How Does A Cathedral Mean?
I've been thinking a good deal about Notre Dame burning in Paris. I know I am not alone. My first of many visits to the most visited monument in Paris (yes, more than the Eiffel Tower) was in 1982; our Armistice Centenary Tour visited Notre Dame ten months ago. I will never forget or ever be able to fully express in words what walking into an 850-year-old Gothic cathedral feels like. It still feels that way.
To the thousands who participated in building it, what did all the splendor mean? To a world secularizing at warp speed, what does a centuries-old stone church mean? I explore some of these questions in chapter 27 of my WWII historical fiction book The Resistance (available at bondbooks.net). My protagonist downed B-17 pilot and his French Resistance escort are forced to hide from the encircling SS manhunt on the precipitous tiles of a Medieval house directly across the street from another French Gothic structure, Bayeux Cathedral. Here's what happened:
HEIGHT OF TERROR
he alarm now wailed in Evans’ head, unrelenting, inescapable. Then, abruptly, it was no longer internal.
From the street came the roar of engines, tires thrumming on the cobblestones, brakes screeching to a halt, doors slamming, jackboots clonking on the pavement. Crisp knocking on a door. Silence. Fists beating a door. Shouting in German. Rifle butts pounding on a door five stories below.
“Maybe it is another door,” hissed Andre, his face ashen. “Perhaps for someone else?”
Hasty footfalls came from the stairs, then rapid knocking on the door of Andre’s studio.
Through the keyhole came a breathless voice. “They are coming! Waffen SS!”
“For us? Are you certain?”
“Absolutely. At the door of the shop.”
“How much time?”
“Three minutes. No more,” and he was gone.
Aimée grabbed Evans’ arm. “We must hide you!” He drew in breath sharply. His shoulder was not fully healed yet.
“Forget me,” said Evans. “Hide Ruben.”
“It is you they are searching for,” said Aimée, her green eyes wide and imploring. “You are an American flyer. If they find you, they will arrest all of us, including Ruben.”
She turned to Andre. “Is there anywhere?”
“The roof.” With a sweep of his arm, he cleared the workbench. “Out the window. Climb along the gable. Do not fall. Hide behind the chimney. Be sure they do not see you.”
“I want to go home.” There was a quaver in Ruben’s voice; he tugged at Aimée’s hand.
“Evans, you must hurry,” said Aimée, leaning toward him as if to give him farewell kisses on the cheeks.
“No!” said Andre. “You must hide as well. I will take the boy down. He is my cousin. It will look normal with the boy. They are not searching for a little boy.”
Aimée began to protest.
“There is no time. Go now! Hide with the American. We will stall them.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Evans followed Aimée out the window and onto the steep, slate roof. He tried not to look down. The hard cobblestones, he knew they were far below.
Scrambling behind the chimney, Evans drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He’d flown bombing missions high over enemy-occupied Europe, antiaircraft riddling his Fort, Fw190 fighters swooping in for the kill. Why more raw fear at this?
He heard the SS captain barking orders at his men in German, the harsh commands echoing across the street below and bouncing back at them off the west façade of the cathedral. Dropping bombs from 20,000 feet on munitions factory buildings, dangerous as it was, was detached, impersonal, done with machines. This was close, human, intimate, and—he feared—soon to be face-to-face.
Aimée and Evans pressed against the brickwork of the chimney. It wasn’t much cover, but it was all they had. A soldier glancing up from the street at just the right angle, and they would be seen. They pressed closer together, hard against the ridge and the chimney. Evans heard and felt Aimée’s heart pounding next to him, and the clutching staccato of her breath. Or was it his own?
“All we can do is wait,” whispered Evans, his voice barely audible.
Aimée’s face was pale. “And pray.” She mouthed the words. “I could not bear it if anything happened to my little brother.”
He nodded, trying to slow down the hammering of his heart. Directly across the narrow street loomed the massive cathedral. Evans studied the intricate medieval statuary adorning the west façade. The resurrection of the dead, souls rising from tombs, some to heaven, more to hell. Clearly the stonemason was more interested in the howling torments of the damned in hell.
A spasm fluttered in Evans’ left hamstring muscle. He tried to ignore it. The spasm hardened, constricting and contracting, tightening into an iron fist. If only he could change positions. The pain was excruciating. He tried to relax, but it was impossible, not while clinging to a precipitous roof on a medieval house far above the street. Teeth clenched, a tremor ran through his body.
“What is the matter, Evans?” whispered Aimée.
He swallowed hard and attempted to control the quavering he knew would be in his voice if he spoke.
“Are you ill?”
“Cramp,” he managed to mouth, “in my leg.”
“I am sorry for you,” she whispered. “Perhaps, pressure directly on the muscle?”
He nodded. Holding on for dear life, how was he going to apply direct pressure to the back of his thigh?
“Think of something else,” she suggested. She bobbed her head at the cathedral façade. “Think of that.”
He looked again at the medieval stonework; the muscle in his leg felt like hard stone. The writhing condemned in the Last Judgment scene looked like he felt at the moment. Evans studied the north portal. It began to make sense. The mason had chiseled stony vignettes from the Passion of Christ. There was the Last Supper, the betrayal, Jesus praying to his father in the garden; and there was the kiss of Judas, the arrest, torture, carrying the cross, brutal crucifixion.
Evans shuddered. The war, the SS bursting into homes, arrests, torture, senseless killing, reprisals, ambush, spies, double agents, secret radio transmissions—being shot down, bailing out, hunted, others in grave danger because of him. How would all that look in stone relief?
He scanned back through the stone vignettes, the knot in his hamstring subsiding. Why had they done it, carved those scenes in stone, built the entire structure, all in stone?
It suddenly occurred to Evans that from this angle, cowering high atop the roof of a medieval house, he and Aimée were seeing parts of the cathedral others never saw. Statues so high up, so out of sight from passersby, they were impossible to be seen from the pavement. Slowly, he scanned the facade, higher and higher it continued. People had lived in the shadow of Bayeux’s cathedral for nearly 1000 years, and how many hundreds of intricately carved statuary had never been seen by anyone? Yet humble stonecutters had tap-tapped away for years, decades, generations, each successive mason doing his part to create this magnificent place, whether his work would ever be seen by anyone or not. What was so important that centuries of workers would do it?
As Evans mused, the sun began to set and a golden glow radiated from the façade of the ancient edifice. Even if it had been safe to speak aloud, what was on display at that instant was so spectacular, wonder alone would have hushed them.
What had the voice on the BBC broadcast said only a short while ago? “When Christ died, he died for you individually just as much as if you’d been the only man in the world.” Evans wasn’t at all sure what it meant; Sunday School had been long ago; he needed to think more deeply about it. But whatever it did mean, it made him feel that there had to be something bigger, far more important than his own troubles.
Jolted abruptly back to the peril of the moment, Evans and Aimée heard the harsh barking of the SS captain apparently reentering the street below. They could not see anything, but his words echoed from the gulf between the house and the façade of the cathedral.
“Please, God, not Ruben,” whispered Aimée.
Evans nodded in agreement. He wanted to see what was going on five stories below, in the street. He felt so helpless. What good was a flyer without his weapon, his plane? If only he could do something to stop the Germans.
“When will they leave?”
Evans shook his head. He had no idea. How long would they have to hide? All night?
The yelling continued, guttural, harsh, brutal. There was nothing to do but wait. Oddly, as they waited, involuntarily crammed together behind the chimney, high atop the medieval house, they began to feel detached from the commotion, as if their vantage point made them safe, at least for the instant.
“If I tell you something,” whispered Evans, “can you promise not to tell anyone else?”
Aimée looked wary. “Oui, bien sur.”
Evans cleared his throat, loosening the scarf at his neck. “I-I am not a big fan of heights.”
Aimée looked wide-eyed at him, and then her lips twitched slightly, as if she were restraining herself; it was hardly the time for humor.
“You are a pilot. You fly the mighty B-17, the Flying Fortress. The high-altitude bomber of your Army Air Corps. Are you telling me that you are afraid of heights?”
Evans nodded. “Always have been. Never liked climbing trees. Never slept in the top bunk. I told my younger brother it was the best mattress. Until one day he figured it out. I had to pay him off with marbles to keep quiet. And then we got older, but he still remembered.”
“It is courageous to do this.”
“What, to tell you?”
“I suppose. But I think it is courageous to fly high-altitude bomber airplanes when you are afraid of heights, in defiance of your fears.”
“Courageous? Maybe, or maybe just dull-witted.”
Aimée smiled. “You being dull-witted this morning at the checkpoint, it was merely a ruse de guerre.”
Evans nodded. “I get a hitch in my innards just hearing the words high-altitude. I really should have volunteered to do something closer to the ground.”
“Then you would not be here.” Aimée said it as a matter of fact.
Evans stole a glance at her.
“Ruse de guerre,” she said. “Comprenez-vous?”
Evans swallowed, avoiding her gaze, her green eyes that looked right through you. Ruse de guerre, he understood. Deception of war. Everyone in wartime engaged in it—generals, prime ministers, spies, deep-cover agents. And so was he.
It was nearly dark. The yelling abruptly stopped. For an instant there was silence in the invisible gulf below them. Suddenly, vehicle engines roared to life, and the SS sped north down the Rue de Bienvenu.
Read the rest of THE RESISTANCE