When I first saw the TV footage of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral silhouetted in fiery red flames, I felt the same disbelief, horror and shock as the rest of the world.
When one of the slender spires collapsed, those feelings turned to utter denial.
How could this be?
The 12th century Gothic cathedral, like Rome’s Colosseum, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the Tower of London, seemed invincible.
For 850 years, it had stood firm through war, revolution and numerous indignities.
The cathedral had survived a 16th century Huguenot riot, in which several of the statues – considered idolatrous — were damaged.
That was merely a precursor to what happened during the French Revolution when zealots, mistaking the 28 statues of biblical kings on the west façade for French kings, beheaded them.
This assault continued, with the statue of the Virgin Mary replaced by one of Lady Liberty, and the magnificent interior used – not for the saying of High Mass — but for the storage of food.
If Notre Dame could only be seen from the standpoint of historical significance, it would be enough.
From its position on Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine, it had witnessed the crowning of Henry VI of England as King of France in 1422 and the crowning of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor some four centuries later.
It was here that Joan of Arc, on her way to sainthood, was beatified by Pope Pius X in 1909.
But Notre Dame is so much more than a history lesson.
It represents the dreams and hopes of a nation and serves as a symbol of beauty to a world that is growing increasingly ugly.
The shock and disbelief I felt was quickly replaced by a deep sense of loss which one might feel for a dearly loved friend.
I found myself phoning other friends who had been there to share our memories.
Of those, I had plenty.
Childhood memories of picture books illustrating gruesome gargoyles and flying buttresses (though in truth I wasn’t sure what buttresses were or how they flew.)
As a teenager, I was mesmerized by Victor Hugo’s tale of its bell-ringing hunchback, Quasimodo, and his unrequited love for the gypsy Esmeralda.
But nothing could have prepared me for my first sight of Notre Dame, which came during a magical summer when I was in my early 20s.
I had a cubbyhole of a room on the Left Bank – so tiny that I banged my shin on the wall every time I got out of bed.
There was no TV, no minibar, and the shared bathroom was at the end of a long corridor.
It wasn’t what I didn’t have that I remember – it was what I had – a large window that perfectly framed Notre Dame.
Every night, I would turn out the light and lie there, marveling at its moonlit splendor.
I wouldn’t have traded it for the best of luxury suites.
On succeeding trips to Paris, no matter what arrondissement I stayed in, I always found my way back to the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame.
On one occasion, I listened as a historian told how during World War II, each piece of stained glass in the cathedral’s exquisite Rose Windows was painstakingly removed, numbered and buried to protect it from the Germans, only to be reassembled following the war.
On another trip, I sat in the darkness, lost in my thoughts and only looking up when a sweet-faced young nun passed my pew and smiling, told me to “avoir un jour beni (have a blessed day.)”
As I continued to watch news coverage and without knowing the full extent of the damage, I couldn’t help but wonder how was it possible that such a place could survive all it has only to be felled by a mechanical accident?
There is some good news.
The Crown of Thorns is safe at the Hotel du Ville; the Rose Windows appear intact, and many of the priceless art treasures, although smoke-damaged, have been taken to the Louvre where they will be dried out and stored.
French president Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild Notre Dame, no matter what it takes.
He can do nothing else, for if the Arc de Triomphe represents the heart of Paris and the Eiffel Tower the strength, Notre Dame represents its soul.