A prayer of thanks for Our Lady

In my living room hangs a large photo of central Paris taken at night that I bought at IKEA years ago.

The City of Light is gorgeous in the image, with its many bridges crossing the Seine; the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and other famous Parisian landmarks are clearly visible and in the distance, a few lights on a hillside where Sacre-Coeur Basilica overlooks her city.

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After I first hung it up and stepped back, I was suddenly confused and disoriented.

Where was Our Lady? Where was Notre Dame?

In the late winter of 1991, a young Canadian university graduate, unwilling to start his journalism career quite yet, boarded a night train at King's Cross in Central London for Dover. From there, a midnight shuttle bus to the ferry, the port lights casting sinister shadows on those famous white cliffs as Chris Isaak's Wicked Game played quietly on the radio next to the driver.

After a 90-minute English Channel crossing through the inky darkness to Calais, another train awaited to take me and other sleepy travellers south to Gare du Nord, one of the largest and busiest train stations in Europe.

Walking out alone onto the streets of Paris at 8 a.m. on a cool March morning was dreamlike. For the next two days, I wandered her streets and rode the Metro, paying my respects to Jim Morrison at Pere Lachaise, a gorgeous, sprawling cemetery fitting for a gorgeous, sprawling city, strolling the length of the Champs Elysess from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, sitting on a bench in Champ de Mars Park, Eiffel's Tower peering over my shoulder as I wrote a postcard in sloppy French to my dear memere Yvette back in Canada.

A night visit to the top of the tower and an evening pilgrimage to see Mona Lisa and the rest of the Louvre's treasures were spectacular but they paled in comparison to Our Lady, to Notre Dame.

I arrived early and basked in her beauty.

The winter sunlight made the gargoyles playful and the spires sparkle. I circled her twice, admiring her enduring permanence, that she had been built three centuries before the first Godbout left France for Quebec in 1651, that she was half a millennium old at Napoleon's coronation as emperor, that she survived two world wars and a Nazi occupation.

Finally, I entered with the adoring crowd. To a rebellious youth who had turned his back on his Catholic upbringing years earlier, Notre Dame was a revelation. She reminded me that the divine is nowhere near as remote and unattainable as it seems to those who have misplaced their faith.

Suddenly a boy once more, certain in the magnificence of his saviour, I dipped my fingers into the water of the font and made the sign of the cross. I briefly admired the organ, the stained glass, the architecture and the art in the areas open to the public but felt like a shallow tourist.

Notre Dame is a world treasure, the beating heart of the French people, second only to The Vatican in its significance to Catholics. Yet she is first and foremost a church, a place of worship.

So I genuflected and knelt in one of her pews, a short distance from a gaggle of nuns, heads bowed over their rosaries, offering their penance. The altar boy bubbled to the surface, moving my lips in time with them: "holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now..."

I sat quietly for a time. The cathedral filled up with tourists, their harsh voices loudly violating the sanctity of the worshippers.

"Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," I smirked as I stood.

Before leaving, I lit a votive candle for my memere and my equally devout mother.

Then, a gift.

A group of children had assembled in an area near the front altar, shepherded by several adults. I mistook them for a class trip.

Until they began to sing.

Their high, clear voices leapt from their throats, bouncing off the walls and domed ceiling, amplified by the stone and wood and glass, overwhelming and silencing the unfaithful intruders in her house.

The song ended, the choir master spoke briefly to his pupils in French and then they sang once more, in Latin this time. I let their harmonies carry my feet out into the noonday sun

A lifetime later and a world away, I could not find this holy place in the night Paris picture on my living room wall. It bothered me every time I looked at it. Paris without Notre Dame seemed as frigid and bare as childhood without a mother's embrace.

My sister lived for a month in Paris so I took a picture of Paris on my living room wall and sent it to her, hoping she could find Notre Dame for me.

Her reply perfectly summarized both her female wisdom and the ignorance of her older brother.

You can't see Notre Dame, she patiently wrote, because the picture is taken from Notre Dame, probably from the top of the north tower overlooking the cathedral's front entrance.

Then and now, that knowledge brings me peace.

Some feel a fire gutting her at the start of the holiest week on the Christian calendar was cruel but the opposite is true. It was a poetic reminder. Easter brings the faithful together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, whose death shone light on a path to everlasting life. Monday's fire was a breath of wind to the burning love many feel for Notre Dame, believers and non-believers alike. She will be lovingly and joyfully restored to her previous glory.

On my living room wall rests a depiction of a beautiful, shining city as seen from the eyes of a holy sanctuary, a testament to what flawed sinners can do together when they lift their eyes beyond their shallow, worldly concerns.

No fire can extinguish that spirit or Our Lady who embodies it.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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