Paris’s Cathedral of Imagination and Memory

Once or twice we had dinner at La Tour d’Argent, the ancient and intermittently excellent restaurant, famous for its numbered pressed duck, but more cherished for its tables that faced the cathedral, lit up as only Paris can light up its monuments, sparking a feeling both personal and spectacular.

Notre-Dame was always the backdrop for a nice walk along the embankment to buy our cat pots of grass at a flower shop along the quay. But usually in a great rush to get somewhere — to work, to an appointment — the crowds surging around Notre-Dame were a nuisance, and one rarely looked up at the amazing bell towers and spire.

And, of course, I sometimes went inside Notre-Dame, if rarely, pushing through the tourists to get a sense of the sacral and the holy, to see the magnificent rose windows, to gauge the immense space, to contemplate what some believed to be the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross. And yes, even to light a candle, once, for my dead parents and sister.

When we lived in Paris, Notre-Dame was the backdrop for some of the necessary nonsense of everyday life. It sits across from the Préfecture de Police de Paris — imposing in its own way — where we regularly went, mounds of documents in hand, to get our cartes de séjour, which let us Americans live and work in Paris. The experience was never pleasant, exactly, trying to be perfect for bored police officers. My wife was especially good at disarming them, usually by noticing the photo of a pet to comment upon.

But it was uplifting, even in the rain, to emerge from the profane to see the cathedral, the promise of another Paris, closer to the heart. STEVEN ERLANGER

[Read Steven Erlanger’s reflections on living in Paris.]

Depending on where you live and what you believe, a church can become a mirror of your own life. Such holy places suggest the serenity of eternity, which can help you find or repair a sense of perspective when you feel damaged or chaotic or sad.

In Paris, there’s a hard wooden bench on the banks of the Seine below the Quai de la Tournelle in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank that offers a perfect view of the backside of Notre-Dame, my preferred angle, because the elegant genius of the flying buttresses has offered me a recurring visual lesson in the power of fortitude for the 33 years I’ve lived in Paris. I’ve returned here regularly in moments of confusion and sadness. First, because the sweet smell of the dark green waters of the Seine as I descend the stone staircase to the waterside reminds me of the delicious fecundity of France, but also — and perhaps most of all — because the beauty and history of the cathedral on the other side of the river puts my problems in perspective by inducing humility.