Some 13 million people visit Notre Dame a year; one of the world's most iconic and beloved Gothic cathedrals. Not only a notable architectural landmark, Notre Dame also lays claim to countless religious artifacts, including the Crown of Thorns, believed to have been worn by Jesus himself. In spite of its elevated status the world over, it's still very much a working parish, hosting a daily mass, baptisms, weddings, and Easter Sunday services for the citizens of Paris and for anyone who is attracted to its collective history from around the globe, regardless of their religious affiliation or subscribed faith (or lack thereof).
Cliff and I visited Notre Dame just a few years ago. We stayed at a quaint hotel on the island just a few blocks away so this stunning church and sacred monument was part of our daily landscape and view. Quite literally, the centerpiece of Paris and surrounded by the River Seine, Notre Dame has stood as witness to the divine for more than 850 years.
So with the unexpected and tragic news that Notre Dame was on fire on Monday (Notre Damn!) the world watched and waited with bated breath while thousands of Parisians gathered behind the police barricades and sang hymns deep into the night in honor of this magnificent structure and architectural treasure.
The early reports weren't hopeful. The iconic spire had caved in, as had the wooden roof (known as the forest) which had been built from thousands of oak trees felled between 1160 and 1170. Ironically, the wooden beams and hand-carved ceiling fueled the fire as it raged for more than nine harrowing hours. Still, heroic and successful efforts were made to retrieve or to save many of Notre Dame's religious relics, priceless works of art and artifacts, statues, sculptures, furniture and stained-glass windows. Were it not for the stone structure and the herculean efforts of the firefighters, the building might have been a total loss. Certainly, it will cost hundreds of millions (probably more than a billion) to rebuild. Still, once the smoke had cleared, remarkably, much of the structure was still intact . . .
Most of us don't have stone edifices protecting our walls, or well-heeled patrons to donate to their restorations in case of destruction; our beloved abodes our largely built on wooden frames which means they're completely vulnerable to fire, as we've seen the last few years. First, in Sonoma and then in Santa Rosa where fires quickly engulfed and laid waste to whole neighborhoods and communities while firefighters from across the state worked tirelessly to beat back the flames for days, and in some cases, for weeks.
AND while our personal artifacts, arguably, aren't as historically significant as the Crown of Thorns or the Tunic of St. Louis, every home has papers that are critically important to the lives of its residents including birth certificates, deeds of trusts, passports, social security cards, marriage certificates, etc., that would be better stored in a safe-deposit box at the bank. At the very least, they should be in a centralized location where you can easily access them should you need to flee quickly. If you have important jewelry or other like-kind items of real value, a home safe is an excellent investment and one I highly recommend. BTW, when fire victims are evacuated, it's their CHILDREN, their PETS, their important PAPERS, and their PHOTO ALBUMS that they are most likely to load into the car first. Speaking from the heart, everything else, is just "stuff."
So when I am asked to go into homes where people have literally been collecting "stuff" for 30 years and are struggling to extract themselves from their "things," I need to gently remind them that what's really important can usually be held in the palm of our hands. AND more importantly, putting aside ALL of our belongings, it's our memories that hold the most value - and happily, they move with us, no matter where we go. . . .
There's no doubt, given the donations pouring in from around the world that Notre Dame will be rebuilt as soon as feasibly possible, not only as an ongoing symbol of devotion, but as one of the world's most notable attractions. Still, I gotta hand it to the priest who when interviewed, described the church as "just a building," (although historically significant, stunningly beautiful, and religiously important to be sure) and suggested that our sustaining faith depends far more on what happens outside these magnificent religious edifices (and neighborhood churches, mosques, temples, and reading rooms) than what transpires inside them. In short, our faith lies in our actions and in our service to one another.
I couldn't agree more, but P.S., make sure your smoke detectors are working and in good order and that your home is FULLY insured. That never hurts and according to the reports, the fire alarms were the reason NO lives were lost in this horrific blaze. With time and enough money, buildings can be rebuilt (probably faster than it takes to get a new birth certificate); but recreating your important documents may be a much tougher task. Have you seen the line at the Social Security office? (I have.)
How can I help you?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 600 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.