By Tom Robotham
A church is there to teach you to pay attention, and to awaken the poetry in your soul. ~ Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love.
On the afternoon of April 15, I received a call from Jeff Maisey, the publisher of this magazine. When I saw his name in caller ID, I assumed he was checking in to see if I wanted to meet for a beer at the Taphouse, something we often do on Mondays. But this, as it turned out, was no ordinary Monday.
“Notre Dame is gone,” he said. (CNN was reporting all appeared would be lost)
I listened in stunned silence as he went on to tell me that the cathedral—where he and I attended Sunday mass, just last May—was engulfed in flames.
As soon as I got home I turned on CNN and watched through tears as the spire fell. It did, indeed, appear that this magnificent building, which had survived for more than eight centuries, was on the verge of burning to the ground. And as the reality of the horror slowly sunk in, I felt shaken to my core.
For me, the sense of devastation was partly due to my love of Paris—the most beautiful city in the world, and the place where I feel most at home. It’s odd to contemplate those words. I’ve only been to Paris three times. Nevertheless, it’s true: When I’m in Paris—even more so than New York, my actual hometown—I feel an indescribable sense of belonging. And Notre Dame, as countless people have said, is the heart of Paris for believers and non-believers alike.
I fall into the former category. While I sometimes hesitate to call myself a Christian, given the contemporary connotations of that word, the religion shaped both my spirituality and my aesthetic sense from an early age. For me it is not about certainty but mystery and wonder and awe. All of my favorite churches and cathedrals express this, from St. Thomas and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York to Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields in London. The grandeur of their towers, the coolness of their interior stone, the gleam of the altar crosses and the dance of dappled light streaming through stained-glass windows all work in synergy through the senses to stir feelings of spiritual transcendence. So do the rituals of the mass. And so it was last May when a priest at Notre Dame placed a communion wafer on the tip of my tongue. At that moment, I felt whole again.
None of this matters, of course, to millions of atheists, agnostics and adherents of other religions. And yet, their love of Notre Dame is just as profound, in many cases. They may not feel a sense of spiritual awe, but there is awe, nonetheless, in the presence of this astonishing monument to human achievement. It is nearly beyond comprehension that people could have built such a structure without modern machinery. To put this in perspective, consider that construction of the cathedral began in 1163—four centuries before Shakespeare was born.
Even more striking is that it has survived, albeit with many additions and restorations over the centuries. Somehow it endured the ravages of the French Revolution, when much of it was trashed, and the devastation of World War II.
That very endurance is what makes it so meaningful to me, especially in this particular period in my life. As I noted in this space last month, I’ve been going through a rough time for more than a year now. As I face one upheaval after another in my personal life, I long, increasingly, for a sense of continuity and stability.
But my sense of dis-ease is not merely about personal circumstances. It is a response to the impression that our nation and the world are coming undone—a sense that Yeats was right: things are falling apart, and “the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The near-destruction of something that symbolizes the endurance of the human spirit, as Roger Cohen put it in his April 16 New York Times column, was a terrible reminder of our fragility: “Civilization is fragile,” he wrote. “Democracy is fragile, like that spire. It is impossible today, it is dangerous, to ignore that. When a universal reference goes up in smoke, an abyss opens up.”
A day earlier in the Times—while the fire was still burning, and it was unclear whether anything could be saved—contributor Pamela Druckerman also shared an important insight: There is, she wrote, “a shared sadness and disappointment that, with the extensive damage, we’ve failed, as a civilization, to be the caretakers of something priceless.”
The fire, in short, was a kind of metaphor. Just as we sat hoping that it would not reduce the cathedral to a pile of rubble, many of us are wondering whether the fires of hatred, social division and political chaos will eventually leave our great democracies in ruins.
When the fire was finally extinguished, however, and a new day dawned, there were signs of hope. Miraculously, both the structure and its collection of invaluable art and artifacts had been spared. President Macron, who has been struggling to come to terms with intense civil strife in France, immediately promised that Notre Dame would be restored within five years, while two billionaires pledged massive amounts of financial support. Later that day, the bells of countless churches across Paris tolled in an expression of unity.
As I gazed, during Holy Week, at the photographs of debris scattered across the cathedral’s floor, and the cross that remained on the altar, intact, I wished that somehow the people of Paris could gather within, on Easter Sunday, and celebrate mass undaunted, under a blue sky that could be seen spreading out beyond the gaping hole in the roof. I realized, of course, that safety concerns would prohibit such a thing, but I liked the vision, nonetheless.
No matter. When Easter finally came, they did so in spirit, as is befitting the meaning of the day—a celebration of renewal and hope.
Yes, I’m acutely aware that many people don’t see Christianity that way. Mention Catholicism, in particular, and their minds immediately go to all of the horrors and hypocrisies committed in the name of Christ. This ugly truth is inescapable. Throughout much of its history, adherents of the religion have failed utterly to live by the message of love that is at the heart of the Gospels. Then again, so have we Americans often failed utterly to live by our stated ideals, from those expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence to those expressed by Emma Lazarus in her poem emblazoned at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
France, too, has fallen short of its national motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The day before Easter, various news outlets reported that the Yellow-Vest protestors in France were clashing with police once again, their anger over economic inequities having been refueled by the pledge of billions for Notre Dame’s restoration while workers are struggling to make ends meet. Their rage is understandable. It’s worth noting that many of them, according to news reports, were as deeply saddened by the fire as anyone else. It’s not that they oppose restoration. They are simply frustrated by the speed with which the wealthy responded to the Notre Dame tragedy in contrast to the apparent indifference to their own plight.
And yet, the beauty of those ideals remains—and with them remains the hope that we may one day embody them. All that is required is that we not take them for granted and that we strive every day to live up to their beauty. That, in the end, is the lesson of the fire at Notre Dame: it is a reminder to pay attention to the beauty that remains and the potential that it offers.