The burning of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, Monday night in Paris, is indeed much more than the nearly complete destruction of an important building. In their hearts the French know that, and so, it appears do many millions of other people the world over. But why? What is it that makes that building so important?
Is it enough to say, as some already have, of course, that Notre Dame was, and still is, the “the soul of France,” and a priceless gem of human heritage, like the great pyramid, or the ruins of the temple of Olympus, even the remains of the Coliseum, despite what it was often used for to keep the Roman masses entertained and distracted. Couldn’t they all be described with that currently most over-used word, icon. What — after all is said, and yet not said – is the substance in the shell of that word? Is it even the right word? Is any word? So, again, I ask, why does the near-total destruction of Notre-Dame mean so much to so many?
I was thinking about that this morning as I walked down the short, gravel road at the end of which I live in an old, well-built, farm house I. The road is called Cathedral Drive, so named by the woman who for many years lived on the property that’s now my home. It’s right at the end of the road, and still the only house on it. She called the road Cathedral Drive when the 911 system was being set up in this area years ago. She had already named the forest at the end of the road, Cathedral Woods. She used to regularly walk the trail through the woods to her special place, the look-out from the cliffs overlooking Georgian Bay. She once told me years ago that, as she walked the trail, the mature hard-wood canopy of branches and leaves high overhead made her think of being inside a cathedral. As far as I know she never had been in one. No doubt she had seen photos, including of Notre-Dame.
For her, the woods were the cathedral, and the look-out its sanctuary, her sacred places. She would have no trouble at all understanding why so many people mourn the burning of Notre-Dame as a great, personal loss. She was not Roman Catholic. But I know she too would have shed tears to see what I saw on the TV news Monday night.
Notre-Dame was, and is, special in a way that speaks deeply to many millions of people about the human experience, their human experience: the capacity of human beings, alone or in community, to accomplish extraordinary things when their minds, bodies and spirits are inspired and focused on a great task.
I’m tempted to say the building of Notre-Dame was an astonishing, even miraculous achievement, especially considering when it was built. Toward the end of the 12th Century, Europe was just beginning to emerge from a prolonged period after the fall of the Roman Empire called The Dark Ages. It was a chaotic period in which European civilization took a big step backward. But gradually, the Gothic, or Germanic, and other tribal cultures that had overrun the shattered empire began to form themselves into nation-states. One of them, in the former Roman province of Gaul, was and is France, named after the Gothic Franks.
Construction of the Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) Cathedral began in 1163, was largely completed in 1260, and fully completed in 1335. (Until the spire that collapsed in flames Sunday night was added in the 19th Century). Clearly, many of the skills associated with the construction of great buildings were learned again in a relatively short time as the Dark Ages gradually came to an end.
No, it is not right to call the construction of Notre-Dame a miracle. Rather, it was an extraordinary human achievement, considering the creative impulse, architectural design and planning, the quality of diverse craft and artistic skills, the scope of organizational energies, and the community labors involved. Everyone did their job and had a meaningful contribution to make, according to their talents, however humble.
I think it’s fair to say Note-Dame was a big part of the building of a great nation, a great civilization, as well as a great cathedral. As in Paris, the building of splendid cathedrals in the cities of Europe in the centuries to come were an economic, social, cultural, and spiritual focal point of community activity and pride. They were the inspiration for the growth and development of many other great achievements of European civilization: traditions of great art and great music that to this day nourish the human spirit the world over.
Some day soon, hopefully any day now, all the good and wonderful achievements of the world-wide human community in all its rich, human diversity will be celebrated as the spirit of who we all are as members of the human family.
Notre-Dame, the mother of all the great cathedrals, one might say, shows what human beings are capable of achieving when they devote their minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits to a great purpose. Throughout its more than 800-year history it stood as a living monument to that truth. Tragically, it was often a truth largely lost on humanity through the centuries as war and human misery swirled around it. Yet, Notre-Dame was always there, to remind us what could be done.
I wonder if perhaps the burning of Notre-Dame will wake up humanity to the re-affirmation of the greatness we are capable of achieving, even if, at first, the task seems beyond our reach.
First and foremost in these troubled times as our priority task I would suggest the saving from utter destruction of this beautiful planet and its life. These are the divine gifts we were given in sacred trust, but a trust we have so far failed to honor. We are capable of doing it. By all means, rebuild Notre-Dame. But let’s put our hearts and minds and spirit to making the Earth and life on it, our sacred place.