The Loss of a Lady: Notre Dame and Sacred Space
Art imitates nature not in its effects as such, but in its causes, in its 'manner,' in its process, which are nothing but a participation in and a derivation of actual objects, of the Art of God himself. ~ French poet, Paul Claudel
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, or, “Our Lady of Paris,” like Joan d’Arc and other saints before her, has been tried in the flames. Though the blaze could not be quenched through the desperate efforts of men who fought to save her, the tears of the French and Christians around the world will produce a fountain of grief that will water the ashes of destruction and produce new life. This is not the end of Notre Dame, but it is a loss from which any recovery will leave lasting scars. For what was lost in the fire was not just a precious heirloom, but a holy offering.
It is not the Lady’s first trial. In the 1790s, during the French Revolution, she was desecrated and abused, her artwork damaged, destroyed or stolen. But she went from victim to victor and over the centuries was lovingly repaired, renewed and restored. At 11 am on November 11th, 1918 her bells pealed in celebration announcing the peace of World War I. A generation later, she wept as the Luftwaffe flew over her spire casting their grim shadows on her head. She has, through it all, remained the center of French iconography and religious pilgrimage.
But now, as the ashes are still smoldering, we already see well-meaning Christians lecturing us on the dangers of putting hope in buildings. "Store up treasures in heaven," "That's why you have to trust in Jesus," "God isn't impressed by those fancy buildings anyway—would rather have the money go to the poor." I disagree with these sentiments as much as I disagree with the timing of their appearance, as the French still mourn and Catholics everywhere weep. I know, because I was raised French Catholic, my mother is a Dupont, and the loss of Notre Dame is so much more than a loss of an old building. It is nothing short than the death of a relative and loss of religious identity.
Yes, I know, cathedrals were built by the powerful and wealthy. They were political as much as spiritual. They represent the excesses of the rich over the poor. That is the dark shadow they cast. But there is more to a cathedral like Notre Dame than the nefarious intent of her benefactors. What men sometimes mean for evil, God uses for good.
Notre Dame isn't just a political spectacle; it is also the poor's piety. To build a cathedral is to celebrate religious freedom; to declare that one can worship freely. It is an invitation to bring the best of art, engineering, and theology into the center of a community. Our Lady of Paris is Paris' mother. She is sacred and revered. She is so honored not because she is grand, but because her grandness reflects the gratitude and hopes of a people who need some way to express their affection for the God they love.
Within her holy, stony womb countless thousands were given life in the waters of Baptism. Young lovers made vows to each other under her canopy, light danced in a forest of colors through her storied windows, and young children learned to raise their voices in song. Priests lifted the cross high through her aisle each day, processing down her floor so the faithful might have hope. Friends wept as they said their last goodbyes to loved ones between her pillars, and composers penned melodies to God that rang through her pipes. Homilies of grace echoed through her hall, and the Body and Blood of Christ were given each day. And legendary hunchbacks ambled in her attic teaching us about grace. She was a center of meeting Christ for centuries.
Sacred space is just that—sacred. It is not magic; it is holy, set apart. It can, if left unrestrained, become idolatrous. But it is worth the risk. It is worth the risk because, as Paul Claudel notes, art is participation in God. That is to say, art can point us to Christ. Notre Dame stands not just as a testimony to the faithful of the past, but as a stable, reliable friend amidst change and decay. Faith is like that too. And the building's stability symbolizes faith's stubbornness and therefore projects into the physical world the gift of God. But more than that, Notre Dame is a receptacle of offerings. The artist worships by sharing his craft, and the engineers worship by creating buildings and spaces. These craftsmen love their neighbor by using their gifts to help others see God. In every detail of her existence, Notre Dame invited the best to come and give to God for the sake of the neighbor. If Notre Dame has suffered from the slurs of excess, this is because she has been misunderstood.
Sacred space is designed to help us overcome distractions. It is a ministry of deconstruction and wonder. The great cathedrals inspire us because they remind us we are small. They shrink us so that we can humble ourselves. That is their goal. They shrink us in order to raise us up. We can marvel at a sunset or a mountain peak glistening in snow. But nature is God’s art given to us; the Cathedral is our gift to God for our neighbor. It is the mimicry of God’s artistic act. And as such, it is the symbolic home for faithful hearts.
Now the Lady of Paris is critically wounded. I do not think it will be her end. The faithful will rebuild because they still believe. But all Christians can mourn the loss of Notre Dame. For centuries she has stood as a testimony of Christian truth. Now, like Christendom itself, she lies in ashes. We can realize, that for all her power to point and inspire; we are living cathedrals. We can continue her work in our communities, pointing people to Christ. She was, after all, meant to inspire that in us. And as our tears fall at her feet, for she is loved, we will not grieve as those without hope.
The Church is more than a building. That is why the demise of a cathedral, while painful, will not weaken the faithful. Some will see bad omens and dark symbolism in her fall. These are sad responses. But one symbol should not be missed: Notre Dame fell during Holy Week. The week of the Passion. A week of reflective sadness and pain. The week our Lord suffered and died. But Resurrection Sunday is coming. And even the ashen ruins, with silenced bells or not, will celebrate. The French will mourn but also rejoice. For what better and more poignant gift could the Lady of Paris give than to immolate herself during Passion week? For even in her apparent death she has been a timely giver. For the message of the cross is that death is not the end; it is not the conclusion of the story. The dead will rise! And so will Notre Dame. And when she does, she will have taught us our hope is in the one who raises the dead, who forgives the sinner.