In fact, at first it’s more overpowering than comforting or soothing.
Rising from a warren of half-timbered houses and 19th century apartments, Notre Dame de Strasbourg is a shock.
The sandy, rose-coloured stone gives the cathedral the look of something suddenly erupted from the earth, reaching painfully skywards.
As you walk closer, the building resolves itself – the spiky, teeth-like protrusions become racks of statuary, ornate carving and embellishment.
It’s right up close that it strikes you. Rather than the aggressive, uncaring spire of rock it presents itself from a distance, this is a building teeming with life. It fairly drips with the stuff – animals, plants, but most importantly, people.
Even then, it doesn’t sink in until you get to see the stonework up close. At the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame they’ve got room after room of statues taken down from the cathedral over the centuries, weather and wind having taken their toll.
Walking through the small, somewhat cramped rooms you start to notice how very human these Saints and Biblical figures. The subtle imperfections. No supermen here. No fashion model Virgin, aerodynamic, symmetrical perfection.
No, it’s the quirks that catch your eye. Heavy eyelids, the particular swell of a belly. The wart on a cheek. A certain twist of the corners of a mouth. A high, creased forehead. A long, lithe leg emerging from a robe.
An eye has drunk in these features. A hand has run itself along these cheeks, through these locks. These are legs glimpsed against a bed of straw. This is cheek that was slapped. This is a nose tweaked again and again. Someone knew their voice, their snore, the fart in the night, the scent of their skin in a dark alleyway.
Tasked with recreating the stories of the Bible for a mostly illiterate audience, the stonemasons building the cathedral over 300 years (and restoring it ever since) have took parents, their friends, their lovers and wrought them in stone.
Each is the echo of a life, frozen and placed reverently on the most important building in the city, one of the few places that had the pretense of welcoming all.
With this in mind, the cathedral takes on an entirely different aspect. In a city frequently at war, wracked by religious and political strife, a frequent bed of disease and violence, this stands as an attempt to reach into forever – broadcasting to heaven.
Ten thousand lives, all shooting skywards.
The cathedral was attacked during the French Revolution, as part of iconoclastic purges. Yet much of the stonework was spared. In an age where firearms made desecration as simple as loading a rifle, the mob held back. In fact, the people of Strasbourg themselves placed a gigantic Phrygian cap atop the church – a revolutionary symbol – to stop any further damage at the hands of the regime.
Now, this isn’t a religious tract. I’m not trying to impart a message about a Supreme Being, or even suggest that it was the fear of God that prevented widespread damage to the church.
Instead, I offer the notion that really, what really counts is each other. I give you that it is what we hope, love, desire and reach for in others that is our final will and testament and what will live on forever, more than anything else.
It is really what we love that is forever.
It is love that led to stone capturing the essence of the long-dead. It is love, hope and desire that has kept them there, watching over the city for centuries, despite war, political strife and driving, machine-led progress.
Sure, there is fear and hatred in this world. There was certainly much to be found in Strasbourg. Fear of a judging, punishing God and hatred of a world that was all too brutal and unjust.
It is naive to suggest otherwise.
Yet, on balance it is love that remains, once hatred and fear washes away.
Want something to last forever? Pour your love into it.