Thoughts on Notre Dame

adventure-ancient-architecture-705766By 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?

Photo by Ashley Elena from Pexels

 

Dear Fellow Parishioners

For the record, I’m weighing whether or not to read this letter aloud during coffee hour or have it added to next week’s church bulletin…

Dear fellow parishioners,

Recently a question was raised whether the church rules had been relaxed such that it was now ok for people to walk in and out whenever they wished during the Divine Liturgy. In particular, a comment was raised about children in the parish with “bladder problems”, and how on at least one witnessed occasion, someone walked in during the Gospel reading and brushed up against the robes of Deacon Dan while he was preaching.

Let me confess right now that our youngest, the youngest child of your newly elected church president, is one of those children. He’s 7. He loves church. We’ve made a point to sit in the front rows since he was a baby precisely because he was enthralled watching the priests and seeing the icons, and these last few years he’s been pretty close to the action when Deacon Dan reads the Gospel.

Archangel-Michael-webOver the years at Archangel Michael, this son of ours would ask me questions about the icons during liturgy. I took the time to teach him right then and there, in the middle of service, because it was so encouraging to me when he would remark over the story he recognized in the pictures. Our son spends an inordinate amount of time hugging me during liturgy, and I feel like it must make for the biggest scene to all those who sit behind us, but you know what? He’s 7. And I love him, so I hug him back, the entire time. I want every little thing about church to be a positive experience for him, because the language, the motions, the things we do over 90 long minutes, don’t really resonate too well for him since he’s just a little kid.

I mean, I know plenty of Orthodox Christian adults who don’t understand the language, the motions, and the things we do in church despite witnessing it every single week over their lifetime, so I cut our youngest some slack for not understanding. And like his two siblings before him, he’s going through classes right now to receive the sacrament of holy confession for the first time this Palm Sunday. I’m sure he’s learning more about liturgy in the process, to supplement what I, a cradle Orthodox, have been trying to teach him these few short years. But 2nd grade, when a child is 7-8 years old, is when the church considers the child to be of the “age of reason”. So again, I cut him some slack if he isn’t a perfect angel in church every Sunday. His halo might need a little polishing, but it isn’t too awfully crooked.

We drive 35-40 minutes each Sunday to arrive at Sunday School which is supposed to start at 9 but doesn’t really start until 9:10 or 9:15, and then we jump straight into church at 10:00 am. No break in between. At this point, he’s the only one that has breakfast.

For whatever reason, during each of the last five Sundays he has told me about 20 minutes into liturgy that he needs to use the potty. I tell him no, and then I see that look of desperation on his face. He pleads with me a couple more times, and I try to hold firm, but realize that I know my kid, and he’s not being mischievous. For whatever reason, he’s gotta go. Nature calls. After all, 2nd graders get potty breaks mid-morning in elementary school, no big deal. I judge whether it’s too close to the Gospel to let him go, but I usually let him because each time he’s asked, he has enough time to return to his seat before then. I don’t follow him to the back of the church to police his actions because he doesn’t need that kind of supervision.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little exasperated myself, because one recent Sunday our youngest had to go an unprecedented 2nd time during liturgy. I shot him that look that only moms can deliver, and chided him, “You JUST went!”, but you know what? I trust that he knows his own body and his own needs, and I’m not going to crush his spirit over something like this because he’s only human, and he’s only 7.

It’s a good thing it takes all types to make the world go round. The way I see it, you can be dismayed over the lack of formality and respect during liturgy, which I suspect has been an issue for a couple of millennia, or you can rejoice that young people grace the halls of this temple when so many other churches are falling silent without the melody of young children inside.

There is a time and a place for everything under the sun, so it says in Ecclesiastes. So in this time and place, I want to say to the other parents with young children in the church: you are welcome here.

  • What? Your infant is crying inconsolably? That is music to our ears, because you, and your child, are the future of this church.
  • Your toddler squeals with delight having broken free, running a beeline toward the altar? That is a joy to behold. Didn’t the Lord say, “Let the little children come to me”?
  • Oh, what did you say? You have a rambunctious child, maybe even one with ADHD? I get it. I know you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and YET you still come to church anyway with your family in tow. GOD BLESS YOU. You have a choice and you choose to spend it with us in communion.
  • And to those of you with a child on the spectrum who is longing for a welcoming community? I pray that we offer that collectively to you. I get how hard it is for your kid to fit in and you want nothing more than for him or her to be welcomed here. I pray that we open our arms to you in a loving embrace.

You are welcome here. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. We are all sinners. We are all broken in some way. No one here is perfect, but we come together to grow and learn and love in Christ. Some of us know the rules of the church very well, while others of us know only the love in the heart. No one is to despise the other because of it. If you had heard the Epistle reading I delivered this morning (Romans 13: 11-14:4), that was the whole point.

Yet sometimes, because we’re human, because we don’t understand what cross you already bear, our guidance can sound unforgiving. However I want you to know that we welcome you. Come exactly as you are. Just come, and be in communion, in a community, with us.

In Christ, Denise

PS – The restroom, should you or your child need it in the middle of liturgy, is toward the back of the church toward the elevator. You are most welcome to use it.

Alms-mighty

fabian-blank-78637Every year I file my taxes and I’m confronted with cold, hard facts about how much I have donated to charity during the year before. Sure small money trickles out here and there supporting the Girl and Boy Scouts, various extracurricular programs at school, and special collections but the big ticket items are the ones I take time to itemize once a year. I shake my head over my failure to get better, fulfilling my Christian duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked…my duty to help those less fortunate than me, to make the world a better place.

I vowed to do differently this year.

One of the things I’ve been harping on at work lately is “what gets measured, gets managed”, so in our recent weekly family meeting, the Louie Scoop, we shared with the kids how much we donated to our church in 2017. After all, we had just gotten the giving statement in the mail. We also had the kids prepare donation envelopes of their own last year, to get them physically in the habit of supporting our place of worship since it operates and conducts its outreach only with our help. The statement included their donation amounts.

It was eye-opening to them and us, frankly, to talk about what we had given and our desire and obligation to do more as individuals and as a family. Plus my husband and I want conversations about money to be normal, not taboo. We realize that makes us very different than other people but hey, given the financial status of most citizens of the US, it seems like an idea whose time has come. Besides, charitable giving of money, versus time, is one of those things that otherwise flies under the radar for kids.

I realize too that I have a worldwide readership here, and Americans are so incredibly prosperous whether or not they believe it. That said, all things relative, Americans can do much better managing their money and personally, our family can too.

This self-reflection got me to thinking that other than church and the United Way, there is no charity I routinely support. Sure, various groups pop up every now and then and the Red Cross is a repeat recipient given the sheer increase in natural disasters over recent years, but I am bothered that I have lived this long and haven’t examined my heart enough to see where I can make a difference and channel my money there to some degree.

I count my blessings too, that I haven’t been struck by tragedy compelling me to support a particular cause. But status quo isn’t good enough for me. I’ve done well enough financially and I can do more for others.

To drive the initiative a little harder at home, my husband and I told the kids during our latest Louie Scoop that we would donate a multiple of their age to a charity of their choice during their birthday month. Their eyes lit up.

Our youngest, Lance (7), piped up in the meeting: “Hey, who comes and takes you away in a car if you’re sick?”

“The EMT? The ambulance?” we probed.

“Yes, that’s it!” he exclaimed with a giant grin. “The ambulance. I want to donate to the ambulance, because get it? AM-BU-LANCE! It has my name in it!”

I’m telling you: that kid? He cracks us up. “Yes, Lance, we can donate to the ambulance in your name when your birthday rolls around.” He really is something else…

Our daughter’s birthday was the same month we mentioned it in our family meeting so the timing was right, and she knew immediately what she wanted to do: save the pandas. She already knew of a charity that protects them but we went online and did a little more research to confirm which institution she wanted to donate to, and boom, I sent the money in. It brought a smile of satisfaction to my face. I hope we always do this.

While I’ve got some work to do studying what charities I want to support, and it will likely be support women and children, our kids demonstrates once again that they GET IT. Just when we wonder if the concepts we’re trying to teach them will resonate, they show us again and again they are WAY ahead of the game.

We are trying our best to raise warm, open-hearted people who are alms-mighty.