Parce qu’il est midi, parce que nous sommes en ce jour d’aujourd’hui,
Parce que vous êtes là pour toujours, simplement parce que vous êtes Marie, simplement parce que vous existez,
Mère de Jésus-Christ, soyez remerciée !
—from La Vierge à Midi by Paul Claudel
The Virgin Mary is honored at least thirty-seven times in Notre-Dame de Paris—in the form of sculptures, paintings, and the spectacular rose windows. The statue called the Virgin of Paris is the perhaps most-famous representation of Our Lady out of all the works in that cathedral that was erected in her honor.
This is the story of that statue and of how it came about that, very close to that statue, on a rainy Christmas eve, Paul Claudel, the famous French author, was struck by grace. And it is also the story of how that moment of Claudel’s conversion was recalled in the very first religious service held in Notre-Dame after the dismaying fire of 2019.
The statue currently known as the Virgin of Paris was originally carved in the mid 14th century for the chapel in the former cloister of the Canons of the Cathedral close by on the Ile de la Cité. In 1818, the statue was transferred to the cathedral to the pier of the portal of the Virgin, to replace an earlier 13th-century statue that had been destroyed in 1793 in the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror.
In 1855, during the restoration campaign of Viollet-le-Duc, the Virgin of Paris statue was moved again. Le-Duc had another statue carved and installed at the portal of the Virgin (which is the current statue in the image below).
The Virgin of Paris statue was installed at its present location, on the southeast pillar of the transept, where it remained until the April 15, 2019 fire.
The statue was not damaged in the fire, and it was moved to safekeeping. It will be returned to the cathedral when the restoration is complete.
Near where the statue stood before the fire, there was a plaque commemorated the conversion of the prominent French poet, playwright, and diplomat Paul Claudel (1868-1955) that read (and probably still reads):
Ici se convertit Paul Claudel
25 DECEMBRE 1886
CONVERSION DE PAUL CLAUDEL
Paul Claudel’s youth was spent among free-thinking intellectuals, and he had become cynical about the Catholic faith. His conversion happened in this dramatic way, as recounted in Louis Chaigne’s biography of him, Paul Claudel: The Man and the Mystic. On Christmas Day in 1886 when he was eighteen years old, Claudel attended High Mass at the cathedral. He left and then returned later for vespers.
‘It was the gloomiest winter day and the darkest rainy afternoon over Paris,’ he wrote. He listened to the psalms and the Magnificat.
“He recalled that he ‘stood near the second pillar at the entrance to the chancel, to the right, on the side of the sacristy. . . . Then occurred the event which dominates my entire life.’
“’In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such a strength of adherence, with such an uplifting of my entire being, with such powerful conviction, with such a certainty leaving no room for any kind of doubt, that since then all the books, all the arguments, all the incidents and accidents of a busy life have been unable to shake my faith, nor indeed to affect it in any way.’
“That same day, two hundred kilometers away in the small town of Lisieux, Thérèse Martin attended midnight Mass in the local cathedral. The future saint wrote in her autobiographical Story of a Soul that on that Christmas Day she “received the grace of emerging from childhood, or in a word the grace of my full conversion.’ . . . Claudel was ‘surprised’ to learn, years later, of the future saint’s simultaneous conversion.'”
Following is St. Thérèse’s account from her autobiographical The Story of a Soul of what happened to her at the age of fourteen just a few hours after eighteen-year-old Paul Claudel experienced his own moment of grace:
It was December 25, 1886. . .. We had come back from Midnight Mass . . .. I used to love to take my shoes from the chimney corner and examine the presents in them; this old custom had given us so much joy in our youth that Céline wanted to continue treating me as a baby since I was the youngest in the family. Papa had always loved to see my happiness and listen to my cries of delight as I drew each surprise from the magic shoes, and my dear King’s gaiety increased my own happiness very much. However, Jesus desired to show me that I was to give up the defects of my childhood and so He withdrew its innocent pleasures. He permitted Papa, tired out after the Midnight Mass, to experience annoyance when seeing my shoes at the fireplace, and that he speak those words which pierced my heart: ‘Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!’ I was going upstairs, at the time, to remove my hat, and Céline, knowing how sensitive I was and seeing the tears already glistening in my eyes, wanted to cry too, for she loved me very much and understood my grief. She said, ‘Oh, Thérèse, don’t go downstairs; it would cause you too much grief to look at your slippers right now!’ . . . Forcing back my tears, I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen. Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing; Céline believed it was all a dream! Fortunately, it was a sweet reality; Thérèse had discovered once again the strength of soul which she had lost at the age of four and a half, and she was to preserve it forever!”
Therese had become super-sensitive at four and a half when her mother had died. But as she described, her conversion had made her more sensitive to her father’s feelings than her own. “My heart was filled with charity. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself.”
In his “Profile” of Paul Claudel, writer Ralph McInerny had this to say about Claudel conversion, which didn’t immediately change Claudel’s behavior nearly as much as St. Thérèse’s conversion changed hers:
Claudel did not return immediately to the practice of his faith. But on that Christmas Eve in Notre Dame, the liturgy spoke to him with a power he would never forget and his disbelief drained from him.”
Even though Claudel came to believe that night and never lost that faith, he did not change his life completely, until he had his heart broken by a love affair about fifteen years later. Claudel had become a diplomat, and after he was posted as a consul in China some time after 1900, he began a scandalous affair with a married woman. She became pregnant with his child, then she left him, took up with another man, and she disappeared from his life. For “a six month period” he “turned away from the faith, even contemplating suicide.” . . . “His play Le Partage du Midi (Break of Noon) is the play in which Claudel made use of this tragic and passionate encounter. As it had with St. Augustine, Claudel’s sin and its attendant humiliation was the making of him spiritually.”
La Vierge à Midi (The Virgin at Noon) is a poem also inspired by Claudel’s conversion, with the setting of the poem moved to midday.
The poem was movingly recited during the Good Friday Vespers Service that took place April 10, 2020, a few days before the first anniversary of the April 15, 2019 fire that ravaged Notre-Dame.
During that non-traditional vespers, held the first time the cathedral was opened for a religious service after the fire, the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, and a very small group including a violinist and two actors continued the yearly tradition of venerating the Crown of Thorns, which—to everyone’s relief—had been removed before it could be consumed by the flames.
The archbishop and other clergy processed in from the rear of the cathedral wearing hard hats, followed by the entertainers, who in addition to the hard hats were wearing the same kind of hazmat suits and boots that are worn by the crews doing the reconstruction work.
The service took place with the Crown of Thorns in its bejeweled golden reliquary resting on a very small red-velvet-draped table. They stood behind the immense gold cross and Pieta—which are still standing behind the high altar—in a small area over which the roof was still intact.
In the screensnap below, looking through the pillars behind the altar from the back, you can see the sky through the missing roof over the nave, which was draped with nets to catch any falling debris.
The actress recited “La Vierge à midi” as part of that service, which you can watch in this EWTN video:
Below is a slightly more literal English translation than the one in the EWTN voiceover.
The Virgin at Noon
By Paul Claudel
‘It is noon. I see the church is open. I must go in.
Mother of our Lord, I have not come to pray.
I have nothing to offer and nothing to ask.
I am here only, my Lady, to look at you.
To look at you, to weep for happiness, to know this
That I am your son and that you are there.
Nothing other than for one moment during which everything stops. Noon!
To be with you, Mary, in this place where you are.
To say nothing, to look at your face.
To let my heart sing in its own language.
To say nothing, but simply to sing because my heart is too full.
Because you are beautiful, because you are immaculate,
The woman in the Grace
The creature in its first honor and in its final blossoming,
As it came out of God in the morning of its original splendor.
Ineffably intact because you are the Mother of Jesus Christ,
Who is the truth in your arms, and the only hope and the only fruit.
Because you are the woman, the Eden of the old forgotten tenderness,
Whose gazes finds the heart suddenly and brings forth the accumulated tears.
Because you have saved me, because you have saved France.
Because she also, like me, for you was that thing you thought about.
Because at that moment when everything cracked, that’s when you stepped in you.
Because you saved France once again.
Because it is noon, because we are here in this day today.
Because you are there for always, simply because you are Mary, simply because you exist,
Mother of Jesus Christ, be thanked!
Truly there is much to be thankful for. Besides Paul Claudel’s conversion and the survival of the cathedral, the stained glass, the Crown of Thorns and other relics of the Passion, one huge thing also to be grateful for is the latest news from the restoration team at Notre-Dame de Paris. On November 24, 2020, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris Facebook page posted that the demolition of the scaffolding was completed on that day.
Scaffolding made up of 50,000 steel poles totaling 550 tons had been installed around the spire at the time of the fire, because Notre-Dame was undergoing a major restoration. In the heat of the blaze, the scaffolding melted, twisted and fused together. Serious dangers existed that the scaffolding could collapse and perhaps also cause the collapse of the already precarious structure. But with the removal of the last of the scaffolding, Notre-Dame has been saved from that danger, and the actual reconstruction can begin.
This free PBS special, Saving Notre Dame is wonderfully informative with interviews and animated graphics that vividly portray the immense task that scientists and engineers have been facing in the fight to save the cathedral in the almost two years after the fire was doused.