Well the hits just keep on coming.
I guess that’s life.
I want to talk for a little while about the Notre Dame fire that burned for nine hours yesterday (4-15-2019). I was absolutely devastated at the news that the Notre Dame de Paris was burning. I’m neither Catholic nor any other denomination of Christian so the potential loss of relics and other holy items didn’t strike me particularly hard. But they, like the rose windows, the statues and gargoyles, and yes, the iconic spire that fell early in the blaze, are cultural items of extreme importance even to those of us who don’t practice the religion. Perhaps that’s because these things are centralized in Western cultures, but I doubt it. I’m sure an awful lot of Muslims would have been devastated to hear that the Crown of Thorns had been lost. I can’t find the clip (Google! You have betrayed my trust) but I can’t help but think of Hasan Minhaj talking about his deep love for both Jesus and Mohammed, and remaining Muslim because he could love and respect both prophets under Islam, but not Christianity. Thankfully the major artifacts, and most of the art, was saved. We don’t have to live in a world where that history, culture, and faith, has been lost. Even as a non-Christian, I am thankful for that. It may not have hurt as much for me to think of those artifacts being lost, but it certainly hurt. So I must, first and foremost, thank the French government and the many first responders who handled the situation skillfully and made the salvaging of so much precious history and creation possible. Thank you. Your efforts won’t ever be forgotten. Merci.
Early in the fire I feared the worst. Not knowing how hot the flames would be, or how much flammable material the cathedral contained, I imagined nightmare scenarios where the blaze reached sufficient heat to begin cracking the stone, collapsing not only the roof, but the iconic towers, and the rest of the building with them. I wept realizing that the best known of the rose windows was gone, worried that critical relics and texts and artifacts that cannot be replaced or rebuilt would be lost. I felt a deep empathy for Catholics and Christians across the globe, and an especial pain for the people of France, who were in limbo as they waited for word about the extent of the damage, to find out how much rebuilding would be needed, how long the fire’s scar would mark one of France’s most well-known landmarks. I knew that that empathy, and the sympathetic pain that came with it, could not compare to the pain of the people most closely and deeply affected by the fire. Later in the day, upon learning that the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem also burned while Notre Dame was alight, I feared that we would, someday soon, learn that these fires had been deliberately set in an act of global terrorism. Thankfully the preliminary investigations aren’t finding indications of arson (More Here).
But as it became clear that the fire was less destructive than I feared, as videos and images of large streams of water being poured on the worst of the blaze contained the heat and spread of the flames, I have to admit that my mind turned to other concerns. Fires happen. We’ve lost and re-built cathedrals and mosques before. Sometimes the contents can’t be replaced, but we got lucky. Some glassworker, or more likely a team of glassworkers, are about to be hired for the job of a lifetime, carefully and passionately restoring the grandeur and majesty of Notre Dame’s stained glass windows. Artisans will be brought in to assist the restoration and cleaning of any damaged statues, Christians and non-believers like myself have already banded together in mutual mourning and determination. People across the globe remember their past trips to Notre Dame, or plan for new ones when the Cathedral is restored and re-opens. I can’t imagine what the French people are going through, but I hope that their mutual determination to rebuild reminds them, and the rest of the world, of their cultural and national greatness. That French pride is hard-fought and well earned and always has been.
My strongest reaction, however, was a need to create something beautiful. Notre Dame de Paris is and has long been a cultural symbol of incredibly beauty. It is, in small part, a monument to skilled and thoughtful craftsmanship and artistry. A symbol of productive passions made manifest, and the capability of thousands of humans working together. Other artists clearly had the same feeling, resulting in viral works of art like this one by Cristina Correa Freile,
One of the stories of cathedrals, and of landmarks and world wonders that have survived to present day is our persistent determination to rebuild them. The rose windows I so mourned when I first heard the news were themselves reproductions. The cathedral was in the middle of renovations and restorations which is why so much of the critical art from the lost spire was out of the building when the fire broke out. Many in my immediate social circle, and elsewhere I’m sure, immediately began comparing this fire to the loss of the Great Library of Alexandria. I was one of them. Yet, this isn’t the Great Library. We’re in a position to repair and recover in a way humanity simply wasn’t when the knowledge of the Great Library was lost. As a kid I day dreamed about Cleopatra in Alexandria, largely thanks to a Royal Diaries book, Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile by Kristiana Gregory (Found here.) knowing, even as I imagined dry papyrus scrolls read by the light of a candle or torch, that not only could I never go to the Great Library, but that the papyrus I imagined might have been unique, and permanently lost. Notre Dame, by comparison, has been photographed literally thousands, possibly millions of times. It’s blueprints are available. It’s visual and acoustic qualities are well known. Short of acquiring 14th timber and stone for the reconstruction we can rebuild almost exactly as it was. But the intensity of the pain we are all feeling, the deep mourning many of us found ourselves in yesterday, and that we are still working through today, should be seen as a sign of how important and valuable works of culture and of beauty are to human society and consciousness. I say nothing of faith since I don’t share it, although it should not be ignored that Notre Dame is a great locus of the fervor and passion of the faithful. That millions of humans who have never even been to Notre Dame de Paris felt such a strong connection to that place should tell us how powerful such places are, how much they elevate us.
More than anything I hope that this reminds us that we can all create something beautiful, and motivates more of us to do it. Create art. To quote bad department store home decor, “Live, Laugh, Love”. Grieve. Cry. Mourn. Feel sorrow and joy deeply and honestly. And even if pen never touches paper, if you never open a tube of paint, or melt an ounce of glass, know that living and feeling is art all its own.
Yesterday I mourned. Today, I will be trying to turn toward hope. And I hope you’ll join me.