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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Notre Dame fire devours French history

Flames and smoke rise from a fire at

Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. Credit: Bloomberg/Martin Barzilai

A year ago, my then-11-year-old daughter and I bought a smart pink dress, with a matching pink belt and jacket, at a charming boutique along Paris' Champs-Elysées. We had come to the shop after visiting the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and were feeling a little too pleased with ourselves, truth be told. We easily could have been mistaken for sophisticated world travelers.

I snapped a photo of my daughter clutching her prize while crossing a bridge a few blocks from the cathedral that day, just as a young parisienne was peering back over her shoulder to take a full jealous measurement. One can wait a lifetime for a shot like that, if you're into that sort of thing.

We didn't then know that we had been shopping for a funeral dress. A month after we bought the garment, Georgia's grandfather unexpectedly died. It was her first family loss, and the nicest dress she owned. She wore it at his service as somberly as pink allows. Eleven months after that, Notre Dame burned.

Tout ce qui sera sera, as the French say. Whatever will be will be.

Watching the ancient cathedral go up in flames on live TV Monday seemed especially terrible given where the world is today. Another key vestige of our past slipping beneath the awful waters of time and modernity. "Don't let it bring you down," the musician Jimi Hendrix wrote, "It's only castles burning."

These past few years have been difficult ones globally, even as the world enjoys unprecedented levels of prosperity. Like it or not, we're being pushed by technology and other unpredictable factors into an era far different than the imperfect one we've comfortably known. The grinding of historical plates beneath our feet is understandably unsettling.

Indeed, tremendous cultural shifts are taking place, including, notably, the growing loss of organized religion; millions being rendered professionally obsolete and national demographics changing the world over as refugees seek safety from frictional wars seemingly everywhere. All that, I couldn't help thinking, could been seen in the eyes of many in Paris watching the great cathedral burn. "What next?" they seemed to be asking. "What more of our soul must we surrender?"

It's heartbreaking to think of the irreplaceable religious and historic artifacts that must have been lost in Monday's fire. My mind struggles to remember the tapestries, chalices and mosaics on display, not to mention the sacred bone fragments and other holy relics. Some of these were more than 1,000 years old, predating the cathedral itself. They had survived the 100 Years War, the ideological madness of the French Revolution, and Hitler's rapacious art thieves. All of it gone. Memories. Photographed objects in yellowing catalogues from here on. 

But as day turned to night, as the flames continued to devour French history, and as despondency began to set in among horrified television viewers, a song broke out among the parisiens for all the world to hear. It was the most beautiful "Ave Maria" I’ve ever heard sung, reminding us that things will somehow be made alright again. We are a resilient species; we’ve been here before.

Notre Dame will be rebuilt, Paris will be Paris and whatever will be will be in an ever-changing world.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.