There’s nothing modern about this tragedy.
Like many, I found the pictures of Notre Dame—with flames reaching to the heavens, the ornate steeple collapsing like a toothpick sculpture— heart wrenching. I’m lucky to have experienced her exterior and interior on many trips to Paris. (The inside and outside are very different, as different perhaps as Paris and France.)
My first time was in the spring of 1983. I stumbled downhill from the Latin Quarter, bleary, knowing for the first time the unique funk jetlag can bring. I gaped up at Notre Dame’s solemn face and saw nothing there to persuade me from my pissy mood. The large café au lait at the hotel had barely dented my fatigue, and my first croissant lay uneasily in my belly.
I stepped inside, into the cool immense gloom and the sounds of voices singing Bach. The shadows tumbled from my heart and tears filled my eyes. I stepped slowly, carefully through the vast space, as if this utterly unexpected joy was fragile, like a robin’s egg, and might at any moment crack. I stood under the rose window which glowed with muted colors such as I’d never seen. The music washed over me in gentle waves, piercing my heart.
For someone who’s never been a Christian, I have a remarkable affinity for Christian art, architecture, and music. For all that The Church has gotten wrong—from the Inquisition to the sex abuse scandal—they’ve done at least one thing right. They’ve inspired work that evokes the elusive states of awe, mystery and joy.
So for me the loss of Notre Dame is the loss of a living vehicle for personal transformation. It’s unclear at this time how much has been lost. And it’s certain that Notre Dame will be rebuilt. But has its magic survived those flames? It’s much too soon to tell.
The destruction of an artistic masterpiece leaves guilt in the wake of sorrow. After all, no one died in the fire at Notre Dame. Then why such grief?
Because unlike every one of us living on the planet, who must die, Notre Dame represents the eternal. Yes, we can imagine war, the floods of climate change, or the end of the solar system finally bringing this cathedral down. But we choose not to. So the visible death of this thing that should never die is terrible to witness.
No modern-day terrorists brought down Notre Dame. Old churches with wooden roofs have been burning for a thousand years.
Notre Dame is not considered to be the greatest Gothic Cathedral. That honor goes to Chartres. The church we now know was built in an astonishing 25 years after another catastrophic fire gutted the older, lesser church. It seems impossible that Notre Dame will rise from its ashes as something greater than what’s been lost. It was the product of times unimaginably different than ours.
The only thing in common between then and now is that yearning for transcendence. We ache as its physical embodiment lies in ashes. But the yearning lives in us and will find vehicles for expression.