People gathering near the cathedral in August 1944 after Allied forces recaptured Paris.
Why does the burning of Our Lady affect me so?
I’m not a practicing Catholic or even a Christian really. So why should this conflagration matter?
Although I am not of Christian faith, Christian tropes do apply here.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was designed in the form of a cross, and the bell towers stand at the position of Christ’s feet when he was brutally nailed to that Tree of Life.
The spire once rose directly above the center of the architectural crucifix – that ashen vehicle of sacrifice – and when the spire burned and fell, it pierced the nave like a spear piercing the heart, not of Christ, but of the Christ.
And like the original crucifixion was so intended, this sacrifice may perhaps have shaken us again from a slumber.
When the great teacher and expositor of belief Joseph Campbell was once asked where he prayed, he answered simply, “Notre Dame,” Our Lady. Even if he had not been there in years, he explained, her profound space was still his spiritual home.
But the sorrow over her burning is not about denomination. Nor is it necessarily about Christianity or Islam or any other belief system. The burning matters not so much because it is even a religious thing.
It matters because it is a human thing.
It matters because for many it was a place of secular pilgrimage. How many of us have taken pictures of ourselves with family or a fiancé there among the gargoyles and demons, as if to say, we one day will die, but here, if just for a moment, we once lived and we once loved.
It matters because Notre Dame is the symbolic center of France (and you could even argue modern Europe and in general the West) – Ground Zero if you will – from which all distances are measured.
And the center – in a time in which the center struggles to hold – matters.
In his recent book, The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents how in a highly calculated way foreign actors have worked to undermine political and social cohesion in the United States and in Europe. A third of Brexit twitter posts were generated by bots as part of a covert Russian media and troll campaign. The same forces have launched sophisticated social media campaigns in the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, France, and the US intended to invalidate liberal democracies. Deliberate untruths foment social divisions, including the Yellow Vest movement that has torn apart Paris.
But this is not just about one nation’s imperatives pitted against another. It concerns an assault on truth itself. We are being incited to let ourselves be governed by emotion and impulse, by vague belief in what we wish to be true and not in facts themselves.
As our fears are stoked, the spectres of authoritarian governments have risen across Europe and within the United States. Authoritarian leaders do not necessarily seize power. Afraid, we willingly give it up.
In this strange world, fact and truth are denigrated. Chaos becomes the brand, disintegration the goal. By turning us against each other, more can be accomplished than through a multitude of guns.
As our passions become inflamed, the centre cannot hold.
And without a moral or spiritual or truth-bound center, unhealthy impulses grow to fill the void. We frame anyone beyond our immediate tribe as outsiders to be either vilified or feared or destroyed. We turn our selves away from one other.
It took 183 years to build Notre Dame, slightly less time than the United States itself has even existed. Our Lady represents the greatest of human endeavors – that painstaking and collaborative work that contributes in some small way to a great edifice beyond our own cognition. Something so vast in conception that in Our Lady’s first construction, neither the first stone masons nor their children nor their grandchildren would ever live to see her completion.
She is about honoring something greater than one’s self.
Call it the perfection of democracy. Or human emancipation, or equality, or the extension of universal rights to all forms of life, or the prevailing of truth over momentary whim or lies or fancy.
So, strangely then, her burning may now promote a different kind of faith. Not necessarily in God, but perhaps in us. Not the us vs. them, but the very center that is simply the collective and embracing us.
For decades the foundation dedicated to preserving Notre Dame struggled to raise funds. But in the hours after the fires were extinguished, more than 600 million euros poured in from donations both quite large and incomparably small. We donate because, perhaps, we’ve been awakened to the thought that the center must indeed hold.
Her burning matters because it reminds us of the profound need to come together in a time when individuals and forces are doing all that they can to drive us apart.