Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame, beyond disaster

Monday's fire adds history to its flames. We need our history, the map of who we are and where we might be going. Let the rebuilding begin.

WHAT DO WE DO WHEN A CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE GOES UP IN FLAMES? We watch with fascination, and dread, and a sense of helplessness. And then, apparently, we begin to argue. After Monday’s catastrophic fire broke out in the heart of Paris, social media also lit up in flames. Why should we spend hundreds of millions of Euros rebuilding Notre-Dame Cathedral when people are starving/refugees are being locked up/the planet itself is burning up/other disasters or atrocities don’t get the same attention? Why doesn’t the Catholic Church use its own wealth to foot the bill? (The building is actually owned by the French Ministry of Culture; a charity group, the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, raises money for the cathedral’s upkeep.) Some who despise the history and failings of the Church over the centuries suggest we just tear the thing down, and good riddance to bad rubbish.

Yet the sense of loss – the heartbreak, even – in France and around the world is genuine. People who have spent time in the cathedral tumble out their stories, compelled to keep a connection with something they fear might be forever lost. People who haven’t been to the cathedral nevertheless mourn the idea of its loss, of yet another piece of history and remembrance disappearing, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, in the metaphorical sand. And out of this rises a determination: It will be rebuilt. What can be saved, will be saved. What is lost, will be replaced. It won’t be the same. It will be different. But it will endure.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, from the Seine, 2013. Photo: K.B. Dixon

You don’t need to be Catholic, or Christian, or even religious at all, to believe that this is an important thing. Notre-Dame is history, and history is elusive yet essential: It’s the seedbed of our shared culture, the map of how we came to be. This cathedral, which has been built and added on to and tumbled down and rebuilt and somehow shaped into a kind of ungainly grace from its cobbled-together mishmash of styles and centuries, is humbling evidence of the fits and starts and disasters and transformations and triumphs and extreme fragility of our civilization, which in its current state often seems dangling from a swiftly fraying string. As much as it is a religious symbol and a testament to the entwined power of church and state, Notre-Dame is a shrine to beauty. We need such places to remind us of where we’ve been, what we’ve become, what we might yet be – and to provide us with those moments of mystery and deepened awareness and connection and the stopping of time that intimate encounters with great works of art provide.

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