The news this morning that the Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire knocked the breath out of me. I was amazed at my emotional reaction to the destruction of a building I’ve never visited, a building created by the corrupt medieval Roman Catholic church, a building so old that it should be irrelevant – but it isn’t. We’re all heartbroken. Why?
Notre Dame lives in us all. It is romance, danger, and transcendence. It is there as a backdrop for many of the movies, of the plays, of the novels we’ve loved. I can still access the corner of my brain where Quasimodo is laboring up the bell tower steps. It stands tall in the background of Les Miserables, of The Tale of Two Cities, of Le Crime de Sylvester Bonnard – the first book I read in French.
That takes me back to my high school days and my eccentric, Francophile French teacher whose main curriculum was showing us 3-D color slides of Paris. She’d make us turn in our seats so that we were oriented in the proper direction as we gazed at the shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Bastille, and of course and most often Notre Dame. It sits there as the literal crossroads of France. All distances are measured from a ground-zero plaque on the pavement in front of the cathedral. That place is literally the center of all that is French.
It stands as a monument to Christianity and its foundational role in the stabilization of medieval Europe. It embodies reverence for tradition, for art, for innovation, for beauty, for holiness. It houses nine bells in its almost-twin towers and the lightning rod on the spire – now totally destroyed – held relics from St. Denis and St. Genevieve – Paris’ patron saints. I don’t even believe in patron saints, let alone relics, but I mourn the loss of those tiny bits history. (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/offbeat/13-facts-about-notre-dame-cathedral/ar-BBVXVhg)
History – time -- is a most frustrating dimension. We retain so little of the past, even though we have this sensation that it’s important, foundational. We have history books, but they tell us little about the daily lives of those who have gone before, of the millions of souls who have knelt in prayer on Notre Dame’s stone floor. The computer age makes it possible for us to fanatically keep records, but those are more numerical than personal and contain little of what moves us, what worries us, or what brings us joy. One can, however, stand in the midst of such a cathedral, gaze up at its gothic-arch roof and its story-telling stained-glass windows and know that such a building does address those issues. It is three-dimensional time travel, and this fire has just closed that portal.
It is also a peek at devotion, at long-term commitment. The construction of Notre Dame began in 1160 with the demolition of an older church on that site. It wasn’t completed until the 14th century when flying buttresses were added to the apse and choir. We can barely grasp, in our whiz-bang, instant-everything society what it must be like to start building something that won’t be finished for 200 years, to work at completing something that was begun by people long dead. The building was a monument to a slower, more patient, more self-less life.
It also memorialized a worldview where God was everywhere and always had been. That God had power over every aspect of life and one couldn’t just ignore Him. There He was in that magnificent building that quite insistently pointed upward toward heaven. It was still standing, patiently aimed skyward during the French Revolution and its attendant blood bath. It lived through two world wars. But now, with all of the west struggling to hold onto its meaning and its place in the world, Notre Dame burns.
We know that Europe is in terrible trouble. It is no longer replacing its population –except for the influx of anti-Christian, anti-Semitic Muslim refugees. We know its cathedrals sit mostly empty for mass. We know that most of Europe bows to government, but no longer to the church. France is fraught with violent behavior from those it has tried to help, and by taxes that are draining its economy. And Europe, including Great Britain, is America’s mother. Europe is family. I can trace my lineage back to a watchmaker in Switzerland in the 16th century, a maid from Copenhagen, and to a tailor from Czechoslovakia. Most of us come from Europe and those homelands caught on fire this morning. It isn’t just the loss of an old building, but the loss of our beginnings. Notre Dame stood proud and tall to remind us of that.
But she has been dealt a mortal blow. She may be repairable, but she is not replaceable. The craftsmanship that laboriously built her is no longer available and no one today wants to wait 200 years. It’s as if all those centuries have been erased.
This fire reminds us that even the most permanent human accomplishments aren’t permanent at all. Even the best we can build can be destroyed. We will be waiting to see what or who caused this disaster, but we also know that we may not be told the truth.