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

 

Pitiful Prayer

Treading into some controversial territory today: fair warning.

My husband and I got on the topic of prayer the other night. Admittedly, neither of us have the strongest prayer life. We acknowledge we need to work on it but we don’t know how.

My father would be so ashamed! I distinctly recall how that big, grown man fell humbly to his knees bedside every single night and in church every Sunday, praying quietly, even when he was too frail to kneel. I never knew what he said. Maybe all he recited was the Lord’s Prayer. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was all.

And Jesus himself taught us how to pray with that passage. To be humble before God and to acknowledge His position. To ask for what we need – and notably, not for our wants. To ask for forgiveness as we should do for others, and to lead us from evil.

And maybe that’s really all there ought to be to it.

But here I am, conflicted about prayer, knowing full well I am not the greatest role model for my kids or anyone on this topic. So bear with me as I give a confession of sorts. I can’t imagine I’m alone with this.

nathan-dumlao-583574-unsplashI don’t see how or where prayer works for me personally. It’s been my experience that God doesn’t answer. I don’t think He pays any attention to me at all.

It’s not like I don’t pray: I do. I certainly pray on behalf of others. But when it comes to things that impact me directly – things I personally want or need – I have zero expectations, so I’ve stopped asking on my own, or stopped believing that asking does any good. My faith is weak. Still I try, but it feels a little like crossing my fingers in superstition more than anything.


Let me explain. So many of us learned as children to pray and offer our petitions to God, and He would provide for us. As a child, you believe He will give you what you fervently pray for.

As you grow older, you notice that doesn’t happen. Both my husband and believed when we were younger that God didn’t shower us with the blessings we wanted because we didn’t live a good and worthy enough life, so we tried harder to be good and worthy in His eyes.

Still it didn’t happen. I struggled to understand where I was falling short. My husband quickly learned God wasn’t going to magically grant him a good performance as a musician if he prayed for it. No, he learned he needed to practice himself to ensure that he had a good performance.

Now my faith coaches me almost exclusively to ask God’s mercy because I’m a sinner, full stop. I’ve done nothing to deserve blessings. I have blessings simply because God has shown mercy and given His grace. And well yes, I’m flawed… I’m a sinner, through and through.

Now am I grateful for my blessings? Every single day, for every good thing. I give my thanks to God for those. I also know that some of these blessings are sheer, dumb luck.


You could almost make an argument that I don’t believe in God, but I do. I absolutely believe in a higher power. I simply can’t imagine the universe and all of us materialized out of nothing for no reason at all, despite the prevalence of sheer, dumb luck noted above. I just can’t fathom that when we humans discover the beauty and elegance among ourselves, on earth, in the seas, and in the universe that it is purely the result of scientific law and nothing more.

Of course, it hurts my brain to ponder that for too long because it begs the question of why and what we’re here to do…and I don’t want to get into that for now because I’m still not sure what my calling is. But today, I want to focus on prayer.


In another example, we are parents trying to guide our own children in the faith. Their innocence is so very pure. It broke my heart to hear my young son cry to me one day, explaining that he prayed to God for a certain outcome, and it didn’t happen. He didn’t understand why God didn’t hear his prayer and answer in the affirmative. I don’t remember how I coached my son at the time. What I truly believed I kept to myself, because I don’t want to crush my son’s spirit and besides, I’m not sure I’ve got it all figured out. I suppose maybe we aren’t supposed to.

What I’ve come to believe is this:  I personally don’t think God answers prayers at all. It’s an awful thing to admit, but that’s been my experience. Maybe my eyes aren’t open wide enough. I just think it’s completely useless to ask God for something you have the power or influence to change yourself. So, so much of what happens to you is in your power, even though some things happen as a result of pure, dumb luck or its evil twin, misfortune. True, some events are tragic or very fortunate indeed, and absolutely nothing you did or could have done could have changed that fact. Stuff just happens, whether or not you deserve it.

When I’ve tried to make sense of why God doesn’t answer my prayers, I hear that He answers them in His time and His way. We may not get what we wanted because He knows that what we wanted isn’t ultimately right for us.

How I hate that answer. God’s time is all eternity and I can’t wrap my head around that. Because you see, I’m living in the here and now, and maybe it’s arrogant to say it, but I have a pretty good handle on what is good for me. So this excuse we’re given for “inaction” on God’s part…well, I don’t think that’s how that works. I’m not saying this is what the Bible has taught me. This is flawed, little old me struggling with faith.

It feels pointless to ask God for anything. If He answers however He wishes, what’s the point of praying? Besides, doesn’t He already know what’s in my heart before I open my mouth? I suppose there is something to having a dialogue with God, but I think that’s just a fancy way of having a dialogue with yourself.

In its purest form, that’s meditation, which is even scientifically proven to be beneficial. I particularly like the meditation practice, or prayer, where you think about and channel positive thoughts toward the people you love, the people who are sick, people who you don’t like or who are your enemy, etc. On a quantum physics level, that stuff is real, the energy waves do make a positive impact.

Not to mention how there were times when I was disappointed in God’s “response”, or lack thereof, when it turns out I held the power to change my circumstances and failed to do so. I was looking for miracles from the Almighty when all I really needed was effort of my own.

Bottom line, I am convinced that you hold most of the power.

If you love someone and you desperately want them to love you back? You need to take action, be courageous no matter how vulnerable and unworthy you may feel, seek them out, and tell them how you feel. Don’t wait for divine intervention to communicate your feelings on your behalf and move your beloved to find you. You must be the one to take the action. You fail to do that, you lose. No one’s fault but your own. Believe me, I have learned this lesson the hard way. And once those opportunities are gone, they are gone forever, at least in the “here and now” part of forever. No amount of praying reverses it.

You want to be healthy? You must be the one to take the steps to make that happen. Eat properly, exercise, get sleep, find better ways to cope with your stress, change jobs if need be, or limit your exposure to toxic people. God isn’t going to do that for you. You must do that for you. No amount of praying gets you up off your own butt, miraculously causes you to get strong and limber, or purges the toxic people from your life.

You want that job, that house, that car, that whatever? I could give endless examples of what I mean, but you get the idea.

Maybe the next logical conclusion is there is no point in praying at all. God will show mercy and grace if He chooses. His right. It’s not like I can control it.

I acknowledge that God granted me a family, which is something I prayed for long ago. For some crazy reason, I can’t think of any other examples, but this one blessing is definitely one that is over the top. Each child is an absolute miracle, more than I could have ever dreamed.

However my heart breaks over the many worthy people who hoped and prayed for children that never materialized. I don’t know what to make of that. There are no good answers for why that is. All I know is that my husband and I were both healthy enough and still young enough to have children and we did. However it took some effort on our part…no immaculate conception at Louie Lodge, or anything.

This leads me to my next point: haven’t we all seen enough pure dumb luck as often as we’ve seen random misfortune in people’s lives? I tried futilely for years to understand why that is. There is no reason or rationale. It just happens regardless of how you pray.

And then, when things do go wrong, people often repeat that phrase, “God doesn’t give you something you can’t handle”. I really don’t think God doles out blessings and curses that way. Misfortune is sometimes earned and sometimes not. This line is just a way for people to express hopefulness that you’ll get through the misfortune and not let it kill you or wear you down.

As I said earlier, I don’t mind praying for others. We do this in church with every service and I do this all of the time on my own. And true, I even had the gall to ask for prayers for myself from others but it is a rare occurrence. I can count only two times I deliberately, sincerely asked for help out loud. It was to overcome something I’ve struggled with my whole life. And the bottom line?  It’s ultimately up to me to fix, no one else.


Now all of this said, I have witnessed a certain power to prayer when a group of people come together and someone gives voice to what they hope will arise. I think that sort of prayer is very powerful. It’s really a call to action for the group. Someone articulates what needs to happen, and it moves each of us on a cellular level to take action, whether it is through kind words or hands-on deeds.

Sadly it’s become an insult to send nothing but “thoughts and prayers” these days when something horrific happens. I will admit that it bugs me if that’s all anyone does. I hope people are moved people to do something, send money, visit, share a resource, change a law, or connect people who can help one another. True, sometimes we are too far away to do anything but send thoughts and prayers, but we can call or write. We can do something, right? Shouldn’t we be moved to find something constructive we can do, too?

Otherwise we’re walking the proverbial road to hell, paved with good intentions.  Living this life with nothing else but good intentions.

Nevertheless, there is real power in group prayer. It’s casting a net for people to collectively be God and do His work. It’s reaching into the divine within each of us.

I realize that my personal experience here could be taken to be at odds with Christianity but I humbly disagree. Each and every one of us is the manifestation of God. We are collectively needed to demonstrate His power. Maybe that’s a little too heady for some people or too blasphemous for others, but if it drives good and positive results, real help or comfort for the people of our world, how is that bad or wrong?

Believe me, I wish praying was as simple as manifesting what you wanted and needed in your own mind and God was a genie granting your wishes. It just doesn’t work that way.

And it’s quite possible my life isn’t richer because my prayer life is pitiful.

Sigh….sometimes I envy people who quietly put their full faith in God. And other times, I roll my eyes at people who do that. I can’t articulate where I draw the line…I’m not proud of my skepticism. Maybe it’s the extreme or showy people who puzzle me. Maybe I’m jealous of those who give everything to God. Or maybe it’s the people with a quiet or absolutely unmoved, utterly positive faith in God that inspire me the most. I admire them, but I am not among them.

Lord, have mercy.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash