In 2012 my granddaughter and I visited London and Paris. She was 14 and I was 74. We thoroughly enjoyed both cities as we visited the usual tourist venues and roamed through historical sites. Sometimes with a group but usually by ourselves.
When we visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, signs everywhere celebrated the structure’s 800th birthday. Although completed in 1345, construction actually started 200 years earlier. The 800-year mark was a kind of rounding of the depiction of age.
Our visit was years before the devasting fire that destroyed the cathedral’s roof and other defining features.
Those who have studied the history of Paris are amazed at how the city evolved. In ways so haphazard it almost defies description. Early tribal influences are evident, as are the dominance of Rome and the devastation caused by frequent wars and plagues.
Through all the cycles of power building, construction of monumental institutions of learning and faith, and influences of various monarchies and political and economic elites, Paris has somehow emerged as one of the more culturally interesting places on earth. Contributing to human legacies associated with literature, the visual and performing arts, medicine, food, architecture, even philosophical thought.
The city is also well known for the Reign of Terror and later emergence of Napoleon. Other leaders who claimed royal authority. Those who controlled the populace in ways that caused them to participate in self destructive behaviors.
After my granddaughter and I were suitably awed by the grandeur and majesty of Notre Dame, we walked outside and pondered the meaning of it all. As a young adult, I taught world history. I knew that Paris in the 1300s was nothing like it is today. While a few other large buildings were present, most of the city was not much more than a shanty town.
Filled with disease and human misery. Most people were lucky to live to age 30. Horrible pandemics, wars, and famines killed people by the hundreds of thousands.
Notre Dame, like the dozens of other European cathedrals of that era, was built by the church to cement its power over the people. The contrast between the real world and soaring walls and stained-glass windows of the magnificent edifice convinced the uneducated masses that it was a depiction of heaven.
The clergy were therefore agents of God on earth. Their pronouncements were tantamount to being directives from the Almighty. Since death was just around the corner for many Paris residents, they readily acceded to the demands of priests. In terms of behavior, payment of indulgences, and allegiance to approved theological principles.
It did not take much to convince uneducated peasants they were indeed depraved creatures full of sin and unworthiness. Living in a harsh world only heaven could relieve.
A couple centuries later began an enlightenment that started changing the customs of thinking and acting. Resulting in the Renaissance and the growth of humanism. Human beings did not need to live under the control of ecclesiastical or monarchial authorities, bowing to their power and edicts.
That change of belief was gradual, sometimes resulting in warfare and other forms of revolt. The Reign of Terror was possibly the most extreme rebellion. Tens of thousands of people were either executed, died in prison, or succumbed for other reasons. Members of the clergy were among them.
The tyranny of power is still prevalent. It showed its face throughout the 20th Century. Again, it resulted in astronomical death and suffering through war and the side effects of conflict.
Adolph Hitler oversaw the construction of many glorious monuments to his megalomania. All were destroyed after his death. And the deaths of millions of his followers.
That same tyranny of power is now being displayed in Russia. By a man who believes he is the protector of a certain belief system, cultural destiny, and national imperative. Televised pictures from the Kremlin, his seat of authority, reveal another kind of majestic structure.
Lovely architecture, high ceilings, sparkling chandeliers, and uniformed guards goosestepping their way back and forth. All while he orders subordinates to kill and conquer territory he believes belongs to his nation. To him.
As a Christian and believer that human beings are born good and worthy of God’s grace, the reality of our history on earth mystifies me. Walking the streets of Paris, my granddaughter was transfixed by the wonder of it all. Enchanted by the artistry found in the Louvre and the magnificence of the Eiffel Tower. The majesty of Versailles and picturesque vision of the Seine River. Young couples strolling along the shore.
I tried to see the cityscape through her eyes. But it was hard.
My upbringing was in a family that respected societal rules of order when they made sense and served the good of everyone. But arbitrariness was another thing entirely.
Both my parents and other members of my family were quick to dispute what they believed to be nonsensical edicts. No matter the source. Government, church, or some official who believed himself to be sacrosanct and gifted with special powers of insight or intuition.
They had no patience with any kind of tyrannical power exercised by someone exuding haughty self-importance. That family legacy remains with me today.
It causes me to become furious at the rise of men and women who find political or financial success through conveying an overinflated ego and so-called strength of conviction. All in the guise of leadership applied to protect us from forces they define as an evil surrounding our culture and well-being.
Paris is known as the “City of Lights.” A center of culture and liberal thought. But the pathway to that status is strewn with the debris of human missteps.
Mistaken allegiance to the tyranny of power. Maybe that is the lesson to be learned today. So we can avoid the suffering of those who lived in centuries past.
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