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

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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: A time to reflect on death

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November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the dead. After celebrating those in heaven on Nov. 1, we pray for all the faithful departed who await heaven while undergoing purgation on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead by granting special indulgences in November to assist the souls in purgatory. A plenary (or full) indulgence can be received November 1-8 and then a partial indulgence the rest of the month when we “devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead” or “devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Requiem aeternam”: “Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her/them. May he/she/they rest in peace. Amen.”

November, therefore, provides an opportunity to reflect upon death. Even the readings at the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent point us to the coming judgment and end of the world. We may not relish contemplating death but doing so constitutes an essential element of a life well lived, realizing that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death and the same has been made for monasticism.  “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily,” the great Patriarch of monks, St. Benedict, directed in his Rule (ch. 4). A French writer, Nicholas Diat, put this maxim to the test in his new book, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Ignatius, 2019). Diat, known for his three interview books with Cardinal Robert Sarah, visited eight monasteries in France — Norbertines, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians — to talk to the monks about their experience of death.

He describes why he wrote the book: “The West has worked hard to bury death more deeply in the vaults of its history. Today, the liturgy of death no longer exists. Yet fear and anxiety have never been as strong. Men no longer know how to die. In this desolate world, I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death. Behind cloister walls, they pass their existence in prayer and reflection of the last things. I thought their testimonies could help people understand suffering, sickness, pain, and the final moments of life. They have known complicated deaths, quick deaths, simple deaths. They have confronted death more often, and more intimately, than most who live outside monastery walls” (13).

I found that Diat achieved his objective. Although the monks live very different lives, they still face similar human struggles, sometimes magnified by lack of distractions, including the dominance of technology in sickness and the last stages of life. The Benedictine Monastery of En-Calcat experienced many difficult deaths and the superior, Dom David, related how sedation can make it hard to die: “We no longer feel life. We no longer feel humanity. We no longer feel God approaching” (55). When death approaches more naturally (or should we say supernaturally), the monks can die the “most beautiful death.” Such was the death of Father Henri Rousselot, who died at 96: “His face in death was magnificent. He was supernaturally radiant. The monks had the impression that his features had been drawn by God. Everyone who entered this room was struck by his beauty. Each found the child that Father Henri had always been” (72).

Some monasteries experienced difficult deaths — young monks whose lives were cut short by cancer, or, in the case of the canon Brother Vincent, multiple sclerosis, sudden deaths, even in chapel, or cases of dementia or mental illness. It did seem, however, in my own assessment, that the more a monastery was withdrawn from the world and its cares the more peaceful the deaths of its monks. This was true especially of the Grand Chartreuse (see the film Into Great Silence), where the monks live like hermits in the silent seclusion of prayer. Here the monks, already anticipating heaven, seem to die miraculously by slipping away peacefully. “The beauty of Carthusian deaths, sweet and simple, seems to bear witness to the fact that the spiritual combat of the sons of Bruno is so powerful that, in the final hour, fears are abolished. In the last moments, the peace that dwells in them is so profound that the majority of them are not afraid to die alone. They have spent their lives in the silence of an austere cell that sees them leave this earth” (165).

The book does not treat simply the experience of monks, but a central question for us all: “No one knows how he will live his death. Will we be courageous, fearful, happy? Will we be cowards or heroes?” (114). It’s time to start preparing now!