I am not a religious person. I’ve been to countless churches, mosques, temples, and other places of worship in my travels, and while I admire the locations for their beauty and history, I tend not to appreciate them on a deeper emotional level. I adore Westminster Abbey for its connection to England’s past, not for any communion with God. I love visiting Buddhist temples, and I feel the echoes of the devout as they pray but don’t really experience spirituality myself.
When I visit Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris in 2004, I am attending only because of its fame.
Île de la Cité, where the cathedral stands, has been occupied since at least 52 BC. Ancient palaces and churches dotted the small island, and it was used as a military center during the Viking invasions.
The giant Gothic structure of today was founded in 1163 and took nearly 200 years to be completed. Generations of tradesmen working on the project never lived to see the final product.
England’s Henry VI was crowned at Notre Dame in 1431. Napoleon likewise crowned himself emperor here in 1804. 14th- and 15th-century crusaders often stopped in to pray before departing for the holy wars.
By the 19th century, though, the Gothic structure was slowly being converted to a more-modern style. Victor Hugo, fearing the loss of medieval architecture, wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in part to bring more awareness about the destruction of the cathedral.
Many of the original carvings have been looted over the years, but what remains today is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture.
Inside, the nave is basked in warm (electric) candlelight. A handful of worshippers kneel in the pews, clasping prayer beads in their hands and murmuring holy words. A depiction of the Pietà glows on the altar.
I feel an overwhelming crush of sadness as I gaze at the altar, whispers of Latin and incense floating around me. The air feels thick, the pale candlelight not strong enough for my eyes to see. The desperate prayers on the worshippers’ lips become unbearably palpable. My chest clenches, and I have to blink away tears.
It’s not uplifting. It’s hopeless, and frantic, and painful. And it’s the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had.