On the evening of the fire, as we wandered the streets across the Seine from the Île de la Cité, with the hope of glimpsing the condition of the cathedral after the main blaze had been extinguished, we encountered crowds standing shoulder to shoulder singing hymns with their eyes focused across the river.
For 850 years Notre-Dame has stood at the center of Paris, a sacred symbol in a still predominantly Catholic city and nation. The cathedral had survived the French Revolution and two world wars; just prior to the fire it had been in the throes of a 6-million-Euro renovation. It was still standing — the iconic towers and much of the structure had been saved, as well as the Rose windows, and even, we would find out later, the organ and many sacred relics, including a crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus when he was crucified.
When that evening we returned as close as we could get to Notre-Dame, we were swept up in the sadness emanating from the crowds and the singing, this intensely human moment transcending spectacle and evoking true mourning.