I wrote this piece a year ago, shortly after the great fire at Notre Dame. I tried to sell it to a handful of places but got no bites (though one, at least, did get back to me and say it was a great piece!). Rather than leaving it languishing here on my computer, I thought I would share it, just after the first anniversary of the fire.


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Notre Dame on fire by  Nivenn Lanos at Unsplash

The week that Notre Dame burned, someone broke into our home. Throwing a stone through a double glazed window, they wriggled through the space left by one pane, and then went through the house looking for easily-portable treasure. In the end they didn’t take so very much: my husband’s iPad, my laptop. A lot of jewellery, none of it worth very much except to my heart.

Three nights later I watched the footage of the cathedral spire collapsing, and felt my stomach drop as it had when I opened the door to broken glass: a sensation like stumbling, the moment before your hands hit the ground.

I lived in Paris for a year. It was not an uncomplicated one; Paris is an easy city to love as a visitor, and one that is hard to make a home, especially when half your salary is eaten by your rent and when the person you love most lives one time zone and four hundred miles away. But there were some unquestionably good parts, like buying a baguette and carrying it still warm under my arm, or sitting on the banks of the Seine talking to a friend while the sun set.

Notre Dame was an unquestionable good. In the first month that I lived in Paris, the city hosted a Nuit Blanche – an all-night art festival – and I roved from exhibit to installation, enchanted and amused. In Notre Dame, however, I stood in the ancient dark lit only by candles, and felt awe in my chest like a bruise. That was it, for me: I fell in love with its stones and shadows, and so despite being in a city littered with churches, and despite being only a fitfully practising Catholic, at least once a month I took the metro ten stops to go to mass. Although I was struggling to speak French in my daily life, at Notre Dame I fell into the comforting patter of the liturgy. I might not have known all the words, but my body remembered the shape of the service – when to genuflect, when to sit, when to hold out my hand for my neighbour to shake – and that sense-memory was a comfort. I remember tears coming to my eyes at the Good Friday service, which were shed in relief as much as pain; no matter how far I was from my support network, in that universal memory of suffering I was, I suppose, at home.

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Me in front of Notre Dame, September 2010

I thought about suffering a good deal that year, because it was a year that my grandmother was dying. I spoke to her regularly on the phone, and as the months passed she became increasingly agitated and distracted, her always-formidable temper sharpening into bitterness. Nana was never the serene kind of grandmother who bakes and provides a comfortable lap to sit on. She was full of piss and vinegar, fast to take offence, quick to criticise.  A miserable childhood had made it difficult for her to express affection in words, so instead her love language was giving gifts: sometimes improbable, always generous. Despite her failing health, she sent me – at great expense – a leopard print umbrella, with a torch built into the handle. She thought as a woman living alone in a new city that it would help me feel safe.

Two decades before that, Nana gave me my first scapular. The original scapular, still worn by some monastic orders, is an exterior garment. It demarcates membership of a particular order, as well as a more universal devotion to Christ: of being under his yoke, a call to obedience. The devotional scapular worn by lay people is something smaller, more discreet, that can be tucked beneath clothing. Mine never felt like a yoke, something turning me into a beast of burden. It felt like a secret, a cord running between me and God, and looking back I think that ribbon’s-width of connection between me and my grandmother comforted me too. I didn’t wear it daily, but throughout my childhood and adolescence I would take it out before any time of trial – exams, school plays, concerts – and tuck it beneath my shirt, with a fierce private intensity I kept folded within me and also burned to share.

The particular scapular that Nana gave me was a popular one, the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In Carmelite mythology, the Virgin Mary appeared to St Simon Stock and granted him a scapular, promising protection from hell. There were footnotes to all this, of course; it must be worn continuously, and it must be accompanied by chastity and the daily recitation of the Office of the Virgin. It is also meant to be invested by a priest, not passed between lay people. I didn’t know any of that, and I doubt Nana did either. A devoted Catholic from Belfast, she left school at thirteen and held passionate beliefs grounded more deeply in popular superstition than contemporary theology. When my mother was born, Nana surprised her parish priest by asking to be churched: an ancient ritual of cleansing that comes up regularly in the medieval records I use for my historical research, but which is no longer officially sanctioned by the Church. So for years I wore my uninvested scapular, but I doubt any blessing from a priest could have made me feel more invested in it: a talisman for me not of the Carmelite order, about whom I knew barely a thing, but of the power of gifts to uplift my heart.

The strangest part, in retrospective, about my wearing the scapular for so long was that even as a pious adolescent I never had any particular affinity for the Virgin: all my passion was turned toward Christ, and yet here I was wearing a symbol of intense devotion to his Mother. Nana, however, like many Catholic women of her generation, found comfort in prayer to Mary: a comfort that came out of solidarity with their shared motherhood and, perhaps, their shared suffering. So decades later, as I watched Our Lady of Paris burn, I was grieving not just for a place I loved, but for my mother’s mother; and perhaps too for a time when my faith was a simpler and cleaner thing. In the burglary I had lost much of the jewellery Nana had given me over the years, and a few small pieces I inherited after her death. They are gone, likely never to be recovered: something I realised with the same stomach-lurch of grief as when I saw Notre Dame’s spire fall.

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My mum, me and Nana in 2008 or thereabouts

In the morning, however, we saw that the cathedral’s rose windows somehow survived. Nana would have called it a miracle, ignoring the strange incompleteness of a miraculous intervention that tears down stone and lead but leaves fragile circles of ancient glass intact. Many people would have sneered at her for that, the same people who pose the problem of suffering in the face of a loving God not as an urgent philosophical question for a person of faith to unpack and unpack and unpack every day of their lives, but as a heartless sort of gotcha! about the futility of faith. While there are perfectly rational explanations for why those windows withstood the fire, their survival does what miracles are surely meant to do: offer a measure of hope that even when we are burned out, ground down, blown out, what we love endures.

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The windows surviving behind the ruins. Photo by Getty Images via ABC News