Christ in the Clutter: Notre Dame Then and Now

Watching the spillover crowd in Notre Dame de Paris at the Sunday evening vigil for the victims of the terrorist attack was a moving experience. It’s amazing how a brush with evil can turn people towards God. But it reminded me of a long ago personal experience, which also led to a deep spiritual turn.

One August day in 1968, I went ambling alone along the streets of Paris. I had a cheap hotel room in the Saint Germain area, and I took my time sauntering over to and across the Pont Neuf to the Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

At that point in my life, I was a pagan college kid, and I’d been inside just two Catholic churches, both in Ohio: one in my neighborhood for the mysterious First Communion of an elementary-school classmate, pretty in her white dress and mantilla – that was pre-Vatican II; the other just a few months before – at a Mass my Catholic girlfriend took me to, held in a Quonset hut that was the temporary parish church on campus. In neither case had I paid the least attention to what was going on. It was just about the girls.

The candles and statuary and crucifixes inside Our Lady of Paris – the sheer foreignness of it all – offended me, for I was used to the shark-like simplicity of the Methodist church of my youth, although I was, as a pagan would be, utterly indifferent to facile Protestant piety. Yes, I thought, Notre Dame is interesting architecturally, but it’s too ornate. How could you find God in all this clutter, if there were a God to find?

But there was something else, and I knew it. I’d read that the Gothic arches of the interior were meant to represent praying hands, and there were a lot of people kneeling and praying in the cathedral with eyes upraised, and there was everywhere. . .a feeling of awe. I felt it. There were hundreds of people milling about in silence. Had I been with friends – my Buckeye buddies – we’d be standing there, I knew, as still and silent as everybody else, with none of the irreverent hijinks that otherwise practically defined us. Alone (no backs to slap), I began to be unsettled by this awe. Never had I felt so small. As the distress in me rose, I spoke one word in anxious recognition, almost as a charm against the mystery: Jesus.

I turned to leave and saw the south transept’s Rose Window for the first time, noonday sun streaming through it – the sound of a Mass just beginning behind me – Mary with the baby Jesus up there in the center of it all, the stained-glass and its eighty-four panes, a dizzying kaleidoscope of Apostles and angels and the Resurrection and Hell.

I fled out to the Place du Parvis (now, Place Jean-Paul II), feeling the gargoyles ogling me as I hightailed it back to the Left Bank.


On a train to Rome a few days later, I got to wondering about my reaction. I didn’t believe in God, and I thought the Roman Catholic Church was a giant, delusional pyramid scheme, although I’d been quite taken with the survey of Europe in Western Civ 101 and 102, in which the Church had loomed so large. But in an essay (for which I’d received an A-minus) I’d lashed out against Catholicism over the treatment of Galileo, and my professor had scribbled in the margin, “This would have been an A+ were it not for your anti-Catholic outburst. Try being objective all the time.” When I later told him I was headed off to Europe in the summer, he gave me a kind of penance: he made me promise to visit all the major cathedrals in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Prague, although he doubted – my plans notwithstanding – that I’d be able to get into Czechoslovakia. (He was right. Two days before I was scheduled to travel from Vienna to Prague, 2000 Soviet tanks and 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded.)

But as the Paris train rolled south towards Rome, I meditated on the power of history and literature to capture your imagination, to get under your skin, even though you told yourself it had nothing to do with you. That summer was, in my mind, my emancipation from all past restraints, and I had no sense at all that God was binding me to the very object of my disdain.

In Italy, I dutifully went into St. Peter’s, and then to Il Duomo in Florence, and in Vienna I went to Stephansdom. On a stopover in Lausanne, Switzerland, I even went running to the hilltop Cathedral of Notre Dame, which you can see from the city below (and which a passerby had identified for me by name), only to discover it had apostatized in the 1500s. I had absolutely no reason to be disappointed by that, but I was.

Back in Paris I returned to Notre Dame. The aroma of a Catholic cathedral is unique, nothing like the pine-fresh scents of Midwestern Protestantism, and I sat in a pew in what I still consider the greatest church in Christendom and tried to break it down: melting wax, incense, sweat, tears, sighs, age (whatever that means: grime, mold, mildew?) . . . Now instead of “ornate” the word that came wafting to mind was “ancient.” I remember thinking: What’s old is new.

Jean-Charles, the desk clerk, recruited me to have dinner with him and two young women who were guests in the hotel: he was smitten with Ilke, a German girl, which left me with a dark-haired Mexican lovely named María, who spoke not a word of either English or French. She wore what I called, complimenting on its beauty, a silver cross. Through Ilke’s translation (she spoke English, Spanish, and French in addition to German), María corrected me: “It’s a crucifix.”

I stand corrected.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • Rick

    One day I hope to see Notre Dame and Paris…before it becomes Paristan and the sound of the koran being sung blankets the airwaves. Everyone, please educate yourselves about Islam.

    • Steven P Glynn

      Well Rick, before becoming despondent about Notre Dame’s possible fate regarding Islam, it may help to remember that even before the ancient Cathedral’s groundbreaking, Islam was already on the march. There were men, in that day, who heard the call and joined together to protect Christian lands and pilgrims and stem the tide of Islam. They provided the gift they had received from God (martial prowess) to protect fellow Christians. They went not for material gain, as of those fortunate enough to return many actually suffered material ruin. They went not for a reward of x number virgins, but rather as penance for sins they readily acknowledged. But of course in our President’s view of the world, these men did not (at least temporarily) thwart the problem, they were the problem. Despite the “war on wisdom” being fought by our leaders, Christian heroes remain and will respond to a call of the Holy Spirit.

  • Stanley Anderson

    Lovely, wonderful story with about as perfectly understated final line as I can imagine.

    You wrote, “I’d read that the Gothic arches of the interior were meant to represent praying hands…”

    As a mathematician, I’ve often used the image of a Gothic Cathedral with its “arches within arches within arches” to describe the concept of “fractals” having structure and complexity at every level of “magnification” from an overall view on down to the smallest details. The line quoted above suddenly presents to me the idea of prayer itself, especially in the Catholic liturgical format, as having that very fractal nature. (And, it suddenly strikes me, that the “clutter” you mention above is of that fractal nature too)

    Bathing in wonderment at the moment…

    • PCB

      This essay and this response makes me wish I had spent more time looking up and looking closer, while in Notre Dame de Paris, (and, in general, as well), as a young man.

  • grump

    Thanks for sharing your poignant odyssey, Brad, and one that recalls my days in the Navy when I was stationed in Italy for 2 years. As an 18-year-old hormone-filled “swabbie,” I spent much of my liberty and leave burning oats while touring parts of Europe, including Rome, France and Germany. Although I was too young and immature to fully appreciate the sights and absorb the rich culture, the experience of traveling through Old Europe nonetheless left a lasting imprint. I remember visiting some Catholic cathedrals that sobered me up long enough to know that there was something or Someone greater than me in the universe.

    I happen to be re-reading the late John Gunther’s splendid book, “12 Cities,” which includes vivid portraits of Paris and Rome. Although quite dated now, the book still offers superb personal glimpses of some of the world’s great metropolises. Gunther also wrote “Death be Not Proud,” a moving memoir of his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17. Gunther’s title comes from John Donne’s beautiful sonnet, which begins:

    Death be not proud, though some have callèd thee

    Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,

    For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

    Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

  • Jim Thunder

    Thank you for this. It reminded me of the story of the conversion of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852). He’d been touring the Gothic churches of the UK and the Continent his whole life with his parents and his father’s art students. But something like Paul’s falling off the horse happened to him when he was about age 22 while studying a Gothic church in Nuremburg. At the same time he decided to become, on his own, an architect, a Gothic architect. He ended up making 2,000 drawings for the Gothic Houses of Parliament, including Big Ben, and designed inside and out nine cathedrals, and some 60 churches, Anglican and Catholic, in the UK, Ireland and Australia. And his work was the inspiration for Gothic churches and collegiate gothic throughout the US. I have been speaking and writing about him since 1997. He was my great-great-grandfather.

    • Dave Fladlien

      What a great story! I had occasion to go through an old church in Southern England last Summer. It was built in 1010, and the sanctuary still dates to that time, though most the rest has been torn away and rebuilt. Somehow it survived the bombings in WWII, though much that was around it did not. It was fascinating. I can see how your great-great-grandfather got so interested.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Your spiritual journey to Catholicism reminds me of Cardinal Newman in Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Before his conversion he visited Sicily [my ancestral home] and passing a church he heard the music and singing, perhaps the beautiful O Sanctissima originally a fisherman song. At any rate he peered in and was struck by it all and attributes the experience not unlike yours to contributing to his conversion. Although ‘high’ Anglican liturgy was somewhat similar there was an appealing difference.

    • Rick

      Father, you and I are practically paisanos. My grandfather is a Farace from Cefalu.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Went to Sicily while studying for the priesthood but traveled mainly around Leocata and Agrigento the towns of Mom and Dad where some of the finest Greek ruins exist. Cefalu looks beautiful another seaside town like the above. You may not know that Sicily was an Arabic emirate for 200 years. Later Palermo near Cefalu was the Royal Court for Frederick II King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick founded U of Naples part of the Kingdom where Saint Thomas Aquinas known as the Sicilian Ox first studied and became familiar with Aristotle which was part of the legacy of Arabic culture and influence during the days of the emirate. Aquinas was my focus of studies for my doctorate.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Rick I should add this. Arabic culture reached its zenith during the 9th to 11th centuries. It was the era of reason, the creation of algebra, advances in science and medicine and philosophers like Ibn Sina [although Turkoman] and Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd was born in the Caliphate of Spain at Cordoba but was exiled to Morocco because of his reasoned views. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) was an Aristotelian scholar who is widely quoted by Aquinas as well as Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Ibn Rushd believed Islamic stridency and intolerance should be tempered by reason separating fundamental passages of the Koran in favor of reasonable accommodation to the world. Unfortunately the fanatical mullahs won out. What a pity for the world today especially as evidenced in Paris and the horrors perpetrated against Christians in the so called Islamic state.

        • Rick

          I see an Interesting juxtaposition of religious radicalism.

          We always criticize christian radicalism (as we should) by comparing the radicals to Jesus (i.e. WWJD). When criticizing Islamic radicalism, why not compare the radical’s actions to Muhammad? Why Ibn X?

          Islam is much more than the Koran, there are also the hadiths. The hadiths chronicle Muhammad’s life and actions. In Islam, he is the perfect Muslim, and thus, the perfect man. Muslims follow Muhammad, not Ibn X. When trying to understand Islam, one needs to understand Muhammad and his exploits(after the Hijrah).

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Apparently you know more about Islamic religious history than I do. I’ll have to read up on hadith and Hijrah. Hadith are as you say accounts of Mohammed’s life. Hijrah in one place refers to migration for the cause of Allah relative to Mohammed escaping persecution. That relates to today.

          • Rick

            Father, I can’t hold a candle to you when it comes to history, religious or otherwise.

            Besides 911, I remember the Beslan school massacre in Russia, in 2004, in particular a photo of angelic mother touching her dead son’s golden hair. He looked just like my son at the time, the same age and build. I remember thinking that Mary must have felt the same way when her Son’s body came down from the cross.

            911 and Beslan compelled me to understand some things, most of which are ugly.

            I think we need to guard against projection. I think we are projecting our religion onto Islam. Consequently, we are diligently searching for anyone or anything good within Islam, thus, we are blind to its true nature.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Rick I appreciate your comments. I’m taking a hiatus from correspondence on this site at least for a while. There are others who should contribute. If you wish my parish address is posted on one of my responses to Dave Fladlien back a couple of articles. I’d be happy to hear from you and share knowledge.

          • Rick

            The Hijrah is year one in the Islamic calendar just like Anno Domini is to us. It is even more important than Muhammad’s day of birth.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Rick I am aware of ‘pocket manuals’ written by warlike mullahs of the 6th and 7th centuries meant to attack the ‘infidel’ with little show of mercy. Many of these writings resurfaced in the recent past.

          • Howard Kainz

            Muhammad IS being imitated. After his transition to Medina he became a powerful warlord, engaging in numerous raids, assassinating those who ridiculed him, beheading hundreds of Jews, and preaching violence against “unbelievers.” I recommend reading Ali Sina’s book, Understanding Muhammad and Muslims.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    You mentioned Galileo. If anyone on this site hasn’t read Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter highly recommend you do. It is an historical essay by Ms. Sobel, a Jew, based on the letters of Galileo to his daughter a cloistered nun. It is a love affair between a likewise brilliant daughter and beloved father. Ms. Sobel was given complete access perhaps for the first time to the Vatican archives including records of the trails and documented accounts of the important Catholic prelates who sided with Galileo in opposition to the Pope’s insistence that Galileo be subject to an inquisition. This may contribute to the Catholic experience which seems the topic of conversation.

  • Elizabeth

    Strange, but there is something about certain kinds of clutter that seem purposeful and meaningful. I have a statue that I gave the title Maria in Medias Res or Mary in the Middle of Things because she stood on the table in the midst of books, papers, coffee cups, meals and various other objects. I told a friend about the statue and the new title I had bestowed upon Mary and hoped one day would be in one of her Litanies. For Christmas that year my friend gave me a paperweight and said I could put it on the table with Our Lady of Clutter. She had forgotten the exact title I had given to Mary, but she remembered the statue was in the middle of my clutter. I quite liked the title, and I gave it to Mary as her secondary title. So I am not surprised that you found Christ in the Clutter as Mary is there as well. And the Word was made flesh in the clutter of our world.

    • bernie

      What a thoughtful Title ! The world is full of clutter and we can only try to bring our personal clutter to Our Lord.

  • bernie

    Brad, I really was taken by your story. As a Catholic since birth, knowledge of Cathedrals all over Europe and the US was something that took many years, but every visit built more and more Faith in my heart. I can never forget going into Chartres at noon on a bright sunny day when suddenly the Salve Regina burst into the air. Even the blue hew of the stain glass that shone through the whole Church was praising God’s Mother. Then there were the guides talking about a celebration of color or the architectural elements of the building. Hopefully there were several like you who found more than architecture.

  • Mary C-J

    Brad, as an Architect I am happy to say that the thoughts provoked by being in these Cathedrals is and was intentional, God’s gift through man’s hands. It reminds me of taking a trip cross country through then communist Poland(1986) in a Skoda, with my aunt and her friend as chaperones. We went searching for St. Lipka, a Marian Church in NE Poland. To this day I remember speeding through a country road banked by ancient trees looking for this church – and finding a Cathedral below us in the middle of nowhere. The peculiarity of the setting was nothing compared to the Church itself. It was one of those grey mixed with sun days that you get before a storm. Hurrying into the Church the Organ began playing…. not just any organ (I was told a very famous German make)! The interior dazzling, humbling, electrifying and the organ penetrating every part of body and soul. I have never felt so close to HIS presence than I did that day. Although Czestochowa is the most renowned of the Marian Churches, it seemed smaller and more intimate yes, but more commercialized. Having been to most of the famous cathedrals in Europe since then, St. Lipka’s presence is never far. Thanks again for a pleasant trigger of a memory.

    • gubllod

      Without a doubt, Mary C-J, you found exactly what my wife and I found years ago, when we lived in Vienna. We had the opportunity to travel to Notre Dame de Paris on several occasions. . . .among other churches there. We cannot forget the first time we came into Notre Dame de Paris just as a Mass was about to begin. The organ began playing out of the rear gallery and it simply made one’s blood run faster. Anyone unaffected by the beauty and majesty of the architectural space, its windows and the magnificent Cavaille-Coll organ roaring down from that gallery had to be already dead on their feet. And this was on a cold February day. And I’m not even commenting on the marvelous statuary in the sanctuary behind the high altar!

      Were Communists in control of large segments of Europe at the time? Absolutely! Did this make it even more exciting for us going into the Cathedral of St. Veit in Prague just after the Iron Curtain collapsed and finding at least 1,000 people waiting outside to get in after 45 years of Communist atheistic propaganda? Absolutely! And the beautiful stained glass windows! Brad Miner is right. The design of space in a cathedral or any church of architectural significance is very important. The art of design just as the art of music and the art of color can make all the difference in the world how one receives the Word of the Lord. It is little wonder that specific directions about color and placement may be found in the Old Testament and that Moses insisted upon these things even then.

  • Tanyi Tanyi

    What a wonderful piece of personal experience. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bro_Ed

    Nice story. I had a similar remembrance for November 22, 1963. The day JFK died. The plant I worked for closed (people just walked off the job) and we all headed for St. Bernard’s, the major Catholic Church. It was mobbed. People everywhere were in shock. The parking lot was over-whelmed so people parked anywhere (but didn’t block the roads). The cops didn’t care. They were as shocked as we were.We sensed it was the end of something or the beginning of something. It was both.

    The church is empty and closed now. It will probably be torn down within the year. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

    • veritasetgratia

      Is that in Tracy ? I would like to look at it.

  • veritasetgratia

    I fear for the great Churches of Europe – especially in Germany, Austria, France and Spain. There has been talk that in some places muslims are requesting to buy empty Churches (Belgium). In a Europe which is denying its roots and and what made it good, the architecture still speaks, and as you point out, dwarfs the individual – in itself something desirable today where people are taught to create their own reality.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Feel like I’m taking up to much space here but I’ll say this anyway. When recovering from illness returning from my first trip to Africa I spent time in the west of Ireland. Did lots of hiking and exploring in the countryside and visited sites of previously thriving monasteries that were razed by Cromwell. At one site large sections of stone wall survived including what was the sanctuary. There was a place where I could sit and meditate. The rays of sun piercing through the surviving jagged walls and window openings where once was stained glass gave me an almost mystical feeling of monks sitting with me. I could hear within my being the strains of Gregorian chant. The Church in Ireland survived Elizabeth I and Cromwell. It prefigures the Church today.

  • Chris in Maryland

    A great essay.
    Beautiful churches are a supreme gift to the Church, as they stand and give witness of their purpose through the centuries, they help orient all who are seeking to the One who will be found.