I received the news via text from my brother just as I was beginning my ethics seminar: Notre Dame in flames! I took to Twitter and saw the images of the great Cathedral consumed, its instantly recognizable spire collapsing to expressions of horror and disbelief. Aware of the heavy silence of the room, I blinked back my tears, cleared my throat and swallowed my dread. I announced what I had seen, and mumbled something about the tragedy of lost art and history. These were not the proper descriptions of what I was feeling; with regard to my true emotions I exercised a disciplined silence. I took a deep breath and began my lecture on euthanasia practices in Europe, the elevation of individual autonomy and freedom from suffering as the highest goods and the subsequent political will for techno-bureaucratic control over the mystery of death itself.
The first time I prayed inside of Notre Dame I was twenty years old; raised an atheist, I had only been a baptized Catholic for less than a year. Wide-eyed and awestruck by the sheer immensity and grandeur of the space, I was thrown off by the irreverence of the tourist throngs inside, and I didn’t yet have the stable dispositions of religion that could help me navigate a church filled with non-believers without making myself into a spectacle. The second time I visited, one year later, was at the end of a long trip through Italy; by then I was well acquainted with a church as tourist attraction, and of myself as a curiosity. I attended mass, cordoned off from the teeming crowds by ropes, no longer bothered by the gawking, the gum smacking or the pitch of incessant chatter.
The last time I visited Paris was in the summer of 2016. I had spent much of that trip in another Notre Dame, one almost entirely ignored by tourists but favored by Catholic pilgrims: la Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse, where the Sister of Charity Catherine Labouré was granted apparitions that led to the creation of the now instantly recognized image of the Blessed Virgin standing atop the globe, her feet crushing a serpent, rays of light streaming from her delicate hands, which are reaching out in a gesture of loving embrace. This apparition became the front side of what is now known as the Miraculous Medal, worn or kept by tens of millions of Roman Catholics. The back side of the medal bears an image of the letter M surmounted with a cross, under which are two human hearts, one crowned with thorns, the other pierced through with a sword. The image of the mystical union of the hearts of mother and son, joined together by a suffering and sacrificial love that goes beyond all human power and measure, is a fixture of the modern Catholic imagination. I went to the rue de Bac on a blisteringly hot June afternoon in Paris to contemplate that image and its meaning at its source, in search of the help promised to all pilgrims: that my own selfish heart would also be pierced by a love that would wound in order to heal. In deeply troubled times, I prefer a church where there is silence and contemplation still seems possible.
I did not make it to the most visited place in Paris until the last day of my trip, when I met a Jesuit friend for morning mass. In fact, I almost didn’t make it: ignorant American with forbidden suitcase in tow, the guards initially refused to let me enter. But my friend insisted that I needed to attend mass, and the guard was clearly uncomfortable refusing a priest entrance. Never looking at or addressing me directly, he said, in perfect English, “Father, I make an exception for you, as she is your companion.” With great relief and a few embarrassed giggles, we entered the great Parisian cathedral together.
Stepping inside the Notre Dame is a bit like stepping outside of ordinary time and space. The immense verticality of the entire structure, illuminated from outside through light refracted in the colors of the stained glass, isn’t accidental in its immediate effects on our consciousness. We are meant to experience our own smallness relative to its vastness; we are meant to be drawn upwards towards the light pouring in from all sides, and to recognize it as symbolic of an external revelation that illuminates and transfigures our minds and hearts. Her rose windows are meant to be occasions to contemplate the mysteries of human life—birth, love, sex, death—and the nature of eternity. As we enter, we are meant to feel deep in our hearts a yearning for that which is greater than ourselves; if we do not experience this awe and wonder, or stop to contemplate the depths of these mysteries, we have missed something of the structure’s essential intent.
In noting its essential meaning, I certainly do not wish to deny that one can marvel at it simply as an architectural achievement, or at its historical significance for France—these are clear aspects of its universal appeal. At the same time, there is something abstracted about this posture that does not quite touch the depths of emotions even secular people report of their own experiences inside it. The truth is that the Notre Dame cannot be reduced to a “monument to civilization” or “architectural wonder” or “historical landmark”; there is a definitive truth it aims to help visitors encounter. The Notre Dame was and still is a cathedral of the Catholic Church, wherein sacrifices, confessions, and prayers to God are made every day; the entire edifice is therefore designed to draw out our deep longing for union with an absolutely transcendent truth, goodness and beauty. A posture of detached observation and mere appreciation stands in tension with any experience of it as what it essentially is. Mere abstractions do not pierce the human heart.
As the cathedral burned, French Catholics gathered outside its walls, kneeling and singing the Ave Maria, the Church’s great prayer to the Mother of God incarnate. Many secular people were deeply moved to see grown men and women clutching their rosaries, praying to a woman they believe was somehow both mother and virgin. How can this be? Our Lady, after all, is remembered first and foremost for her obedience to God’s will, her fiat to be a mother to a child she did not expect and for whose arrival she was rather dramatically unprepared; a cathedral dedicated to her honor and glory stands to remind us that the deepest aspirations of the human heart are for something far greater than itself, and that the best human lives are those lived in obedience and fidelity to a truth that transcends a finite perspective.
One dismayed Parisian, as she watched the Notre Dame burn, remarked that, “Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.” Seeming to agree with this sentiment, Emmanuel Macron vowed that France would rebuild the Notre Dame because “it is, in the deepest sense, our destiny.” This should strike us a curious choice of words. If the great Gothic cathedral is the preeminent symbol of France and the destiny of its citizens, why is this so? A destiny, after all, refers to an end that has been foreordained rather than chosen. These are strong words for a country renowned throughout the world for its resolute commitment to secularism, whose de-Christianization over the past century is now nearly complete.
When the great earthquake of Lisbon struck in 1755 on the morning of the Feast of All Saints, thousands of people were worshipping inside its imposing churches, which subsequently collapsed upon them. The near total destruction of Lisbon shook Europe at a time of internal upheaval and posed existential questions about evil, providence and other core commitments of Christianity, commitments that were already unsettled by the political upheavals brought about by the Protestant Reformation. As we sort through the rubble of Notre Dame, we should consider how its near collapse during Holy Week poses its own set of existential questions for Europe—of what Europe is and what it stands for. Can we feel so protective of Europe’s Christian patrimony all the while turning our backs on Christianity? Can we weep at the beauty of Catholic piety one day and be embarrassed and irritated by it the rest of the time? Certainly Roman Catholics have experienced a heightened level of cognitive dissonance this week, as so many who would otherwise mock, deride or marginalize our faith weep over the harm done to one of its most significant churches.
As we reflect on what we hope rises from the ashes in Paris, we cannot fail to ask ourselves why the heart of Paris should remain Catholic. Nor can we fail to see that privileging the autonomous will has led France and the West not to a culture of deep happiness or true liberation, but rather to a culture that has confused liberty with license: a culture of elite bureaucratic managers clinging to their own privileges and power while deriding the working classes as ignorant bigots; a culture of shallow consumerism driven by an obsession with celebrity, physical beauty and a pathological fear of aging; a culture obsessed with sexual pleasure that simultaneously thinks of children and family as affronts to freedom; a culture that finds little to no meaning or value in sacrifice or suffering; a culture that believes, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the Promethean impulse to control nature is an unqualified good—in short, a culture that seems to have lost all sense of transcendence. This should strike even the most casual observer as a culture in which talk of medieval Gothic cathedrals as “destiny” seems nonsensical. And yet still, for some reason, such high-minded talk soothes the unsettled emotions of our anxious moment.
If Christianity’s great cathedrals remain indelibly imprinted on the European imagination and landscape, such that we wish to spend hundreds of millions to preserve and protect them as a matter of “destiny,” we cannot fail to ask ourselves why this should be the case. For let us not forget that the same elites who tell us the Gothic cathedrals are great “monuments to civilization” also warn us that the beliefs and principles upon which they were constructed represent all that the progression of civilization firmly opposes: patriarchy, white supremacy, superstition, ignorance, empire, intolerance and bigotry. This raises the question: Why spend so many hundreds of millions to rebuild a symbol of all that we so vehemently reject? How can one find something artistically beautiful whose intrinsic meaning one doesn’t merely suspend but positively detests? As we continue to use “medieval” as a pejorative term, why must we preserve Catholicism’s remaining public relics, especially when demographic projections show that the only Europeans citizens likely to be worshipping God in significant numbers in fifty years are Muslims? It is a strange posture, worth exploring honestly.
“What is Paris without her cathedral?” is really the question of what we are without any transcendent horizons to our thought, imagination and deliberation. Perhaps we felt such depths of sorrow as we watched the Notre Dame burn because we recognize, however dimly, that this beautiful old building in the heart of Paris does in fact reflect our deeper aspirations, and not merely a sentimental feeling for gargoyles, flying buttresses and properly weathered stone. Perhaps we do in fact find it beautiful in a way that is not untethered from its essential meaning, from that reality about ourselves to which it points. The question is about our common destiny, of what we inescapably long for, and whether we can conceive and hope for it within an entirely immanent frame.
Photo credit: Olivier Mabelly (CC / BY Flickr)
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If you liked this essay, you’ll love reading The Point in print.