Notre Dame's awe was breathtaking

Photo credit: Oliver Mitchell

The rose window at Notre Dame Cathedral.

Fire is part of the history of cathedrals. I learned this in 1989 when I spent a summer in France studying two of the greatest cathedrals -- Chartres and Notre Dame.

The upper reaches of a cathedral are constructed in wood, very old wood. Imagine a huge wooden boat turned upside down. This is the ceiling of a cathedral.

Twenty of us, all teachers who were part of a national grant, walked platformed catwalks under these great wooden roofs; those of us who were not poulets could edge along the exterior frames and climb into the vaults below.

We came to appreciate the floating forms of the saints, and -- using our petite tripods -- tried to capture the puddles of multicolored light reflected from the windows. Peasants and kings looked at these jewel-toned patterns and believed, without reservation, that they were seeing God incarnate.

Notre Dame, like other French cathedrals of the Middle Ages, took hundreds of years to build.

This involved multiple architects, and thousands of ordinary lay-people. In the God-centered Middle Ages, these workers were on a holy mission. Some hitched themselves to carts to transport the massive stones.

Craftsmen labored on windows and sculptures.

No one got credit for anything. Many died along the journey. But all were building for God and counting on a better life in heaven.

To study Notre Dame was to walk through the history of a nation. Every inch is full of meaning, yet this is not so different from any church, home, or family business: these places are extensions of all who have ever been a part of their history. Perhaps that is why, when a family home is sold or a church is swept away by fire, it is so difficult to say goodbye.

Our group spent weeks in the cathedral, learning about French history through the crypts, the geometry, and the massive buttresses. We made friends with the gargoyles and paid our respects to all 1,300 oak trees that were harvested for the first groundbreaking in the late 1100s.

What I recall most about that summer was our group walking along the second level of the cathedral, where we could touch the lower glass of the massive circular rose window. It was hot from the sun. I placed my hand on a section of red glass and tried to memorize it.

I didn't know when I would return to this great cathedral, but I believed it would always be there waiting for me.

Elizabeth Jewell is a former humanities teacher at Kentucky Educational Television. She was a writer for the Henderson Gleaner. She is a Purchase Area native who divides her time between Hickman County and San Francisco.