What I Wonder When Cathedrals Burn

FRANCE-FIRE-NOTRE DAME

I’ve been there. Ten years ago, exactly. I don’t remember the inside, the woodworking that’s been lost. All I remember is standing outside and looking up at the famous Rose window. But at least I know I’ve seen the ancient wood panels and roof that are now tiny bits of ash scattered over Paris, even if those images are unmoored vessels in the sea of my mind.

Or, I don’t know, does it matter that I was there but don’t remember it?

I had a few friends tell me they’ve always wanted to go. They still can, of course, but it will be different. Even if it is rebuilt, people will know that something has been lost. They will know there is something missing from their experience. The wood may look the same, but this is beyond sight: the wood mattered not just for its beauty but for its history.

All the wars it weathered, all the scars it saw, all the lonely, longing faces, and the corrupt faces, and the bored faces, that passed it by—all that history added to the beauty. The trees the wood was made from may have been dead, but the years still added rings to it, rings of dark and rings of light.

And it makes me wonder: how different are beauty and history? History can give even a pebble meaning. But are beauty and meaning the same thing? History can make one wood panel seem more beautiful than the other, but is that just a seeming? I know I’m just echoing a question far older than the walls Notre Dame, but what is beauty anyway?

Why does it matter?

People compared the fall of the spire and the skyscraping fire to 9/11. They all hastened to say that really it’s not at all the same because no lives were lost, and they’re right. But still we all know that buildings and art and beauty and history are important. And so I  still wonder: What do they matter? Why do they matter?

For the same reason 9/11 is seared into our memories. For the same reason hurricanes and monsoons and wars and famines are tragedies. Because people matter.

And of course it’s the people themselves that matter the most, but the buildings we build and make homes in, and the beauty we recognize and recreate, the records of our bright flares of existence on this earth—they matter too. They have worth because we have worth. And we have worth because we bear the image of the Most Worthy One.

Which brings me to my other wonderings this week: Notre Dame wasn’t just a building. Say what you want about its cultural and historical significance, it being an icon of France and Europe and civilization and architecture and the Gothic style. That is all true, but we can’t dance around the fact that this is a church and that adds a different, deeper significance to this tragedy than the destruction of a purely secular building.

I’m sure many people smarter and wiser than I have written about the impact of Notre Dame’s religious roots on this tragedy. I’ll just say what I’ve been thinking, these two questions ringing through my head like the bells in churches across the world, tolling for their fallen sister.

Two questions:

What have we lost? I don’t just mean art and relics and things. I mean, what have we lost in our hearts since when the first stones of Notre Dame were laid? That spire stretching toward heaven pointed everyone to a higher truth than what we can only see and touch. Oh I know there was corruption, that there still is, that the ugliest things can be done in the most beautiful places and the most ungodly things in the name of God. But still—what have we lost?

This symbol of our rich Christian heritage went up in flames, and it feels eerily fitting. A fire, exposing the darkness of a godless continent, the empty scaffolding mirroring the empty lives of all these people who laugh at the supernatural and shy away from the uncomfortable and reject the hope the Church is supposed to offer, the hope woven into their souls that cathedrals and other beauty reminds them of.

Our modern world has lost much. Maybe the aching emptiness of the bare sky behind Notre Dame’s towers will help us recover some of what we threw away.

But there is also my second question: What have we not lost?

For one thing, we didn’t lose any lives. I know I am far too quick to gloss over that grace instead of holding in my hands like a treasure and gazing at it in awe.

For another, we have not lost access to God.

No stone in Notre Dame is more precious a pathway to God than a simple, earnest prayer in a bedroom or classroom or office. No relic housed there for centuries is more sacred than the Spirit burning in our hearts. God indwells us, closer than a breath, knowing every contour of our complicated souls, answering prayers we don’t even think to pray, whispering truth against the wall of lies our minds relentlessly erect.

His word never be destroyed. We can never be snatched out of His hand. We have fellow warriors we can turn to when the battle grows long. His presence, His salvation, His forgiveness, His Spirit’s power, His truth, His word, His body the Church—none of these things were lost. They will never be.

If cathedral was becoming an idol, a way to God other than Jesus, then let it burn. Let our hearts burn for a God so much bigger than a building, so much realer and more present than the relics He is said to have touched.

That said, there is beauty, to come back to that word, in physical reminders of the invisible truths we believe. So mourn. Mourn for the beauty and the history that was lost, for the art that matters. Flames should not destroy beautiful things. And then draw a breath, and smile, and hold fast to all the richness of what you do still have and will have forever.

An incredibly beautiful article about Notre Dame & what it can do for our souls & a reaction to the fire: The Gospel of Notre Dame by Janie Townsend at the Rabbit Room

2 comments

  1. Abby, Granma and I just read through your take on the Notre Dame tragedy.
    You have penned a beauty: the truth about what we have left is far more important
    and beautiful that what was lost. So comforting to put our hearts on all He has given
    us who believe on Jesus for our Salvation! Love, Granma and Granpa

    Liked by 1 person

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