By now so much has already been written about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I remember first seeing the headline as an alert on my phone and my heart sunk. I had visited Paris 20 years ago – how can a generation have passed already? – and my oldest son is slated to visit Paris in June as part of a school trip. Would it be there for him to see?
Notre Dame was the first landmark I visited in Paris. I had already been to England and Westminster Abbey was my favorite among all the places I had visited in London so it was only natural for me to head straight to Our Lady since it was a short walk from my hotel in the St. Germain district.
The cathedral was free to visit. I found an English-speaking tour guide straight away and followed her around to learn more. I really should have done some homework on churches before I went, but I was young. What did I know?
It’s instantly humbling to learn that this massive monument was over 800 years old and took centuries to build. I was immediately and constantly comparing the age of places and buildings in Europe to the fact that my own country was a little over 200 years old at the time. You get a sense for your place in the world. You lose some of your arrogance. As an American, this is a good thing.
A church over 800 years old.
Over 800 years old! C E N T U R I E S to build.
182 years to be exact.
The cathedral was gorgeous. Massive. There really aren’t enough words to describe the intricacies of the architectural details other than they were everywhere you turned. The stories of people involved in creating the structure made me laugh, like how one of the lead architects had his own image carved into the face of saint on one of the outdoor sculptures so that he could be memorialized at the cathedral, and how this same statue was erected on the roof near the spire, with its back turned away from another cathedral in town where a rival architect was hired instead to build that structure.
Despite the jaw-dropping beauty of the place, an uneasy, undeniable feeling of conflict washed over me at Notre Dame simultaneously. For the first time in my 28 years, it hit me how much money and grandeur was devoted to a building instead of the people whose souls it was supposed to nurture.
Now of all structures humans can conceive and build, a sacred space is an excellent one to make beautiful. Of all buildings, why not construct a gathering place for hundreds that is architecturally calming, gorgeous, inspirational, and timeless for the glory of God? Why not construct a place that could stand for centuries?
Yes, setting foot in Notre Dame changed my life. The other feeling that overwhelmed me simultaneously was how consumer-driven Americans were. How, other than perhaps our Constitution which was created by a small number of brilliant men, nothing we Americans build is intended to stand the test of time. It struck me hard how everything we buy and own is temporary, throwaway, disposable. Images of the run-down homes and trailer parks in my hometown flashed through my head, with sagging porches, paint flaking on the exterior, junk littering the yard. These conditions are not limited to Ohio. I saw them everywhere in my travels across the US. I was embarrassed for who we were, who we had become, and how we let ourselves live this way.
Notre Dame was the first, and perhaps only place, that taught me what it meant to build a legacy. I walked away a changed woman.
Earlier this week, it took my breath away to see first images of the roof completely consumed with flames, to see the spire engulfed with fire. To watch over 800 years worth of history going up in smoke, seeing Parisians gathered along the banks of the Seine with hands to their mouths, witnessing the French on their knees, singing hymns. Time stood still.
I could not wrap my head around the fact that something that had stood on this earth for so long – through revolution, world wars and bombings and occupation, pollution, crisis in the Catholic church, neglect and restoration – could burn to the ground before our eyes. Would it make it?
Despite having toured the place, I didn’t know about the various relics inside…somehow I had missed that the crown of thorns is believed to be housed there….and whether they were salvaged. I wondered whether we would witness a miracle.
And I cried because we are sending our son off to Europe to view grandeur for himself, and maybe, just maybe, he would be changed inside as a result of this trip the same way my husband and I were when we made our individual pilgrimages so long ago. If only Notre Dame would be there for him to see. What were the odds that this beautiful structure would be destroyed just a few months before he made the trip? No matter what he would be unable to see the inside for himself this time. If there would ever be another time for him.
I slept fitfully that night of the fire, unable to shake the feeling that the whole world lost something so utterly beautiful, significant, and sacred. One of the few things built to last forever could not. And maybe it was a terrible sign of our times, that life as we know it is coming to an end.
Within hours of the tragedy, a French billionaire pledged a ridiculous sum to rebuild the cathedral. President Macron had already declared it was France’s destiny that the cathedral would continue on.
I get it. I get wanting something beautiful and sacred and enduring to last forever.
Yet the familiar feeling of conflict washed over me again. Notre Dame would be rebuilt, and people would rush to donate to make it happen.
But it is just a building, specifically a church that exists to minister to souls. Souls who were suffering then and suffering now. Why can’t the influx of funds be put toward relieving the suffering of people? Why do we value things over people? Where are the billionaires who rush to help souls?
Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe Notre Dame isn’t a church built to minister to souls. Maybe it’s ultimately a monument to God. And while that is a noble endeavor, we can’t possibly build anything more beautiful than the cathedrals God has already placed here on earth: the forests, the oceans, the mountains, and the plains. And we’re collectively destroying them.
Now I get that Notre Dame is a sacred space that obviously transcends time, and now that it’s built, I understand that we are its stewards, caring for it for the benefit of future generations.
I see this with my own church here in Ohio. I’m Orthodox Christian. Our church was formed nearly 100 years ago, and the parishioners built our current facility some years ago. Somewhere along the way, they devoted significant funds to paint every walled surface of the church with stunning iconographic images. This is very common within Orthodox churches and it’s a lovely tradition. The early church used pictures – icons – to share the teaching of the Bible because so few could read. For whatever reason, the Orthodox feel compelled to continue the tradition, as did the earlier patrons of my own church. And now that it exists, we are the stewards responsible for its upkeep.
But I am torn. I struggle mightily with the excessive use of funds toward a building when people all around us are sick, hungry, cold, tired, and hopeless. Isn’t THAT what we should be doing with our time and money? Or if we really felt compelled to devote funds toward infrastructure, shouldn’t we divert our wealth to maintaining the cathedrals of the earth that God gave us outright?
How did we lose sight of these things over the centuries? Do we Christians have an opportunity before us to rethink our priorities? Will we?