Notre Dame is Burning

The sight of the great gothic masterpiece of Paris, the cathedral of Our Lady of Paris, Notre Dame, made me choke up. The shock registered across the world. Newsfeeds are jammed full and social media outlets have become a cascade of commentary expressing sadness, shock and disbelief. Something of the soul of France has been desecrated, a building of intense, searing beauty is reduced to a blackened scar. A place of ancient Christian faith reduced to ruin at the start of Holy Week. This is more than just the loss of another ancient and beautiful building.

Such public grief on an international scale reminds me of the destruction of the Two Towers in 2001. Some monuments touch the identity of a people, culture or nation. We describe them as 'iconic', as embodying far more than simply stone and glass, however beautiful. They don't need to be very old, or of great beauty, but they do need to 'speak' and in a way that transcends the individual and draws them into a deeper identity. Notre Dame embodies all of that for France, but a France that has been all but lost.

Any cathedral is an icon on stone, a testament to the wedding of heaven and earth, a 'thin place' where the known and Unknowable embrace and humanity finds its destiny shaped. Notre Dame, a place so ancient and deeply associated with the place of France in the life and formation of Christian European civilisation, that its iconic power is something beyond description.

France, the first Daughter of the Church, whose Christian roots seep back as far as St Mary Magdalene and legends of the Grail, has arguably ceased to exist since perhaps the French Revolution, or certainly struggled to survive amidst the aggressive secularism so typical of post medieval France. Though the cathedral has been co-opted by anti-Catholic movements, as part of the Cult of Reason or the stage for Napoleon's self proclamation as emperor, nevertheless it is a fundamental testimony to that which made France France, a very particular embrace of Christianity and all that this brought in terms of understanding the human person, the nature and manifestation of beauty, of the power of thought and the development of society.

Seeing among the crowds groups of young people kneeling with rosaries and singing hymns, witnessing the conflagration of the cathedral but not despairing in tears but somehow reaching deep down into the soul of France and seeking its ancient Saviour, it seemed complete, fitting, appropriate. In such an aggressively anti-religious society such public and Catholic prayer nevertheless seemed to touch into the depths of what was taking place before us. It would have been odd if there hadn't been. It's hard to get this sense into words, it's just something that 'seems right', it doesn't jar and it seems to open up something so deep we are otherwise likely to overlook it. It was a testament to what the Cathedral embodied at its deepest level and which secularism seeks to, unsuccessfully, obliterate.

Of course some are already sucking the emotion of this event into their own narratives of paranoia. The emotion is so strong, and as I mentioned so close to what people felt when the Two Towers were attacked, that some are instinctively pointing a finger towards terrorism and Islamic terrorism in particular as an explanation. It would be fair to point to the number of anti-Catholic attacks in France (interestingly attacks on Jews are headlined under 'anti-semitism' while attacks on Catholic churches and even the murder of priests under the headline 'terrorism', thus neutralising any sense that Christians are being singled out for hate crimes and therefore for sympathy and affirmative action) including arson as part of the background to how Catholics might be feeling about this latest episode in the loss of their sanctuaries, but there is absolutely no evidence that this was arson, let alone an act of terror, let alone anything to do with Muslims. Such reactions do more to reveal the iconic power of such a building, and how its loss taps into our deeper senses of insecurity and loss, especially around emblems of faith rooted deep in a European nation's long and enduring history.

When this meets existing narratives of being attacked, then it jumps like flames leaping from one dried timber to another. And such nonsense is yet another excuse for the media and commentators to avoid talking about the impact of this as a Catholic sanctuary, a place of deep religious power and one which is a testimony to the depth of Christianity in what it means to be European.

The French President has declared that the cathedral will be rebuilt, and has opened the coffers for the world to pay for it. We can expect a whole lot of cash to pour in for the purpose, and thank God for that. But what form will this rebuilding take? What of the original faith and spirit of the people that designed, paid for and built the cathedral?  What will be the guiding spirit behind the process? Preserving a national monument, an exercise in historicism, or a work of faith? A sanctuary is built by far more than bricks and mortar, it embodies a faith, and a faith willing to sacrifice in order to express itself, a process which itself embodies transcendent union which the cathedral is built to enshrine.

Some have also pointed the finger and said it' a 'sign' of God's anger at the state of the Church, much as they did when York Minister was struck by lightening. Its tempting to project all our despair, anger and loathing for the many scandals around the world onto such an event, and to allow the wound of sorrow that has opened up in our hearts seeing this tragic fire, to be a release of all the other emotions we feel at the state of the Church. Perhaps we need that 'safety valve' to give a sense of release and catharsis? Yet we know that God is not capricious and vindictive, however much we might want him to be. Christ shows us that clearly every Holy Week and especially on Good Friday. This is not the action we associate with the God Jesus has revealed.

What I think this episode in the cathedral's long - and let us emphasise enduring - history does do is open up a glimpse on what Europe is, where its roots lie and what it still resonates with, but which is in danger of being lost. Its not just about the loss of a beautiful, historical pile of stones and glass. It is about sensing who we are through seeing a momentary glimpse of the glory of where we have come from, of catching anew what we truly are and can be again.


Popular Posts