In the midst of all the political and social discord roiling America and Europe at the moment, in the middle of all the angst and discontent playing out in our streets and legislative houses, the world collectively paused for a few hours this past Monday in a rare if brief display of unity and one-mindedness, to contemplate a singular image of a burning church, and what that image represented.
Not just any church. When we saw the first news flash and viewed the first images of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral in flames—that is if you were like me—it felt like a gut-punch, that physically sickening feeling reminiscent of 9/11, when your mind didn’t want to believe what your eyes were telling it.
Notre Dame Cathedral doesn’t burn down. Other churches in other places burn down, but not the Notre Dame of Paris, with its gargoyles and flying buttresses, its 800-year history and Gothic beauty that has inspired famous artists, writers, musicians and other mere mortals through the centuries. It’s not just arguably the most famous church in the world, after Saint Peter’s, but the most breathtaking.
I fell in love with the history of art and architecture when I took an Art History class in community college over 30 years ago, which is why my emotional reaction to the events unfolding on the television screen centered around the cathedral’s monumental historical and architectural significance more than its religious significance, even though I’m a (lapsed) Roman Catholic.
The focus of the news commentators and pundits on the Catholic aspect bugged me a little bit, because while that’s one element, you didn’t have to be Catholic or Christian or religious at all to appreciate what was possibly being forever lost to humanity in front of your eyes. Christian, Jewish or atheist, anyone who treasures beauty and world history could mourn the same way we would all mourn the destruction of the Great Pyramids.
Because—a point which is especially important to this fractured and tumultuous time—Notre Dame Cathedral represents the very best of mankind. The very best that man can achieve when moved to create an enduring work of art that honors something greater than himself. Because while Notre Dame certainly belongs to France and the French have every right to believe so, she also belongs to the world.
Then there was the collective horror of realizing that, in the same way we have woefully neglected our planet, we were about to let an irreplaceable world treasure go up in smoke, and history would judge our age harshly for it.
Yes, as I write this on Good Friday, I respect the beliefs of those who say it was Christ who inspired Notre Dame’s medieval creators and that they were doing God’s work, just like some believe it was divine intervention that saved the cathedral and carried those heroic Paris firefighters and first responders who battled without rest for twelve hours to put out the inferno. What can be said about them, that wasn’t already said so brilliantly by ChicagoNow’s own Very Terry? Every Parisian should be immensely proud of their firefighting force.
It made me think of my own uncle and cousin who were firemen for decades, who fought fires in old and decaying New England warehouses and factories, and churches. I had never considered before that there was anything remarkable about what they did.
Those Paris firefighters risked their lives, not to save human life, but to save something that occupies a mystical place in the hearts of millions of human beings. I wonder if in the middle of it all, at the back of their minds they wondered if they, too, might be judged by the ages to come if they failed.
But they didn’t, and it’s because of them that right now we are talking about Notre Dame in the present tense, and not the past. It’s because of what they did that the government of France is making plans for repairing, and not reconstructing, the ancient cathedral. It’s because of them that the church’s altar, its famous pipe organ and priceless relics are safe. It’s because of them that Our Lady of Paris this Easter weekend still looks out majestically over the city of light, flying buttresses intact, and doesn’t lie in a pile of rubble.
It’s because of them that people from all over the world can still gaze up in awe at the Gothic majesty of her stained glass windows and bell towers reaching for the heavens, and will once again be able to stand inside her original stone walls and feel overcome by her spiritual mysteries, like I did eight years ago.
Vive la France, and Vive Notre Dame de Paris, forever and ever.
PHOTOS by author.