Last Monday, as I stumbled past my husband on my way to bed, he looked up from reading on his Ipad and announced, “I have bad news.”
What now, I wondered. Isn’t constant bad news the new norm?
“Notre Dame is burning, and there’s been a lot of damage. The spire has fallen.”
I feel gut-punched. I love Paris, and Notre Dame for me has been at its center. My heart ricochets with the loss. I struggle for breath.
As the Washington Post would write the next day: “The fall of Notre Dame is a body blow to Paris and all it represents.” I feel the hit as well, joining others around the world.
Last summer, I stood on the plaza in front of Notre Dame, watching an interminably long line of tourists roast in the sun while snaking slowly towards the Cathedral. No sense standing in that line, I thought. Better to savor the memories of visits, years ago, when I could enter Notre Dame easily, without a crowd.
I’d sit by myself on dreary winter days when I wanted to feel uplifted by the soaring height of its arched ceilings, the light streaming through the stained glass, or the occasional music rising from the organ. I found myself drawn inward, into reverence, while I sat in the dark pews, obscured by the dim light, smelling the scent of prayer candles and incense. Notre Dame filled me with a sense of mystery and awe.
And now it’s been grievously wounded.
There was always another side to Notre Dame, balancing its solemnity.
Perched high on its outside walls lived a strange set of characters: the gargoyles. Part monstrous, part whimsical, they delighted the tourists who climbed long flights of stairs to gain a closer view of their grotesque forms.
Early gargoyles guarded the temples in ancient Egypt, protecting them from the vengeful god Seth. Later gargoyles were incorporated into architecture as rainspouts, to keep water from running down an edifice. Gargoyle comes from the French word “gargouille” meaning “throat” or “gullet,” referring to the channel through which water could pour.
Over time, they began to be designed as ornaments and relieved of their water-carrying duties. Notre Dame has both water-carrying gargoyles and famous ones that are “off-duty,” and might be more properly called “chimera.”
The purpose of their grotesque faces isn’t entirely clear. Some say gargoyles were meant to warn the population about the presence of evil; others say that gargoyles were placed to protect a sacred space from evil.
I think they’re meant to show how the divine and the profane are entwined. Even on top of one of the world’s most beautiful religious structures, little monsters sit enjoying the view.
Which leads me back to the business of finding the resilience within devastating loss.
Losing all to the volcano
Last year, I watched in horror as a fissure on the island of Hawaii sent lava flows barreling towards the house of my friend, Jane Howard. I saw pictures online of her neighbor’s home in flames, as a relentless stream of lava crept closer to Jane’s. Her entire community, Leilani Estates, was destroyed, her house covered by 45 feet of lava.
She lost almost everything.
Jane is one of the most upbeat, creative people I know, and she survived, with support from friends around the world. I can only imagine the treasures that she must have lost. In interviewing her recently for my Vital Presence podcast, Jane spoke about how she considers it a blessing to have lightened her load of belongings. Memories of trauma still live within her; new earthquakes can set off memories of the quakes that opened up the earth last year. That taste of trauma has given Jane empathy for the aftershocks her students still carry within them–and the understanding to help others find their resilience.
When asked what advice she would give to those hit by major tragedies, she says, “Go easy on yourself.”
The resilience will be there; kindness will help you find it.
Losing the Possibility of Life
At the same time I heard about Paris, I happened to be reading a book by a writer who received a diagnosis of ALS, the nasty and degenerative Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It comes with no cure. Philip Simmons lived nine years post-diagnosis, long enough to write Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. In this gorgeous, very human, uplifting series of reflections on living in the face of loss, Simmons writes about family, the quirkiness of his community, and offers his thoughts on faith. Contemplating his impending death appears to have magnified his relationship to life. In his words:
“We deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.”
His openness to life increased, even as the number of days left to him decreased. The light within loss
I can’t pretend that loss is fun or make it cheery because of a so-called silver lining. Losing what you most love hurts. ALS sucks.
Darkness and light travel together, and loss can carry within it seeds for new life. Following a devastating forest fire in the summer, seeds will germinate, and by the next spring, plants will start to grow in the charred ground. Life continues.
- The burning of Notre Dame caused irreparable loss–and will awaken many to see how much they care for this iconic structure.
- Lava consumed a home–and a woman built her capacity to help others while her community banded together to help her.
- A man received a death sentence from ALS and received the gift of presence in life.
Resilience does not make everything right again. Resilience shows us the life that lives within loss.
I hope that the gargoyles of Notre Dame survived. Let them remind us that loss and gifts, light and shadow, monsters and saints can live together.
Let them watch over the rebuilding so new beauty can arise from the rubble.