Dear Reader, this is a very personal reflection. But I thought, why shouldn’t we write about our experience of spirituality and religion?
It was Easter time in 1974 and I was in Paris with my family. I marvelled at the shops full of gorgeous displays of Easter eggs, hens and other confections. But a greater marvel was to come.
We went to Holy Thursday mass in the evening at Notre Dame Cathedral. I sat looking upwards, at the oh-so-high vaulted ceiling, with the glow of the jewel colours of the stained-glass windows beyond. The air seemed to have a kind of haze, as though looking through a soft focus camera lens. And there was the music – voices of ringing clarity, floating upwards. I can still remember the feeling as though discovering beauty for the first time; it took hold of me so much that I cried. I was seven-years-old at the time.
Later I would be a singer myself in my twenties, a soprano in a choir at St Mary’s Cathedral, which I regarded as a Sydney version of Notre Dame. At Easter, the choir would join the St Mary’s Cathedral choir of boys and men. I loved the Easter mass of pomp and ceremony, bells and incense and magnificent sounds from the organ.
Fast forward to 26 February 2019. I read the news of what a Cardinal has been found guilty of with choir boys in a cathedral in Melbourne. The witness has been believed by the judge and the jury. As I absorb the news with its shocking details, my respect for the courts steers my thinking in how I view this case. I am jolted into thinking more about the abuse exposed by the Royal Commission.
That evening, I attend a meeting in the city near the courts. I park in the carpark near the Cathedral. Usually when I walk through the forecourt in front of the Cathedral I take time to look up at what I see as the pride of my city: the Cathedral with its high façade and decorative stonework, its sculpted doorways and rose window and the two spires soaring above. But this time, I cannot look, I shuffle past, trying not to see it. Over the ensuing weeks, I feel a mixture of anger, hurt and grief. Grief for what I loved.
On Tuesday, 16 April, I am at a conference in Canberra. I do not read the news in the morning as I read through the paper I am to present. When I get to the conference centre, someone remarks at what terrible news there had been that morning. I ask what had happened and he says “Notre Dame has burned down.” I feel immediate grief. I wonder how I will get through the day and be calm for presenting my talk. But I go to some other sessions and the presenters and conference delegates are so full of positive energy that I feel buoyed.
The next morning, I pull up the news on my phone. I see footage of the burning cathedral, a conflagration of hot red flames on the roof, and the spire falls. It was as though it had been struck by lightning.
I look at further news of how the fire had been put out. I see a picture taken inside Notre Dame: it is of the altar with its statue of Mary holding a dead Christ in her arms. In front of Mary is a pile of debris, broken beams and charred wood. But behind her is a cross of gold, solid in stature, reaching to a height above her.
And that picture speaks to me. Although churches may burn or become broken and neglected, even though the church’s leaders may fail to protect the innocent, even though trust in the church’s leaders may be in tatters like a pile of rubble, Christ is above and beyond the church and all churches.
So it is in Christ that I pledge my love and trust.
19 April 2019