This week, Notre Dame burned. One of the things interesting about this sentence is that I don’t have to say which of the many churches dedicated to “Our Lady” was involved; there is only one Notre Dame. It is probably the most iconic church in history, which is why the reaction in Paris and around the world was so marked: people wept, there was horror and outrage. Over and over I read comments starting, “I’m not Christian/Catholic, but that church….”
Yes. That particular church. Somehow, whatever our nationality, whatever our religion, or lack of one, we all somehow feel a connection. We feel that that church is ours. Because, of course it is our church. It belongs to the whole world. It is, as I said, an icon.
But an icon of what?
To Catholics, no doubt, it is an icon to Christ and the Virgin; to Frenchmen, it is an icon of France; to Parisians, Paris. But to an Art Minister in Seattle? Well, let’s just consider that word, icon.
An icon, in its original meaning is a holy image, venerated as an aid to devotion. It has come to mean any symbol, but let’s stick with the more traditional meaning. Something venerated, not just for what it stands for, but for its own sake. Notre Dame is the symbol of Notre Dame.
So just what do we value when we value that old building? Well, its age, its place in history, its architecture. We value its status as a work of art and as a fantastic cooperative effort. We venerate Notre Dame, because it is an example of mankind at its best. Beautiful, sublime, spiritual, artistic, cooperative. So many people working together for so many decades to produce something so wonderful! Notre Dame ceased to be strictly a cathedral ages ago. It is a monument to our common humanity. To our ability and our drive to rise above our limited selves and to create together something so vast, so wonderful, so beautiful.
I love the idea that god created mankind in her image; because if we are the image of god, then we are creators. And if you believe that man created god in our image, it still amounts to the same thing: the best of us is our creative spirit. The spirit of Notre Dame. No wonder even atheists wept to see her burn!
As the world watched the spire fall, the reaction was wonderfully uniting, if gut wrenching. Even in destruction, Notre Dame united us.
Then came the day after.
It didn’t take long for the relief that the destruction was less than feared to be replaced by the voices of discord. “Why is everyone donating to Notre Dame, when the Al-Aqusa Mosque burned on the same day? Why are the rich giving millions to restore Notre Dame, while thousands are starving in Yemen? If you want to give money to a burned church, how about the ones in Louisiana?” All legitimate questions, but kind of miss the point.
You can’t tell people how to feel. You can’t prejudge what someone else thinks is important. Religious buildings all around the world are important to the people who are involved with them and deserve help if we wish to help. You can’t tell people to rebuild churches they are not involved with; but we are all involved in art like Notre Dame – because it is art. It doesn’t matter what the original stimulus to build was.
By and large, icons are works of art, and art is about making things that transcend their mere physical attributes. This can be said about all human creation. Notre Dame touches us all, because it is a symbol of all we can be, all we can do, if we act collectively.
We do not know the names of the builders of this cathedral, and they did not expect to be remembered. Masons, carpenters, metal workers, laborers, cart drivers, glass makers, sculptors, painters, farmers, the list goes on and on, all devoted their time and effort, yes, for pay, but more importantly for the sake of the building itself. For a hundred and eighty-two years, generations of people worked for the glory of god to put up that phenomenal building.
In 1163, when the foundations were laid, the people who worked on the project had a Catholic world view. To them, working together to build the cathedral was a no-brainer. Their whole understanding of Paris and the whole world was linked to that religious foundation. That common understanding, that common goal was what made Notre Dame possible. And the building is a monument to that unified vision.
But we don’t need that medieval world view to appreciate the result. In fact, the world that names Notre Dame a World Heritage Site doesn’t have a medieval mindset. We, in the twenty-first century share almost nothing with the medieval population of Paris; except that, like them, we can do wonderful things if we act together. In fact, I say that we can accomplish anything if we act together. All that’s necessary is a common will – a shared sense of purpose.
We are not going to be building cathedrals for the glory of god any time soon. We could, if we had that shared vision, but we live in a divided age – an age where almost any subject creates an argument. As soon as someone says, “I want to help rebuild Notre Dame,” someone else says, “That’s a waste of money! Give your money to my favorite project instead!”
It’s not the money nor the technology that holds us back, it’s the common cause – the shared understanding of who and what we are. It isn’t a case of, “Together we can do anything.” It’s a case of “Unless we are together, we can do nothing.”
I’m not saying we need a resurgence of religious belief so that we can solve our problems. Religion is just one story we have made up to believe in. Monarchy, nationalism, democracy, fascism, communism, religion, these are all ideas that we as people have created – stories we tell ourselves to give a foundation to our civilization. With these stories as a shared basis, we can build the pyramids, or the Great Wall, or Notre Dame. With these stories, we have tamed the wilderness, built cities, erected monuments, and reached for the stars.
What we really need these days is a better story. Maybe if we stop shouting at each other long enough to listen, someone might come up with one.
The image of the falling spire of Notre Dame is from the Chicago Tribune.