hall. After all, it was a hopeful prayer.
3 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Notre Dame Cathedral”
Thanks for sharing these. It’s really sad about Notre Dame. But it’s been there for centuries and it’s been through a lot. Through revolutions and World Wars… it will survive this too.
Such evocative writing about the great cathedral of Paris – and all of France. Thank you for sharing these parts of you novel. The first photos of the fire were horrifying (and probably looked even worse in real time on television – we were traveling and were spared that), but it is reassuring that the French have vowed to rebuild. They apparently have the resources to do so, between government funds and an outpouring of private donations. This will be another chapter in the history of Notre Dame instead of the end of the story – thank God!
Thank you so much for sharing, Cheryl! I went to Notre Dame, too, on my spring break the year I studied in Germany. This devastation is so painful!