A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

Boy holding burning matchstick

Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.