Like for so many, the Notre Dame is for me an icon of medieval brilliance. The cathedral has been a symbol of Catholicism, a thorn in the eyes of the revolutionary anti-christ, and was brought back to glory by Napoleon. After many tries, this time Lucifer finally got it. Christianity has been under fire through the centuries, and the attacks have spread in Europe and the US. But the Notre Dame in Paris remained a favored place for many believers to celebrate Mass, especially at Christmas, during the Holy Week and Easter, the Ascension of the Holy Mary, and All Saints Day. Lucifer must be jeering, rubbing his hot fingers, that his Judas put the fire to it, just in time.
Was it arson or just construction sloppiness, leaving some burning cigarette or some hot construction tool behind? What about French first-responder efficiency, as it took reportedly two hours for the fire trucks to arrive? Macron said it was an accident and I assume he said so following the judgment of his Sécurité. But was it? Imagine the national and western furor if it were not. Just for that reason, the authorities might not admit that. Now they want to rebuild it in five years as opposed to the hundred years it took in the twelfth/thirteenth centuries.
Some reporters and TV anchors were mocking that France, as a Catholic country, has become more and more secular. Why rebuild it then, say the anchors? Only for tourism? But are the French really that ‘secular’? In the middle ages (like in other parts of the world, where they built majestic temples e.g., India, and mosques – Persia, Arabia, North Africa), peoples and their builders and artists dedicated their life to these magnificent constructions because of their religious faith. So did the French. Through the centuries, they build their structures because they believed. Today, not all ‘Catholics’ may attend mass, go for ‘confession,’ or take the Communion. But that does not mean they don’t believe in God and His Ten Commandments.
I was born in a fierce Protestant Dutch family and turned into a Catholic boy at the age of 9. I turned away from Catholicism because of its rigidity. Although I adore the old Catholic liturgy, its Gregorian Music and rituals because of their mysticism, and consider cathedrals like the one in Chartres magnificent places for quiet meditation, I preferred my Protestant religious freedom. Maybe the Catholic emphasis on rules, regulations, and compliance, combined with the unnatural celibacy of its priests and its resulting dire consequences, drives French believers, like elsewhere in Europe, away from the Church. But that is no reason to term the French atheists or non-believers. They may still consider themselves Christians, adhering as best they can to those Ten Commandments, instead of going to church, and having to listen to lengthy and insufferable sermons. They still want to be able to have access to the Notre Dame if they want to. That’s why they want to rebuild it.
This week we reminisce Jesus’ suffering at the Cross thanks to the Judasses among us, and his Redemption at Easter, while his sad mother, our Holy Mary, had to witness the cruelty of his tormentors. Mothers, whose sons died in war, terror or accidents will relate to her. The Notre Dame carries her name and always will. In the name of the Holy Mary, I will contribute to its restoration as it is a bulwark of our Christianity, despite all the nonsense of the anti-Christ bullies the world over.
When studying in Paris for a year in the early sixties, the Notre Dame bestowed many blessings on me, among others my fluency in French, for which I am eternally grateful and the reason why I want to contribute. After that, I returned to Paris many times for business and pleasure with my wife and kids, often strolling around the Ile de la Cité, dominated by the Notre Dame. I may not witness the completion of its restoration, but then, many of its original builders did not see its completion either.
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It did not dawn on me until I was at a Jesuit boarding school in Nijmegen, a city close to Germany and one of the centers of World War II fighting in The Netherlands. During the 1950s, a (strictly forbidden) girlfriend Marijke van Steen (probably happily married now with grandkids like me) took me on a bike ride to the Canadian War Cemetery at a small town called Groesbeek not far from where she lived. Having survived World War II as a child (from about 4 to 9 years old), I had intense and often graphic memories of those awful years of being occupied by Nazi Germany. I had seen aviators fighting in the sky, bombers dropping bombs, and German soldiers rounding up compatriots, including Jewish friends, and beating them up or shooting them in the street.
A downed British pilot once sought refuge in our house and disappeared again with the help of underground resistance fighters. I was 9 when we were finally liberated thanks to all those allied forces who fought their way through German armies, deadly fortresses of machine guns, powerful tanks, Junker fighter planes, Heinkel bombers and later the fierce Messerschmitts jetfighters.
While World War II memories remained lucent growing up, there is nothing more poignant to resuscitate those memories when you visit the warriors’ graves. Marijke showed me around.
Though she was a few years younger than I, she also remembered liberation in 1945. Yes, we were the lucky ones and could smile, like the people in the picture below.
Hand in hand we stood in front of all these white crosses while complete silence reigned around us in the Cemetery. Each white cross represented a scream in pain, a futile effort to fight death, a vain struggle to scramble to safety, grasping a twig before hurtling down a cliff or parachuting into a burning sea. Each white cross had comrades in battle, mortally wounded, or severely injured, alive perhaps but impaired for life.
Sitting together on a bench overlooking the extensive field of bright white crosses, we knew it was thanks to those brave youthful warriors we were still alive and could fall in love. When I was drafted into the army and crept through sand or waded through ponds with a rifle above my head, I remembered those who did this for real and made the ultimate sacrifice.
I am the guy with the broad smile in the middle, cleaning my rifle, all of us having great fun.
I was lucky as it did not happen to me, but for many American soldiers, it did, in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, the wider world. Arlington Cemetery, and the World War II memorial with its European and Asian theaters, are thoughtful places to realize how thankful we must be to those who shield us from harm and keep us safe. It is nice to say ‘peace through strength’, but we must not forget that that ‘strength’ means a lot of brave people, fellow humans, who are willing to pay the ultimate price when they have to, for us to keep enjoying our comfortable lives.
And so Meghan and Harry are married, like “we did.” “Royally.” Meghan, a mixed-race American woman and Harry a royal British prince. A fascinating story many are calling a ‘Cinderella’ story. Well, Meghan was not exactly washing dishes and cleaning house, nor was Joy. Meghan is an accomplished actress and a gifted person, and Joy was a clever and adored World Bank front office staff-assistant. Both are extremely charming. But it does sound a bit like a Cinderella story: Meghan is a mixture of a Caucasian father and an African mother. The gripping marriage scenes under clear skies (what a gift from Heaven to the UK!) beautified this ultimate contemporary event, which would have been impossible some forty-five years ago, when we married.
What a difference! I remember watching just-crowned Queen Elizabeth visiting Amsterdam with her Prince Philip in 1958. (The story goes she met him, a second cousin, in Greece when she was 13 and fell in love with him at that time already, writing letters to each other). The state visit to the Dutch Royal family was all stiff pomp, though cordial. Then followed the problems with growing-up children: Charles and Diana’s disastrous divorce, followed by Diana’s tragic death, Andrew and Fergy’s divorce, and daughter Anne’s divorce from Captain Mark Philips. Her third son, Prince Edward, is the only one remaining married to his first wife (Sophie Rhys-Jones). Queen Elizabeth reportedly acquiesced in Harry’s marriage for love to a US commoner of mixed race because she was tired of facing her children’s unhappy marriages. Harry and Meghan’s wedding pictures show that the royal protocol has fundamentally changed.
I can feel that difference probably more acutely than others: Joy Jaundoo – a Guyanese of East-Indian descent – and I, a Dutchman from Amsterdam, married in Washington, D.C. in 1974.
The only person reacting positively was my mother seeing her picture: “Wat beautiful children will you have.” The majority in stiff Holland was upset and against. “He better stay in America,” one noble uncle said. “Why doesn’t he marry one of our own,” one prominent American uttered (many Dutch said the same). An American friend walked out of the elevator when he saw the two of us together. “Don’t do that! You break your family’s bloodstream forever,” another friend offered. “Why don’t you marry a French girl,” a boss said. In Georgetown Guyana, the reception proved a lot warmer. It was mostly more accepting in the World Bank, an eminent multicultural institution where we worked. “In fifty years the whole world will be brown,” a supportive French girlfriend said. Working in a multi-cultural institution made adjustments to each other’s cultures surely a lot easier!
Guyana beach: Drinking coconut water is an art you have to learn before messing up.
Well, perhaps we had the foresight and were ahead of our time: what would that Dutch uncle say now? However, Meghan and Harry will find that mixing cultures and race does have its consequences. Their children will grow up in privileged circumstances but will still be faced with the fact that they are different from their peers born out of same-race families. As parents, they will have to compromise perhaps more than others. The mixture of different bloodstreams causes unmistakably unintended fallouts: how do the children feel internally towards others, to whom do they ‘belong?’ Do they resent the cards that they were dealt with by their parents’ decision? How do they adjust in their childhood and puberty, can they find a partner in their split world, how do they think about being put on this world still full of bigotry? All children and young adults have growing problems but biracial children perhaps more, requiring close parental attention.
Visiting home in Holland in 1979
We are blessed with two good-looking and successful children, with each showing the ‘remnants’ of our individual backgrounds. At my and my sister’s eightieth birthday anniversary last year in Holland at the Maarten Maartens House in Doorn, they were a tribute to today’s changing world. The pictures below of Joy, our children, family and friends clearly show that we and they are no ”exception” anymore. That has been royally confirmed.
Franz Werfel, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890 and died in Beverly Hills in 1945, wrote a wonderful book in 1941, entitled The Song of Bernadette, telling the story of a young impoverished peasant girl who, in 1858, is attracted by the apparition of a beautiful lady at a cave at Lourdes in France while gathering wood with her two sisters. The book became a New York Times bestseller for a year and was turned into a movie in 1943, directed by Henry King, for which Jennifer Jones, acting as Bernadette, received an Oscar Award. The beautiful lady does not tell her name, only says she is the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception (“free of sin”) of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and daughter of Joachim and Anna, is a dogma of the Catholic Church that developed over the centuries. It is not to be confused with the conception of her son, Jesus. This occurred after overshadowing of Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit and is celebrated by the “Annunciation” and “Incarnation of Jesus Christ” – on March 25, nine months before December 25. Mary’s immaculate conception appears in the Quran and Muslims also accept the virgin birth of Jesus. This has little to do with radical Islamic elements attacking Christian centers and displays this time of the year, which stems from their hatred of what Christianity represents as opposed to their literal interpretation of Quranic dictums. But the satanic way Christianity is attacked nowadays by fellow citizens in the US and elsewhere in Europe is no less demonic.
I saw the movie about Bernadette first at my Jesuit boarding school in the fifties and remember being moved by it. Lourdes has since been a pilgrims place where miracles took place to “prove” the veracity of Mary’s existence as a critical element of Christian belief. The movie starts with the statement: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” It’s an appropriate summarization of the state of mind of believers and non-believers on this subject. Personally, I never felt comfortable with the doctrine that virginal conception was identified as “sin,” and that both Mary and her son had, therefore, to be conceived by supranatural means.
I was dismissed from a theology class when at the age of 17 I asked why it was considered “sin” if a man and a woman, even if “holy,” had sex in marriage to conceive children. But then, I was born from a very Protestant family and converted to Catholicism at 10, only because my mother told us to. Martin Luther departed from the Catholic doctrine by stating that Mary was conceived the natural human way (“in sin of sinful parents”), but he also said that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit who “purified [Mary] so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood.” Lutherans may adhere to this modified doctrine but, as I understand it, most Protestants do not. I considered it more a mythological concept, as the natural sexual relationship between man and woman remained taboo for so many centuries and a subject one did not “talk or write about.” It remained a matter of utmost hypocrisy until erotic literature exploded in the sixties.
Martin Luther – Credit: law2.umkc.edu
Whatever the doctrine, the birth of Christianity is what is relevant. The world has evolved and Christianity with it, but Christmas remains a central feature of our Western Civilization based on Judeo-Christian principles as expressed in the Ten Commandments. At the later stage in our life, we notice the differences of how we practiced our religion then and now. But the nativity scene is still a pivotal scene of the year. It tends to be overshadowed by the commercialized gifts craze, but in many families, it remains of paramount religious importance and so are the Christmas carols.
Those who minimize that importance or even combat it in the name of “free speech” are the quintessential scrooges and humbugs of the season. On the other hand, I noticed many more people wishing me a “Merry Christmas” this year, seemingly unfazed, which seems to emanate from a ubiquitous relief that a new wind is blowing from Washington D.C.
For this reason, The Song of Bernadette remains a movie befitting the holiness of this season. We should be thankful to Franz Werfel for having written his book, to Henry King for having made a wonderful picture of it, to Turner Classic Movies for showing it again these days, and to the Holy Mary for having brought Jesus Christ to the world, and nursed him to the man who founded our worldwide Christian community.
Merry Christmas to you all! This is Togetherness Time!
PS: A moving story ending at Christmas:
ENCHANTING THE SWAN: Grad students and musicians Paul and Fiona fall in love when they perform The Swan and agree to marry, but paternal evil blocks their love until The Swan chants their blessing at Christmas. A moving story of inspiring love and music you want to read.
We were all seated. I could not see them. They had swoomed in at the last door ring.
They shuffled by, clothed in white garb, and sat down at the dinner table. I saw the chairs moving back and forth and the napkins unfolding. I sat down and welcomed my guests. Did I know who they were?
I soon found out. At my opposite sat Uncle Diederick. He sang his last song in jail. I recognized his drawl. He was accused of unlawful sexual behavior with minors in the stables. I will not draw on this any further because you cannot say anything bad about dead people.
On his left sat Aunt Irma. She always accused me of bedding every girl I could get my hands on and died, disinheriting me from her fortune. She still had this shrill voice, as I’d heard it in our last telephone call when she cursed me in her hospital bed because there was “this child that had to come again.”
Opposite her sat Aunt Ann, also one of those shrill women. She taught me horseback riding and yelled so loud each time when I didn’t sit straight in the saddle that my horse bucked with all fours in the air, me flying out of the saddle.
Next to Aunt Irma sat Willem B. I can’t reveal his last name because his family is so important that they would sue me if I did. He swindled every client on his way to the bank and became so rich that he was unable to count his money on his dead bed. He’d wanted to make me his heir too, but forgot to put it in writing, so the State got all the money. They never said “thanks.”
Opposite him sat the headmaster of my primary school. I couldn’t figure how he would turn up in this illustrious group of noble people, as he was a very ordinary man and a notorious child molester, hitting everyone with his cane who dared to be unruly or contradict him, jumping on our lecterns coming after us.
On the headmaster’s right sat Hans with the long earrings. She had this false smile and mean look and always entered the breakfast room, disturbing my quiet moment with my grandmother, only to gossip about everybody else with a double name in the village.
Opposite her – and next to me – sat Baroness B. whose name I cannot reveal either for the same reason as Willem B’s. She’d kicked me out of her vast apartment where I’d rented a room because the housekeeper had caught me copulating with a girl (the censor board sanitized this part of the sentence). Boy, was she mad.
On my left sat Aunt Phyllis, as an extra punishment. She used to come into the dining room and spat saliva with every word she uttered so that we kids held our hands over our plates whenever she appeared.
So I thanked everyone for coming and invited them to take some food, but nobody did. They chuckled, as they didn’t eat anymore, but they drank the good wine alright, glasses floating in the air.
Baroness B. whispered that she was still waiting for the last month’s rent I hadn’t paid after she’d thrown me out. I asked her where I could send the money, but she didn’t want to reveal her address.
The schoolmaster mumbled he was surprised to find me in a large house with expensive cars and a lot of money because he’d found me the stupidest kid in the class.
Aunt Ann yelled over the table why I wasn’t competing in the national horse shows, as I’d performed so well flying off my horse.
Uncle Diederick told us that his punishment in the afterlife consisted of having to clean stables for the rich, often confronted by beautiful girls he couldn’t like and unable to touch any beautiful boy that came his way.
Aunt Irma inquired if I had birthed any more children out of wedlock, and when I told her I hadn’t as far as I knew, she didn’t believe me and was going to find out about any hidden babies among the women she said she knew I’d known and slept with full force.
Willem B. sort of apologized for his forgetfulness but in revenge he was spooking the lives of the taxmen who’d stolen his money, and they were all going crazy and were being put in madhouses one after the other.
Aunt Hans with the long earrings told us she’d put an earring with a bug in Hillary’s bed to find out about her latest schemes. To my surprise, a lot of that became true after Halloween. Luckily, Aunt Phyllis had no saliva anymore and could not spit on my plate.
When they left cackling through the front door without opening it, I knew they were friendly ghosts now and might turn up again. The dinner was left untouched on the table but the glasses were empty. I went to my drawing room where my wife’s precious dolls occupied a whole sofa. One of them, a blond beauty I’d always hoped would come alive, suddenly started talking, her eyes winking at me. “Hi, Johnny,” she said. “I always wanted to see you again, and now I can. I am Fiona, the girl who gave you your first kiss. Remember?” I sat dumbstruck. Fiona died in a horrible horse-riding accident when she was sixteen. She kissed me in my grandmother’s vegetable garden when we were six. “Yes, of course, I remember. We were going to get married. I was inconsolable for years when you died. How come you are a doll?”
“Only for tonight, Johnny. Just kiss me once more, Johnny, and I go back to heaven.”
I took the doll, and she felt soft, alive, kissed it softly on the mouth, and the eyes winked again. Then it stiffened, and it looked straight ahead as if nothing had happened.
“Why are you kissing that doll?” I heard my wife saying to me. “And why haven’t you cleared the table yet?”
I had no answer.