Facing Religion at Notre Dame

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.

Picture of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité in Paris, France

Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité

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.

Picture of Notre Dame's west façade in Paris, France

West façade – apologies for the image quality

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.

Picture of the rose window at Notre Dame in Paris, France

The rose window

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.

Picture of the altar pieta in Notre Dame, Paris, France

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.



2 thoughts on “Facing Religion at Notre Dame

  1. What a wonderfully written piece! I tend to agree with you: I’m an atheist however often find myself wandering inside churches, temples and cathedrals while travelling. Despite not being able to grasp the religious connection, I find the architecture fascinating, and they often provide a cool, calming environment away from busy streets. My visits have never made me feel as yours did, but maybe one day…thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks for your comments! Like you, I’m an atheist, and I have to wonder if churches, etc. are specifically built in a manner that will elicit an emotional response, as a way for people to “feel God.” I usually feel a bit mopey going into them, but not overwhelming despair like at Notre Dame. But you’re right that they often offer a welcome relief from busy streets!

      Liked by 1 person

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