I worshipped the goddess of reason — until I met the God of Mercy in Notre Dame

by Charles Lewis

I am watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn on television from my living room in Toronto. I want to look away but I cannot. I have watched the spire collapse. I now see the glow from inside the church. It is bright orange. Now I realize it is Holy Week. And I think I hear the commentator say the historic church will be gone forever. It is too awful.

Tens of thousands of people around the globe are now thinking of their own visits to Notre Dame. Millions since it was built in 1163 went to their graves with their own stories of being inside its hallowed walls.

I have visited many churches in Europe but perhaps outside of St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame holds the most meaning.

My wife and I went to Paris in September 2006 to celebrate our 10th anniversary. There was no profound plan: Eat good food, absorb the gorgeous architecture and see the sites. Everyone should see Paris.

We stayed near the Jardin du Luxembourg. We could see rooftops from our room. The view was postcard-worthy. There was an amazing restaurant around the corner. The gardens were a dream. We bought wine for the room and cheeses and bread.

We walked for miles and miles. Eventually we made our way to Notre Dame, as most tourists do. We climbed the narrow spiral staircase, all 387 steps. I remember talking to a woman who was having a panic attack halfway up the stairs. I used to have terrible panic attacks so I was able to be reassuring. We were rewarded with a spectacular view at the top.

Then we went into the church proper.

Let me say this first. At this point I identified with no religion, though I considered myself spiritual. Religion seemed unnecessary. Jesus never spoke about building giant edifices. I used to think the money could be spent on something better. Churches were about rules. To me, sin was subjective.

In a word, I was clueless.

When we walked into the church, I remember being impressed by the number of people and the silence. It is rare to see large gatherings of people with no sound. I saw others dip their hands in the holy water, and I did the same. I am not sure why I did.

Then I saw something that has stuck with me all these years. The confessional, as I see it in my mind’s eye, was clear glass. I was surprised that I could see into it. There was a beautiful young woman, perfectly dressed, kneeling.

I think the hyperbeauty that struck me about her had something to do with holiness. Here was this woman confessing for anyone to see. Who does that?

At first I felt odd looking, but then it was hard not to look. The scene before me could have been a painting.

For many years I had been attracted to the faith. But I would keep talking myself out of it with what I thought was reason. If you had told me faith was higher than reason, I would have scoffed.

Once we left the church, we went for ice cream and then walked more and more. I did not obsess about what I saw, but it wormed its way into me.

I visited a number of churches over those two weeks. But that interior scene in Notre Dame is what I remember best. There was something about the rawness, the honesty, of someone confessing that I had never seen before.

I knew that she would find relief from her sins. But what about me? Who was I to bring my sins to? To logic? To reason?

By the time the trip was over, something was stirring in me. I knew for certain that I needed to be baptized and start to live another life, a Christian life — which is what I did, though it took a bit of time.

Thanks be to God for that trip to Notre Dame.

Pray for the people of Paris and France.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.