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.

 

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Oscar Wilde and the Infinite Sadness

Oscar Wilde has been a part of my life for a long time. In eleventh grade my friend and I were assigned to read The Importance of Being Earnest. I have fond memories of us sitting in a little nook at the Anchorage Public Library, reading the play aloud in poorly affected accents. We giggled at the idea of a ‘Bunburyist’ and took great delight at the playful wit dripping off every page. When we are later assigned The Picture of Dorian Gray, I voraciously read every word. Wilde’s heart is boldly on display in Dorian, and I felt overwhelming empathy for this tragic, persecuted man.

I love the idea of Oscar Wilde but am terribly intimidated by the actual person. If I ever hopped in a time machine and traveled back to the 19th century, I would have to take care to avoid him, lest his legendary wit find its way to my fragile ego. He would no doubt find me all too American and grow quickly tiresome of my presence.

So I feel like a bit of a charlatan when I stumble upon his grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Napoleon founded the cemetery in 1804, and over the next two hundred years thousands of people have been here interred (though, oddly, they don’t all stay in their original spot—burial plots start at a ten-year lease, and if not renewed the body will be dug up and moved to an ossuary.)

Loads of famous people have arrived at Père Lachaise for their final resting place—Wilde, Édith Piaf, Bizet, Chopin, Molière, and many more. I haven’t come here to see any of those, however. Instead, I’ve come for the famous booze-swilling Lizard King, Jim Morrison.

Morrison was living in Paris with his girlfriend when he died of a likely heroin overdose in 1971. His grave at Père Lachaise quickly became a tourist attraction, with despondent fans leaving the Doors frontman bottles of whiskey and writing remembrances on nearby gravestones. The Parisian government grew tired of the vandalism and erected a fence around Morrison’s grave. Eventually a guard was stationed nearby to prevent any further destruction of surrounding stones.

Jim Morrison's grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Morrison’s grave

When a friend and I go to Morrison’s grave one gray afternoon in 2004, we don’t see the guard. Instead, there is a small collection of tourists around his gravesite—even more than 30 years after his death, the charismatic singer continues to have pull. Several of his fans have jumped the fence for a better picture. Quickly caving to peer pressure, we jump as well and start to snap our cameras.

Suddenly, a large policewoman appears and starts screaming at us in angry French. Everyone jumps back over the fence and begins to run. She gives chase. About five of us split up in different directions, running as fast as we can through rows of elaborate tombs and eroding statues.

Picture of a tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Creepy tomb along the way

When we’re sure we’ve lost her, my friend and I regroup. It is soon after that we discover Oscar Wilde’s tomb. Wilde had come to Paris in exile three years before his death and, like Morrison seventy years later, he died in the city.

Picture of Oscar Wilde's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Wilde’s tomb

His tomb is appropriately ridiculous. It was commissioned by his estate in 1909, and the soaring angel it depicts initially drew great ire for its inclusion of male genitalia (which were, at some point, stolen). Over the years, adoring fans have made pilgrimage to this site, coated on a layer of their brightest lipstick, and pressed their mouths to the cold stone.

Picture of Oscar Wilde's grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Kissing Oscar Wilde

Sadly, the tomb was stripped of its lip marks in 2011, but when I visit in 2004 it is still absolutely covered in kisses. I take pictures but don’t dare kiss it myself—it feels like an intrusion, a lie. For all my adulation in high school, I don’t really know this man. And I never will.

It’s not the first time I’ve unwittingly come across Oscar Wilde in my travels, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Something about his gravesite sticks with me, though. Maybe it’s the desperation in the kisses covering his tomb, or maybe it’s the near-embarrassment I feel from intruding on such a private scene.

Maybe it’s the fact that Wilde is far more loved now than he was in life. It’s such a cold realization that who we are might not matter until after we gone, and perhaps not even then. I suppose that’s why I try to travel and have new experiences whenever I can. We’re all desperate to leave our mark on this world while we still have the chance.