Notre Dame Cathedral and "La Marseillaise": Mighty Monuments That Still Stand Firm

The attacks that occurred on November 13 in Paris, and which ISIS claimed to have committed, targeted popular cafés, a sports stadium, and a concert hall. But two towering French monuments were untouched by the demonic slaughter that was unleashed on that fateful night: Notre Dame Cathedral and "La Marseillaise," France's national anthem.

Notre Dame de Paris, French for "Our Lady of Paris," and built to honor the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is also known as Notre Dame Cathedral or simply Notre Dame. The historic Catholic cathedral dominates the eastern half of Paris' Île de la Cité in the city's fourth arrondissement (district). Begun in 1163 and completed in 1345, Notre Dame is considered as one of the most supreme examples of French Gothic architecture, and with its distinctive flying buttresses, pensive gargoyles, and soaring bell towers, it figures among the most immediately recognizable structures in the world. It, along with its elegant, steel secular cousin, the Eiffel Tower, is an iconic building in a city of iconic buildings. Among the Cathedral's many treasures is its reliquary, which contains some of Catholicism's most significant relics, including the purported Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails. The cathedral was immortalized in literature by Victor Hugo's great novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The Cathedral was not spared the assaults of tumult and war. In the 1790s, Notre Dame was desecrated during the French Revolution's radical phase (known, ironically, as "The Reign of Terror") where much of its religious iconography was either damaged or destroyed outright. Beginning in 1845, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (who was himself born in Paris) began extensive restorations on the Cathedral, and further restorations and maintenance were done in 1991.

Notre-Dame has ten bells, the largest of which, named Emmanuel, was tolled on the night of August 24, 1944 to announce to the city of Paris that its liberation from Nazi occupation was underway.

"La Marseillaise," is a song born of revolution, a song that speaks of resistance to tyranny, a musical exhortation to the masses to rise up against oppression. Apart from America's "The Star Spangled Banner," the French anthem is arguably the most well-known of its genre, whose melody has been quoted in the works of various composers throughout history from Beethoven to the Beatles.

Composed in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria, its original title was "Chant de guerre pour l'Armée du Rhin" ("War Song for the Rhine Army"). It was later adopted by the French National Convention as the Republic's anthem in 1795, and it was given its nickname after being sung by volunteers (fédérés in French) from Marseille marching to the capital on July 30, 1792. This battle song became the French national anthem in a decree passed on July 14, 1795. Napoleon and successive monarchs revoked the anthem's status, but in 1879, "La Marseillaise" was restored as France's anthem and remained so ever since.

Not only is the anthem's melody stirring (and singable), so too are its rousing lyrics, which have spoken so forcefully and eloquently of a people's determination to face down invading forces. Here a translation:

Arise, children of the Fatherland, The day of glory has arrived! Against us tyranny's Bloody banner is raised (repeat) Do you hear, in the countryside, The roar of those ferocious soldiers? They're coming right into your arms To cut the throats of your sons, your women! To arms, citizens, Form your battalions, Let us march, let us march, So that an impure blood May quench our furrows!

Anyone who has seen the film "Casablanca" cannot forget the powerful scene where the French café diners stand as one to sing this anthem in defiance of the Nazi officers. The lyrics raise graphic images and are uncompromising in its bellicosity, and we may question the meaning of "an impure blood." Yet the anthem is a powerful rallying cry to not succumb to those seeking to take away life and freedom.

Along with my fellow Americans and so many others throughout the world, I have in horrified disbelief watched and read about the events that have unfolded and continue to unfold in Paris since November 13. For myself whose professional life had been bound up with the French language and French culture and who has visited Paris many times, the images of that night, including that of a darkened Eiffel Tower, dealt a body blow to the heart.

But equally striking were the images of sorrowing and angry French people of every stripe walking their streets the following days with the anthem's words on their lips. Powerful, too, were the images of French people and those who joined them at the memorial service in Notre Dame held on Sunday and to hear the Church's eternal words of comfort, hope, and peace.

In times of national crisis, a people look to religious and secular institutions and symbols for comfort and reaffirmation of identity. We have to go back only as far as September 11, 2001 to recall our actions during that time. Their deeply-ingrained laïcité (roughly understood as laicism or secularism) notwithstanding, the French still looked and went to their religious past, symbolized by Notre Dame, knowing perhaps that the Church still offers what is needed during times of spiritual duress. And she returned to "La Marseillaise," her great secular hymn, knowing that its time-tested words would fill her spirit with courage.

Vive Notre Dame and vive "La Marseillaise."