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Rediscovering sacred space in the embers of Notre–Dame

Rediscovering sacred space in the embers of Notre–Dame

Hannah Rich reflects on sacred space and religious heritage in the aftermath of the Notre–Dame fire. 24/04/2019

Standing outside the Sacré–Cœur, I watched the last few plumes of smoke rise up from Notre–Dame as the sun went down over Paris. A few years ago, I lived in Paris and worked for an ecumenical Christian charity. Back then, the city captured a part of my heart and taught me much about the value of coexisting traditions. I had come back for a wander down memory lane but instead found more lessons to learn about faith and heritage.

It was beautiful and heart breaking and everything in between to be at the late night mass in the basilica just hours after fire had taken hold of the city’s cathedral. Even the announcements at the end of the service were rendered poignant. One priest faltered as he gave details of the upcoming Wednesday night chrism mass, now without a location. I watched a woman with tears in her eyes hesitate and cross herself as she lit a candle.

During mass, the priest described how he had been at Notre–Dame for a meeting that same evening which had been cut short by the fire alarms. He spoke about how, several centuries ago, the decision was made to dedicate half the money raised for renovating Notre–Dame to rebuilding the neighbouring Hôtel–Dieu – a hospital traditionally run by the Catholic Church for the poor and needy, whose patients were at the time spilling over into the cathedral and esplanade.

This anecdote has echoed in my ears since as commentators have baulked at the amount of money that has been donated for the rebuilding of the cathedral against the backdrop of austerity and protests about taxation. The day’s gospel was the story of the woman pouring perfume on Jesus’s feet, a reminder that the choice between religious observance and material beauty is not always binary.

Perhaps there are always three hundred people attending mass there at 10pm on a Monday night – it was Holy Week, after all. But it felt as if many of those there had come, like me, because it was the only reaction to what was unfolding a couple of miles away at the diocesan mother church. From the numbers who did not go up to receive communion, it seemed it was not just the most devout of Catholics who had gathered. In a country wedded to secularism, the burning of Notre–Dame appeared to have moved even those outside the Christian faith to mourn their national icon.

The next day, I walked to the edge of the police cordon on Quai Montebello. From that angle, if you squinted through the cherry blossom, ignored the faint smell of smoke and the lingering sirens, Notre–Dame looked strangely untouched. Someone had scrawled a note and pinned it to a tree:

“April 16th 2019. The rain is salty this morning. It is the tears of the souls of all those who built Notre–Dame and their sadness.”

France’s point zéro – the official geographical centre of Paris and the position from which distances have historically been measured – is located in the square outside Notre–Dame, between the cathedral and the original Hôtel–Dieu, which was the first hospital in the city. Since it was built, the centre of French society may have drifted away from the church but the reaction of a city whose cultural and social identity is entwined with the bricks and burning timber of Notre–Dame suggests that the magnetic pull of its point zéro somehow remains.

If mass at the Sacré–Cœur reminded me that the church is more than bricks and mortar, flying buttresses and gorgeous spires, it also reminded me of the enduring sacredness of those spaces. In the rebuilding of the cathedral out of the embers, perhaps there might also be a recalibration of France’s relationship to faith and to the church. Somewhere between architectural beauty, hospitality to the stranger and deep religious faith, point zéro might be rediscovered.


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 Image © Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich

Posted 24 April 2019

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