The Heart in it

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (Photo: Thibault Camus/AP)

No shape of wood or even stone is forever
But the heart that beat in it; the soft intercessions
The fervent witness
The hope
Is not lost

So many strands of spirit and sorrow wove together yesterday as France and many across the world kept vigil during the fire at Notre Dame. A web spun of history and identity and the practices and presence of Christian faith held strong and trembling.

As I carried the image of the fire ravaging Notre Dame Cathedral I recalled words I had written for another building. As the building was dismantled I felt it as a time when the spirit of the building spoke loudly.  The rain on the roofless sanctuary felt like grief falling and the gutted space was felt viscerally.   As I watched the windows of the building stand open to the wind and rain and sun that move through them, much of their glass now gone, I thought how the disappearance of the building is something like the disappearance of words written on a prayer flag, the quality of the blessing released into the world as the letters on the flag fade. Washed into the rain and the sun and the wind and into life in the world, words of blessing that we associated with some person or time in that place.

Here is an excerpt of prayer we said that day. 

Holy One,
Sometimes it is hard to see,
What is growing in the world
offering a harvest to lay over the places where torn is written on the vivid earth.
Open our hearts
to know the way things grow in secret
To the way that things linger 
To the way blessing disperses from the past
like the word on a prayer flag;
touching the air . . .

The breeze blows through glassless windows of a beloved building . . .

even in what seems to be an ending.
Even in a space that seems to be empty
we celebrate with courage what we can no longer see . . .
It is in us and for the world . . .

We recall now those of vision and of prudence
The gentle and cantankerous
Those who sought sanctuary and solace
Those who mourned and those who comforted . . .

We recall the weddings and the baptisms and the memorials
Some of them our own or for those we loved
They are not lost
They surround us with presence
They grow in us and in the world like hidden seed

The blessing of all that was spreads through us now
and out into the world
like the fading of words on a prayer flag

We recall the builders of the great cathedrals
One generation hewing the stone for a work they would never live to see finished
We recall their belief in the pure value of the work itself
Their freedom from the need to see outcome and completion
Let us know ourselves as workers for the whole cloth of God . . .
Co-workers with those who have come before
And those who will come after

Let us know the blessings of past planting
Written on lives as on a prayer flag
Let us know the blessings of the past not lost but released . . .

No shape of wood or even stone is forever
But the heart that beat in it; the soft intercessions
The fervent witness
The hope
Is not lost
It is in You, Holy One.  
It is in You.  

About Catherine Smith

A retired minister with the United Church of Canada I’ve grown up in church, been ordained and served communities that are small or in transition. I’ve seen firsthand just how powerful these experiences can be in helping to foster meaningful connections with others and the Other, the mystery that holds us all. My greatest hope is that my writing and this website will help you live well in the big questions that face all of us in this beautiful, aching world.


  1. Burrell Marilyn on April 16, 2019 at 10:21 am

    I recall those words shared, offering a place to faithfully hold memories past, and hope for the unseen future. They touched me deeply then as they do now. The sky alight with the flames of Notre Dame, spectacular, sad, and a reminder of impermanence. Yet the spirit and heart energy of the gift that the cathedral was is not lost. Hope remains.

    • Catherine Smith on April 17, 2019 at 8:18 am

      Yes, Marilyn, the earlier moment of finding and speaking those words in community remains very present to me too. The terrible sight of the fire ravaging Notre Dame is nested in this hope. I imagine the prayers released touching those in the mourning crowds.

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