Oh the Places You’ll Go: Best in Paris

Reflections from Dr. Howell

April 15, 2019. The phone rang: “Turn on your television.” What Ken Follett and his wife saw on the screen when they did was “the wonderful cathedral of Notre-Dame, one of the greatest achievements of European civilization, on fire. The scene dazed and disturbed us profoundly. I was on the verge of tears.” As were we all.

Follett knew before most of the world that the roof would soon collapse – the way engineers knew the Twin Towers would fall when most thought it was just a terrible fire. His novel, Pillars of the Earth, tells of the burning down of a medieval cathedral – so he knew between the decorative ceiling and the roof were massive wooden (and dried from age) timbers, a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

I want us to visit a few cathedrals together. I’ve been inside and on top of Notre-Dame a few times, although it’s not my favorite cathedral in Paris. When I think of any and all those massive churches built centuries before electricity, fuel motors or steel, centuries ago before Columbus or Marco Polo, I am in… “awe” is the word, but even “awe” is insufficient. You could stack piles of Myers Park United Methodist Churches any medieval cathedral. Standing in the plaza in Cologne, you can only gawk at the spire that soars 500+ feet toward heaven; that’s almost 2 football fields, straight up. Winchester Cathedral has been standing there, 2 football fields long, for over 900 years. The much newer Liverpool Cathedral is even longer. You can barely see the altar from the back. Did John, Paul, George or Ringo step inside and marvel?

The construction, the quality of the stonework, the intricate wood carvings, the color and images of stained glass filtering the sun’s light: people, mere human beings conceived of all this, and did this. I cannot think of any human achievement that is as mind-boggling. And the purpose, the motivation, the point of our grandest, most impressive and beautiful accomplishments? Follett’s Pillars of the Earth tells us about a mason named Tom:

“He had worked on a cathedral once—Exeter. At first he had treated it like any other job. He had been angry and resentful when the master builder had warned him that his work was not quite up to standard: he knew himself to be rather more careful than the average mason. But then he realized that the walls of a cathedral had to be not just good, but perfect. This was because the cathedral was for God, and also because the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure fatally. Tom’s resentment turned to fascination. The combination of a hugely ambitious building with merciless attention to the smallest detail opened Tom’s eyes to the wonder of his craft..”

I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for this mason, or that carpenter, or the grunt guys or the women who made lunch, or the elderly watching the progress, hoping to stay alive long enough to see their town’s new wonder. Did they feel like Tom? How many fell to their deaths or were crushed? I stand, stroll and sit in cathedrals and ponder their lives – and am moved that this perfect structure in which I’m standing was and is for God. As are our lives. As is the whole world. For God.

In Notre-Dame, York Minster, Durham Cathedral and a few others, I’ve clambered up into the attics and have discovered elaborate carvings and paintings that should be on display down below. Think about it: artists created these unnecessary works of art, knowing they couldn’t be seen by worshippers or anybody once the building was finished. Hidden wonders – but not from God. They were crafted only for God’s eyes to behold.

Back to Paris. Everybody who goes to Paris visits Notre-Dame – and so it’s crowded, and wouldn’t be my favorite even if it weren’t. I’m fond of Sainte-Chappelle nearby, which feels like you’re inside a colorful jewelry box. Saint Sulpice is intriguing, but ruined a bit after being featured in The Da Vinci Code film. I was privileged to preach two times in the American Church in Paris, so that’s a special building to me.

But my favorite is one not many have even heard of: Saint-Denis, in the northern suburbs. Saint-Denis is regarded as the earliest specimen of Gothic architecture. So this is where the revolution began! The church became the epicenter of politics in France for generations. St. Bernard of Clairvaux proclaimed the Crusade to the Holy Land here. Eleanor of Aquitaine strode in to fight for her crown and to insure her son’s rise to the throne. And the graves in the crypt! Clovis, the 1st king of the Franks was buried here in 511, and following him were Dagobert, Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, Charles the Bald, Philip Augustus, Louis IX (“St. Louis”!), Isabel of Aragon, Henry II, Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, 42 kings and 32 queens total.

And it’s an active, mission-minded congregation today!