Paris is Burning

Editor’s Note: KtB wants to know: What are your memories, associations, and thoughts about the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral? How has the fire at this historic sacred space and soul of a city affected you?

I was walking through my kitchen yesterday when I saw the pictures on my in-laws’ computer. Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames.

I didn’t realize until that moment I had a Notre-Dame-shaped hole in my heart, the part that feels like jet lag on the first day of my honeymoon, which we’d left for just the day after the wedding, of course. We’d stopped for espresso and croissant as soon as we got off the train on our way in from the airport; we needed something quintessentially Parisian as soon as possible. After the quick bite, we carried our traveler’s backpacks to our cheap-ish hotel with no A/C, dropped off our bags, and headed for the île Saint-Louis, and Notre-Dame Cathedral. We’re not Catholic, but as religious studies scholars, we put cathedrals on the top of our sight-seeing list every time.

We snapped a picture from the bridge, the famous rose window looking small as a lollipop from several blocks away. The spire stood just visible above the tower on the right.

Jet-lagged, we joined the crowds staring up at the twin towers. This was back in the days before cell phones, when we lugged a bulky and not particularly great digital camera as part of our baggage. Crowds pressed up against the carved wooden doors, eager to get inside. I leaned as far back as I could without falling over, trying to capture the height of the towers from just underneath, and couldn’t. We marveled at the ornate carvings, at the crowds pressing in at the doors, and joined them, eager to get inside.

An image of the towers and rose window of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, as seen from the outside.

Once inside, it was dark, surprisingly so. For all the Gothic era’s advances in bringing light into formerly dark, heavy churches, I was surprised at how dark the interior felt. Almost as dark as if there had just been a fire.

Yesterday, I realized that the the hole in my heart felt like the hush when you step inside a place that seen a thousand years of prayer, pilgrimage, and power, a hush that’s there beneath the murmur of hundreds of tourists trying to be quiet. The hole I didn’t know was there felt like the sudden, possible absence of almost a millennia’s worth of art, religion, and history, the space that’s left by the world being a better, more complete place because it has something like Notre-Dame in it, because I and countless others could go there and lean our heads back and try to capture all that it in the shutters of whatever cameras we’d brought, and fail. Paris is burning.

My KtB co-editor Briallen Hopper tweeted yesterday, “Literally teaching Paris is Burning tomorrow which is an elegy to so many beloved children prematurely dead. This life is loss and loss. Going to take a long fast windy walk to try to outrun it for a while.”

The two towers standing above the cathedral’s entrance didn’t fall in yesterday’s fire, unlike the other two towers whose burning fall came all-too-readily to mind. How could we not wonder if another doubled symbol for a city and a way of life would fall, even if I try not to read too much into the supposed symbolism? One history is not the same as another.

The spire fell, still, and last night, thousands of people–Parisians, and others who would have cathedral-shaped holes in their hearts–stood outside to sing hymns as the fire burned, and was extinguished. The structure remained surprisingly sound, now with gaping wounds in the roof revealing seared of stone and wood. The hole is not the whole, not as large as it could be. We are all Paris, I thought, any of us who have cathedral-shaped holes in our hearts. Rebuilding is not the same as loss; scar tissue is not the same as history.

Years ago, my then-new husband and I left the cathedral, awestruck, stepping out into sunlight from darkness and blinking our eyes. We stumbled to a cafe nearby and tried to read the menu, ordering salade niçoise because we were reasonably sure we understood the words. Behind us, fresh in our memories, a cathedral stood. I wonder if the next time I have a salade niçoise, it will taste ever so slightly of ash.


KtB wants to know: What are your memories, associations, and thoughts about the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral? How has the fire at this historic sacred space and soul of a city affected you? KtB would love to hear and share your reflections in the coming weeks. Send your thoughts to submit [at] killingthe Buddha [dot] com (and read more about submitting, here).

Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.