Landing in Paris hadn’t improved my mood.
This was just before Christmas. My wife, our children and I had planned for months to spend the holidays in France. It was a chance to see how a different country and culture celebrated the season – and a way for the four of us to get away together.
A series of travel miscues, though, meant that my wife, daughter and son couldn’t come on the same flight I was on. A sleepless night on the plane left me convinced that everything that could go wrong on our trip would go wrong. I was certain they wouldn’t be joining me the next day, as planned, and that I then would have to figure out how to get back to the States to be with them.
Without having any French words in my vocabulary beyond “merci” and a few stray obscenities I’d picked up here and there.
I stumbled and stamped around the apartment we’d rented in the Second Arrondissement, unpacking and trying to figure out how the rather complicated shower worked. My thoughts darkened as I did so.
Finally, I decided that the only way to deal with my irritated melancholy was to get out and walk around.
I pulled out a map to orient myself and then started strolling toward the Seine. It was a mild late afternoon, the kind of weather for a light sweater.
Because it was the Friday before the holiday, people were out. I maneuvered my way through crowds, listening to the cooing of spoken French as I passed young, old and in-between on the streets.
When I reached the Seine, the sun had begun to drop.
I stopped on a bridge over the river and spent long minutes contemplating the flow of the water and steady descent of the sun. Something resembling contentment pressed at the edges of my mind, but I pushed it away.
Tired and frustrated, I was determined to stay grouchy.
I resumed my walk.
My steps took me to Notre Dame.
The day had faded into evening. The sky had darkened, and the moon sat in the sky like a pale wafer while the clouds drifted past it.
The grounds in front of the cathedral had been decorated for Christmas, blue lights glowing on a stately tree a few dozen feet from the imposing front doorway. People went into the church by ones and twos and threes, either to worship or to marvel at its beauty.
The building was stunning, a masterpiece of gothic architecture with its sturdy but graceful spires reaching into the deepening night.
But there was more to it than that.
The knowledge that, for the better part of a millennium, people had been coming here in times of both hope and torment, that generation upon generation had both rejoiced and sought solace on this spot, pressed against my foul mood with a force that could not be resisted.
The sight of Notre Dame reminded me of what was both eternal and what was merely passing. What mattered and what didn’t.
My spirits lifted.
And I walked away, as so many others through the ages have done, warmed and comforted by the presence of an old church on a dark night.
Flames consumed much of Notre Dame a few days ago. The fire provoked paroxysms of grief around the globe.
The mourning was for far more than a building. Wood, stone, mortar and even artifacts can be repaired and replaced.
But Notre Dame was and is more than the materials used to construct it.
Through the centuries, it has been a place of refuge for weary and haunted souls. Many a troubled spirit has trudged to its doors and left them, burden lessened, with a quicker, easier stride.
Such places are rare in this or any other era. Such temples of respite and rejuvenation make a difference and are to be treasured.
I can attest to that.