Everyone remembers where they were when the Twin Towers fell or when, on November 13, 2015, terrorists shot and killed 130 people at the Bataclan concert hall and various Parisian cafés in the deadliest attacks on France since the Second World War.
While there were no attacks or deaths this week, many of us will remember the day we helplessly watched in horror and sadness as Notre Dame Cathedral burned before our very eyes.
I first came to Paris back in 2002. It was a trip saturated with new experiences and culture and mystery. Every food had a specific way to be eaten or some sort of historical significance. The streets teemed with architectural wonders too numerous to even fathom.
I visited all the staples: Chateau de Versailles, Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and the jewel in the crown, Notre-Dame.
That first visit planted a seed in me that resulted in us moving to the Paris suburbs on December 1st, 2007. Eleven years later the city's majesty still woos me with its depth, subtlety, and unparalleled magnificence.
The cathedral began its life in 1160 and was built on and expanded in the ensuing centuries. It was desecrated in the 1790s due to the Revolution and rebuilt in the early 1800s. Popularised by the 1831 publication of the Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it entered a new period of restoration that resulted in the cathedral of today.
A modern-day fun fact is this: if you type Paris into Google Maps, you will be taken to St Michel Notre Dame as it is the very heart of the city. Plus, all road distances in France are calculated from here as the 0 km point.
The cathedral is uniquely positioned on an island called Île de la Cité which is one of two remaining natural islands on the Seine within the city of Paris, the location where the city was founded. Its significance as the heart of the city cannot be overstated.
On Monday evening as Val and I were doing our daily scripture reading, a dear friend texted to inform me Notre-Dame was on fire. We quickly got online to see it was far worse than we had imagined. Messages and social media posts started flooding in from the United States as friends and frequent visitors watched at home or in restaurants or at work—each one unable to articulate the strong emotions percolating up from within. We went to bed with heavy hearts but still hopeful.
Today is a new day. The fire has been put out and the donations from French billionaires are flying in to spearhead yet another restoration of this iconic edifice.
And here's the thing, the outpouring of song and prayer has been unlike anything I have ever witnessed in France.
As news filtered through, we could see the thousands who kneeled and prayed and the interior photos showing an illuminated cross shining brightly—amidst much ash and darkness—for all to see.
With just days until Easter, the symbolism is powerful and it is paving the way for people to really lean into God.
Paris is a city in grief but also in worship and praise. Even just being on the metro or walking through the streets of Paris this morning on my way to a meeting, the atmosphere was different. There is a kindness and consideration you don't always see here. Strangers greet each other with a glance that says, "I know, I feel the same."
It really is something. My deepest hope and prayer is that this would be a time of deep reflection as to what the cross represents and the realisation for French people that picking up their own cross is actually easier than spending their lives trying to push it away.
Originally from Ireland, Malcolm McLoughlin has called Paris, France home for the past eleven years. An alcoholic and drug addict turned ultra-marathon runner, author of The Second Lap, and a speaker, with his greatest passion being to see people know the transformative power of a life lived for Jesus. He is married to Val and has two children.