CHICAGO, IL (April 16, 2019) – It took only a few moments for the Notre Dame Cathedral to change the life of Covenant pastor Don Johnson.
Johnson and his wife, Martha, were celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary in 1990, when he entered the cathedral as “a dumb tourist.”
“When I casually walked through the portals into the nave I was overwhelmed with the sense, for the first time in my life of genuinely sacred space,” Johnson said. “I had no word, just tears of awe and wonder. That experience planted in me the search for what makes space sacred, which became the topic for both of my sabbatical lives in France, 2000 and 2013.”
Johnson said he was “hijacked by horror and grief” when he learned of the fire. “I love her deep history and survival of wars, scoundrels and time…until the fire.”
Francisco and Stephanie Ramos, Covenanters who lead a ministry to Christian artists and operate a gallery in Paris, said, “Notre Dame inspires all of France, not only as a beautiful cathedral but also as an expression of its history. Watching the fire was like watching 900 years of history go up in flames.”
Throughout that history, the church has evoked the kind of awe experienced by Johnson, they said. “The arts speak to us in ways that go beyond our intellect and we were created to experience the greatness of God through all of our senses. So in this place all of the arts inspired one to worship God – the beauty of the stained glass, sculpture and stone, the size and majesty of the architecture, the music and singing for worship, and the smell of incense. It served both to speak about the greatness and majesty of God while also sharing the gospel story when most people were unable to read.”
College student Noah Tang, a member of Naperville Covenant Church who is on Spring Break in Paris, said, “to see hundreds of years of history vanish before my eyes was unspeakable.”
Tang stood on the banks of the Seine River across from the cathedral this morning. “Thousands of people were in the streets just staring,” he said. “Some were crying, some were taking pictures, and there was even a group of artists drawing the building.”
A cellist sitting on the bank across from the church today played a mournful tune that reflected the mood. “I have never seen a city so somber before,” Tang said.
Covenant minister Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, also is in Paris and had heard the cathedral bells ringing just an hour before the fire started. She told Religion News Service last night, that, “Tonight’s burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not only the destruction of a national treasure, but reflects a devastating loss of permanence and sacred spirituality not only for Catholics, Christians of various ecumenical traditions but for people of all religions that value the relationship between God and humankind.”
Matt Randles did a six-month interim pastorate at the Trinity International Church of Paris, last year. The church’s office was just across the bridge from the cathedral. “Never, never imagined something as cataclysmic as this would happen,” he said. “I was living there during the terrorist attacks in 2015 as well; a totally different tragedy and yet the sense of shock and mourning takes me back to that experience.”
The pain of watching the church go up in flames was compounded because it is Holy Week, Covenanters said. The Ramoses added, however, “We think that all things work together for good even during this Holy week, and we pray that the spiritual influence of the Cathedral and what it represents in France may continue in spite of the tragedy.”