We are, all of us, having a moment. Watching the beautiful cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris apparently consumed by fire brings everyone up short: French or not, Christian or not, Catholic or not.
As we watched the conflagration, slack-jawed on our smartphones, we were suddenly faced with any number of uncomfortable thoughts: Nothing lasts. Life is transitory. Permanence is an illusion. Is this the end?
Architecture has this power: What inspires us can also undo us. The power that Notre-Dame has exercised over humanity was brought to a head on Monday, almost 700 years after this cathedral marking the center of Paris was dedicated in 1345. One of the Gothic cathedrals that for centuries has defined Western culture appeared to go up like a bonfire at a Texas A&M pep rally.
And we were brought up short. Undone.
We Want Something That Lasts
Why is that? No lives were lost. One firefighter was reported badly injured—in terms of human cost, this hardly even counts as news, let alone a tragedy. But we all sense the tragedy of it, even as we cling to the hope that Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, must be rebuilt, will be rebuilt. What was lost? Surely some very fine and very old carpentry in a cathedral’s attic that only maintenance workers ever see. Possibly some irreplaceable works of art (reports are still incomplete); certainly some irreplaceable craftsmanship.
But it’s more than lost carpentry, isn’t it, that we mourn? We mourn the violation (by fire! during Holy Week!) of a sacred space, a symbol of the universal church, even though in the present moment that church is neither universal nor universally regarded. We mourn the destruction of a space so beautiful that to describe it in words makes the best writers despair of their impoverished vocabularies. We mourn that nothing lasts. We want something to last.
There is a large and leafy branch of evangelical Christianity that thinks the burning of Notre-Dame is an object lesson: Nothing on this earth will last, it’s all just going to burn in the end. I strongly disagree, both in the general sense (there are human works that will somehow accompany us into the new Jerusalem) and in the particular sense (the burning of Notre-Dame is not a lesson; it’s a tragedy—a full-stop tragedy where no lives were lost). Notre-Dame was and is a pillar—no, a pinnacle—of human civilization, and on April 15 we saw this pinnacle seemingly destroyed before our eyes, and it was too much for many of us. Only a true Philistine could say of the fire, “Ah, it was just a bunch of wood and shingles and some pointy spire.”
The burning of Notre-Dame is not a lesson; it’s a tragedy—a full-stop tragedy where no lives were lost.
Gratitude for Gifts
I’m hopeful Notre-Dame’s sturdy stone walls will survive the fire, the drenching, and the subsequent exposure to weather. I’m hopeful the engineers will soon determine that the cathedral can be rebuilt. And I’m hopeful the Catholic church, so buffeted by Western progress and its own missteps, will see fit to rebuild one of its most important sites. Having seen photographs of German cathedrals after World War II, I’m confident this work can be done, and hopeful it will be. And I’m cautiously hopeful than no world-famous architect will be enlisted to “modernize” what was lost in the fire, which would only compound the tragedy of fire.
As one who has a personal 9/11 story (I was airborne that morning), I have learned to appreciate every day as a gift. Paris is a gift. Notre-Dame is a special gift, one that we have enjoyed, appreciated, and been astonished by for nearly 700 years. On April 15 we learned (again) that gifts should be appreciated, that they should never be taken for granted, that they can in fact be taken away.
And this Holy Week reminds us again of the one gift, and the one Giver, that cannot.