Memories of Notre Dame

How very sad it is to hear about the tragic fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Thankfully, no one was killed there. How much I enjoyed the singing – quite beautiful and different. I remember its sense of permanence, of strength, and of great beauty and solidity.

This has brought back memories of our three visits to Notre Dame, and visits to other famous churches.

The first visit to Notre Dame was in January 1974, when you walked through the vegetable markets (Les Halles) in the Ile de la Cite to get to the Cathedral. We climbed onto the roof. The gargoyles were very scary.

In February 2010 we returned. This time our bags were screened, although entry was free of charge. Bad weather meant we could not climb the tower but we did see Le Tresor.

In July 2016 we came back again, but climbing the tower was now out of the question. An African priest said Mass. I like the way church is part of everyday life in Europe – church services carry on, people go in and out, you can sit down and listen and enjoy what’s being said. They turn the heating on! A friend of mine found it rather dark; for me, it is just there, recognizable, and beautiful. Afterwards we had lunch nearby, admiring the extraordinary exterior.

In 2010 we visited the famous Sacre Coeur at Montmartre, but to me it wasn’t as impressive as Notre Dame.

Back in our 1970’s trip we attended Mass at the cathedral at Toulouse, still in Latin, recognizable to Catholics everywhere, although the homily was in French. At a street market outside JD bought his maroon velvet suit (later worn by some of our boys). He could then wear the suit out to dinner – we had not realised, coming from New Zealand, how formal people were in England and Europe!

In Vienna we visited St Stephen’s Cathedral. What I remember best is the guard’s glee when, after visiting the Catacombs, we had to climb up a ladder and make our way through a trapdoor to get out!

In Milan we saw the famous Duomo, with the statue of Saint Bartholemew holding his skin.

In Italy we went to the Duomo in Florence (Firenze), where we saw one of Michelangelo’s Pieta, and we climbed the dome (for the first time). It was like an eggshell within another eggshell. Before climbing the stairs between the shells, you can walk around the base of the dome (inside) and admire the painted ceiling. What a beautifull place! And how nice to wander around in 1974, when most things were free. In 2010 a child kept jumping on the narrow walkway, which I found quite unsettling.

We visited St Mark’s in Venice in 1974. St Mark’s Square was windswept, but the almost deserted cathedral was quite beautiful, although we were both a bit disorientated and overwhelmed by all the ancient beauty and the history of it all. There were relics there – really!

We also saw St Peter’s at the Vatican twice, in 1974 and again in February 2010, home to Michelangelo’s Pieta of the young Madonna and her Son, Jesus. St Peter’s is vast. There are marks on the floor indicating how small other great cathedrals are, in comparison. The golden altar is very grand, and there are lots of entombed bodies. In 2010 we climbed the spire, but I found it very vertiginous, and was desperate to get down again. The Italians seemed to keep sending tourists up there, despite the cold, wind, and lack of space.

In Palermo in 2010 we saw yet more magnificence, and I kept getting the impression, after being repeatedly charged for everything, that the Catholic Church was very rich indeed.

We went to the small town of Monreale, and waited for the church to re-open, drinking wine and coffee at a cafe and trying not to flush the toilet with toilet paper!
This was one of the famous gold-decorated churches – another style altogether. I am so pleased we saw this. Then we saw the Norman Cathedral in Palermo, more gold decoration.

Have we had enough sumptuous churches, Madonnas, paintings yet?

At the end of our trip in 2010, between catching the overnight train from Palermo and going to Fiumicino Airport to begin our flight back to New Zealand, we visited a special church in Rome: Santa Maria della Vittoria, which housed the famous statue by Bernini, the Ecstasy of St Teresa. We had tried to visit this several times, and it was always locked. But now it was open – there was to be a service. They turned on the heating (you still had to pay 2 Euros for a light to be shone on the sculpture), but we sat down and enjoyed the matter-of-fact rendition of the Mass in Italian.

In London we saw Westminster Abbey, and Southwark Cathedral, which I had thought was the burial place of Geoffrey Chaucer, one of my favourite poets, on whom I’d done an Honours paper. He was also partly the inspiration for my son Geoffrey’s name. Since then I can find no record of Chaucer’s being buried there. But we did visit the Cathedral. At that time it was near a motorway on ramp, mixing beauty and ugliness in a very English way.

We also went to Canterbury Cathedral, twice – the inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral where Thomas Becket was killed. A beautiful and awesome place. In 2010, it was distinguished by having a Starbucks outside.
We have also been to York Minster, twice – another beautiful church, although last time there were places we couldn’t visit because Mediaeval Morality Plays were being performed. The Rose window is lovely, and there is a statue of Constantine outside!
In Glasgow we visited the imposing Cathedral of St Mungo, with mauve stained glass windows, a necropolis nearby, and Blackadder Aisle.

And then there is Cambridge, England – the King’s College Chapel, with its distinctive choir, its Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, and its roof space. We visited this in 2010, climbed the stairs, and looked out over Cambridge and the River Cam. We also attended Evensong. In 2016 we visited the Chapel at Christ’s College, Cambridge – quite a small space, but the scene of many important events.

I also visited the Catholic Cathedral at Lancaster, together with Alfred. This too was memorable. In the UK one is constantly reminded of the sometimes bitter conflict between the Catholic and Protestant faiths.

Bear with me, I am almost done here!

In July 2016 we visited the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We were very fortunate to buy tickets to visit the Cathedral on our second day there. What a marvellous place! Light-filled, different, quite wonderful, and quite non-Catholic, to me. What a welcoming, embracing place! It is inspiring, and still unfinished, but amazing. The Spanish designers have been allowed to have their way in creating beautiful spaces.

And, on another note, we visited the Picasso museum in the Gotic quarter, and a church nearby, where there was a service taking place. I recognise the 23rd Psalm: El Signor es mi Pastore…

All cathedrals are different…in my view, God is not confined to church spaces, but many churches have a particular spirituality, and an atmosphere of peace and quiet and joy. In my dreams I will visit Notre Dame again, when it has been rebuilt.


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