The Power of a Story

220px-NotreDameDeParisThe famed cathedral of Notre Dame.  It’s construction was begun in 1160 and its final elements were completed in 1345.  It was worth 200 years of work, don’t you think?

Notre_Dame_de_Paris,_East_View_140207_1 Organ_of_Notre-Dame_de_ParisBut once upon a time, someone looked at this gorgeous intersection of art and science, this monument to beauty, this feat of engineering, and saw only that it didn’t fit in with their political ideals.  This was a church, after all, and not only was it associated with an oppressive religion that had been declared dead, it was huge and had gloomy gargoyles and was in the way of modern progress.  In 1793, the cathedral was given to the Cult of Reason.  Statues were beheaded.  The spire was torn down.  The vast space was no longer used for inspiration but as a warehouse to store food.  The beautiful stained glass windows were taken out and replaced with clear glass to let in more light.  Some talked of pulling the whole thing down to make room for new buildings.

Then in 1829, Victor Hugo began writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  His main goal in that enduring work of literature?  To convince his people of the value of Gothic art and architecture so that they would preserve the cathedral.  It worked.  The book was published in 1831.  It was hugely successful.  In 1845, the government began a restoration  project.  The spire was reconstructed.  The statues were repaired.  New stained glass windows were installed.

Today, Victor Hugo is credited with literally saving the cathedral of Notre Dame.

The power of a story.

Hugo went out of his way in the book to insert lengthy descriptions of the beauties of the cathedral and also of the travesty of the changes that had been made to it.  If you’ve read any of Hugo’s works, you know how long his rabbit trails can be.  Maybe this overt attempt to highlight the issue is what convinced people, but I don’t think so.

I think it was the image of a lonely and misunderstood man lurking among the bells in those towers.  I think it was the romance of a beautiful young woman, wrongfully condemned to death, seeking sanctuary within those walls.  I think it was the tragedy of that safe place being violated by those who cared nothing for the sanctity of the place and the heroine who could not be saved in the end, only mourned.

How could anyone who had ever themselves felt outcast or trampled upon despise the refuge of Quasimodo?  How could anyone tear down Esmeralda’s sanctuary without becoming another Frollo?

The power of a story.

I first heard about Hugo’s intentional saving of the cathedral a few months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since then.  What do I love?  What destruction of beauty do I see in my world?  What is mine to preserve?  What is there of value for me to see restored?

The power of a story.

It’s there waiting for all of us, at the tips of our tongues and our fingers. We may not have the depth of power that Victor Hugo commanded.  We may not have the range of influence that his gifts gave him.  But we each have a small circle.  We have simple words.  We have the power to preserve what lies near us, to plant tiny seeds of nobility, to infuse insignificant things with beauty, to restore a love for what we treasure, and to keep that love alive for future generations.

The power of a story.

What will you do with that power?

What is your Notre Dame?

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