Notre Dame de Paris Burned Today

Drawing by Mason Hayek

Notre Dame de Paris burned today,
France’s cathedral, the world’s cathedral,
And mine,
A place of the soul, the heart, my heart
Burning with the toppling spire,
Collapsing roof,
Melting glass,
And now-charred altar.

Parisians sang hymns
As ferocious flames
Flew embers of what had been
Across the City of Light,
Nearly extinguished tonight.

I was in Notre Dame de Paris
On a January Sunday—
The 2nd, according to my journal—
Forty-seven years ago;
The organ’s melodies and harmonies
Billowed into the vaulted roof,
Through the rose windows,
Along the flying buttresses,
Into the Paris evening,
And then a priest chanted Mass.

I was twenty-two that evening
And had craved French and France
At least since I’d been nine,
And there I was:
Paris and her cathedral
Welcomed me to a world
Where desires turned into possibilities,
And then became true.

I wrote in my journal that 2 janvier 1972,
“C’est les fois comme ceci quand je voudrais être catholique.”
And this week I will turn Catholic,
Five days after Notre Dame has burned.

Perhaps from a city, a world, of prayers,
The walls and towers of our cathedral
Still stand;
I hear the organ has been saved,
And some of the art,
Perhaps a rose window;
Already hope has returned:
Notre Dame de Paris
Will one day again be whole,
Not as it was,
But remembered, honored,
Resurrected.

I, too, am not as I was,
But I carry my weeks in Paris,
My visit in Notre Dame,
Within me as I make my way,
Burned and illuminated,
Through time.

Just as the first flames ate into the spire,
I finished my turn as the day’s leader
For our French literature class
Of lifelong learners whose love
For the language and culture
Still burns,
Lighting our aging lives.

And above my bureau
Hangs my father’s drawing
Of Notre Dame de Paris
Beyond the Pont Neuf.

Rising with Lazarus

Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt), oil on canvas, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the RCIA[1] Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  Through this story, in John 11:1-45, we receive dramatic proof of Jesus’ divinity and his power as the Son of God.  But we also learn that Jesus—and so God—experiences the deeply human emotion of grief.  And it is Jesus’ love and empathy, as reflected in his grief, that represent the greatest of the lessons John conveys through the story.

Jesus weeps, even while knowing Lazarus will continue in this life, as well as gain eternal life after his time on Earth.  Jesus understands and shares the sorrow that Martha and Mary and their friends experience; he takes their grief into himself and weeps for the loss of his friend, however temporary that loss.  Jesus is like us in loving his friends and mourning their suffering.

Yes, the story is also about having absolute faith in Jesus, in God.  And it is about God’s extraordinary, absolute power.  And yes, the story reminds us that after our earthly death comes eternal life.  Through Martha and Mary, the scripture shows us models of faith rising out of doubt.  But it is John’s portrait of a loving Jesus as he performs his miracle that matters most.

Love is the heart of Jesus, and love must be the heart of Christianity and of us all.  Love must be our essence if we human beings are ever to rise from our suffering—our wars; our cruelty and indifference; our bickering and antagonism toward one another; our world filled with violence, starvation, inequality, cruelty, and selfish disregard for our brothers and sisters around the globe; our false value of pernicious power.  When Jesus uses his power, it is for the benefit of others, not for domination over them.

Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  Nothing else—not humanly defined success and not our humanly conceived laws, rituals, and judgments—are as important as love for God and for one another and all of God’s creation.  If we are not acting out of love, we are not acting as Christians.  In what to me is the most moving sentence in the story of Lazarus, John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  Jesus loves each one of us; he loves every single human being without exception.  We must rise to follow his example if we are to raise our world from the near death to which we have brought it.

We should not leave the Gospel story of Lazarus without further considering its implications for us.  Of course the most astounding event here is Lazarus’ return from the dead.  Beyond allowing Jesus to show that he is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God, the story invites us to let resurrection come into our own lives through our belief in Jesus, his love for us, and the power of love, hope, and faith.

So many of us allow small deaths to enter our lives.  We lose hope because of illness, infirmity, aging, and countless other losses.  We tell ourselves, “I am too old (or too whatever) to learn.”  “I can’t change now.” “I’m just a burden; what do I have to give?”  “I was never any good at ___.”  (And we all fill in the blank differently.)  But Jesus’ love for us teaches us that we do matter.  We wouldn’t be here if we did not have God’s Light within us, if we had nothing to learn, if we had nothing to give.

Let the hope fed by God’s love be rekindled within you.  Follow love’s leading, as Jesus did.  Let God’s love raise you out of any discouragement keeping you from the life you could be knowing—loving others, loving yourself, and using the vast gifts God has given you.  Without your gifts, the world is poorer: whether those gifts are in the kindness of your smile, the beauty of your music, your skill in organizing or inspiring, or your grace in allowing others to help you in your genuine need.  It is never too late to be reborn within God’s love.


[1] RCIA stands for the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.”  I am the only convert coming into our parish this year.  If an RCIA participant is present, the Gospel readings for three Sundays during Lent are selected to apply to the RCIA conversion experience and are the focus of a three-part ceremony called the Scrutinies.  This week’s Scrutiny is based on the story of Lazarus and will likely focus on my (and all converts’) “resurrection” from the supposed deathlike state of being a non-Catholic; of course I reject any notion that one religion has a corner on spirituality.  While I see the Catholic Church’s considerable faults, I love the church I am joining as reflected in the beautiful lives of practitioners around the globe, such as the Sisters of St. Francis, who live the Gospel through their service to others and celebration of God’s creation.  And I find great joy worshipping within our welcoming congregation and honoring God through the music I have the privilege to sing in our choir.

Summer Camp Lessons for Life

During my summers at camp in Maine, I learned all the usual things, such as how to do the backstroke and how to climb back into an overturned canoe. I learned to shoot a bow and arrow and grout the tiles in an ashtray. I learned to use a compass, build a fire, and dig a latrine. I learned a new level of humiliation by crashing my sailboat into an opponent’s during the camp regatta. While I no longer grout ashtrays, dig latrines, or sail in regattas, seven of the lessons from summer camp have kept their value throughout the decades.

Lesson One: If you win praise, some folks won’t be happy.

I arrived at camp the first summer determined to master all the camp activities in eight weeks. I was eleven and didn’t have much skill with which to begin, especially in swimming. When I was tested the first day, I closed my eyes, jumped into the lake, and swam in circles while the counselors hollered at me to stop.

By the end of week six, I still wasn’t out of the beginners’ area, but I could swim in a straight line. The counselors awarded me a swimming “badge” for my effort. I came back from breakfast one morning to find the decal had been added to the others on the green felt banner over my bed.

That same morning, I heard my cabinmate Samantha complaining about what a goody-goody I was. She hadn’t received her swimming badge yet, even though she was one of the best swimmers in the entire intermediate unit. The next day during cabin cleanup, Samantha grabbed my tennis racket and hit me over the head with it. Just before rest period after lunch, she hid my toothbrush, my jacks and ball, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and my regulation green bathing suit. After supper, Samantha and two of her friends chased me around the outside of the infirmary building. When I managed to escape and hide in the shower house, I heard them call me a witch as they passed by.

The following morning after breakfast, Samantha had a swimming badge on her banner. We learned she should have gotten it the day I received mine, but there had been a mix-up. Over the course of the day, my toothbrush, jacks and ball, book, and bathing suit reappeared on my bed.

Lesson Two: If you’re really good at something, people will pay attention to you.

During my first year at camp, I was not very good at tennis or canoeing, but I could beat everyone at jacks. I knew fifteen fancies, like “Pigs in the Blanket” and “Around the World,” and I could remove a single jack from a tangled pile without disturbing the rest. I won both jacks tournaments that summer and was considered one of the camp’s all-time best.

Being tops at jacks did not bring me lots of friends, but practically everyone wanted to play jacks with me. Even if most girls were just attracted by the chance to beat me, I didn’t mind. I never had to play jacks alone.

Lesson Three: Events with the boys’ camp won’t live up to expectations.

One Friday night during the summer when I was twelve, we older intermediate girls put on our Sunday uniforms and traveled by open truck to watch a movie at our brother camp a few miles down the lake. Missy, Laura, and Samantha—the first, second, and third most popular girls in our unit—wore pink lipstick and rubbed some of it into their cheeks. We all curled our hair.

The movie turned out to be a western. The boys sat in the back of their lodge, while we girls sat in front. I barely even caught sight of a boy.

The following summer we were old enough for dances. Truckloads of boys were deposited at our lodge, or we were trucked to theirs. The counselors teamed up for bush patrol. Each year there seemed to be exactly three cute boys, one each for Missy, Laura, and Samantha. I liked it best when the dances were held at our camp because I could sneak back to my cabin and read a book by flashlight. The year I was fourteen, my best friend, Louise, and I survived two dances by hiding in the woods and discussing the Beatles.

When I was fifteen, I did actually spend a dance with a boy, but I found him highly uninteresting. After the last slow song he kissed me, my first kiss.

Lesson Four: Some of the folks in charge simply won’t like you.

All of my cabin counselors were lovely and kind young women, except for Betsy. Betsy let me know I had no hope of ever being popular like Missy, Laura, and Samantha. Therefore she found me boring and not worth her attention. Betsy had been a camper before she was a counselor. I figured she had been just like Samantha. Betsy told me about my flat singing, mousy hair, and feeble tennis strokes. Once when I had such a bad sunburn that my back blistered, Betsy was annoyed because I groaned in my sleep and disturbed her rest.

Each summer on the second-to-last night of camp, we had a special banquet. The counselors decorated the lodge with pine boughs and candles and danced and sang songs they had made up about the summer. When I saw Betsy up there singing about Sports Day and the Fourth of July and all the other now-past times, I started to cry a little. Maybe I was going to miss Betsy. Maybe she was not such a bad counselor after all. Maybe with more time we could have been friends.

When we went back to the cabin after the banquet, Betsy hollered at me for accidentally banging into her foot locker.

Lesson Five: Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Every Wednesday evening, we had a cookout and ate hamburgers and hotdogs, with watermelon for dessert. On Sunday nights, if we turned in a letter home, we were given Italian sandwiches, and watermelon for dessert. For the first three summers, I ate two or three pieces of watermelon each Wednesday and Sunday. By the fifth summer, I passed up the watermelon entirely.

I didn’t grow tired of the ice cream we had at noon on Sundays, or of canoeing or sailing a boat, but overnight camping trips suffered the same fate as the watermelon. My first year I was allowed to go on an overnight to a small pine-covered point of land directly across the mile-wide lake from the camp. I was as happy as an adult on a ten-day cruise. When I looked up from my warm sleeping bag, all the stars in the Universe shone out there in front of me, with the Milky Way a nearly solid band of white. The donut holes and French toast we cooked over the fire for breakfast were, to my mind, among the best things I’d ever eaten.

Four years later, I was an experienced camper. As a reward I was scheduled to go on seven trips, most of them for three or four days at a time. That summer was unusually rainy. Between some outings, my sneakers didn’t even have time to dry out. My life was cold rain, dirt, and bugs. I learned about the impossibility of feeling warm and dry sleeping in a tent during a storm, no matter how diligently we had dug the trenches. The buzz of mosquitoes and black flies mingled with the sound of rain hitting canvas.

Lesson Six: Simple pleasures are enduring pleasures.

Right from the first night of camp, I loved singing all the songs. We sang at every meal, during evening program, on trips, and around the campfire. We tried harmony to “Witchcraft” and “Seven Daffodils.” We shouted out the happy songs, especially while we bumped along the Maine roads in the back of a truck. I still remember the words to our favorites.

On Sundays we could sleep half an hour extra. After breakfast, we were free until service in the pine grove at eleven. Counselors, counselors-in-training, and campers from the three units took turns presenting the service. Even when I was just an intermediate camper, I always felt peaceful in the pine grove. I’d lean back on my elbows against the steep hillside and look up to the very tops of the trees, where the green branches began. The sound of guitars and singing spread through the otherwise silent grove and over the empty cabins and quiet lake below. The motorboats didn’t appear until afternoon. As I listened to the music, my fingers played with the long, thick red-pine needles and the neat little five-needle bundles from the white pines.

After grove service, we were free until lunch, which always included chicken with cranberry sauce and mustard pickles. After rest hour we were on our own again until supper. The only activity scheduled was a free swim at four. As I grew older, I used all the glorious spare time in different ways. The first two years I spent most of every Sunday playing jacks. Other summers I followed my secret path along the lake to a huge flat rock in a clearing hidden from view at camp. I could read all afternoon. Some Sundays, Louise and I looked for frogs or four-leaf clovers while we discussed religion, philosophy, and rock ’n roll stars.

During the cold Maine nights—especially in August, when the first leaves started turning red—I slept under seven blankets and left my bathrobe on for a little extra warmth. The seven blankets served a second purpose. They created a tent under which I could read after “Taps” without being discovered. The dimmer my flashlight, the cozier I was. I read Little Women under the blankets my second summer at camp. I’d already read it three or four times before, but Jo and her sisters were a comforting contrast to Missy, Laura, and Samantha.

Lesson Seven: If you’re in charge, you have to act as if you know what you’re doing.

While I was a camper and counselor-in-training, someone else was always in charge. When I became a counselor, I had trouble with the fact I was the one who was supposed to know just what to do.

On one camping trip with a dozen eight- and nine-year-olds, we ran out of firewood. Sarah, the other counselor on the trip, had never used an ax. She and the little girls followed me into the woods to watch me fell a small tree.

When a thunderstorm broke while I was on top of a mountain with eight junior campers, I wondered whether my counselors had ever felt as nervous as I did listening to the thunder coming closer.

One night about an hour after “Taps,” another counselor, Trudy, and I heard screaming and running feet as we walked near our duplex cabin. Cabin Four was hers, Cabin Three mine. A bat was flying around inside. While Trudy and I were giving the girls a “bats are our friends” talk, the bat flew at Trudy, who screamed and ran out the door. I never did coax the bat to leave, but eventually he settled down and so did the girls. For the rest of the summer, he spent his days hanging upside down from a beam in the Cabin Three ceiling. If you’re in charge, you can’t complain about what lives over your bed.

Seeking Divinity

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
In you, in me,
In the rays of the Sun piercing evening clouds,
Moon reaching out to Jupiter,
Sycamore standing against the sky,
And homeless woman begging sustenance;
In the squirrel patting soil on his acorn,
Fly harassing the picnic,
Horse running free in the field,
And poacher killing elephants for ivory;
In families fleeing their bomb-wracked city
And tyrants unleashing their scorn.

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
In the child who is frightened of guns in his school
And the cowards who hide behind guns,
In gorillas, whales, and wolves,
In a wood-thrush trill and the coo of a dove,
In the killer who’s cruelly taken a life
And those aping virtue demanding his,
In destructive storms and stinging hornets,
Majestic rivers and ancient trees—
Those ruined and those that remain—
Whole countries nearly forsaken,
And an elderly couple in love.

God is the Light in the oneness of being,
Though smothered by cruelty and hate.