Today, a personal reflection in light of the tragic (but fortunately not catastrophic) fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.
Watching images and videos of the conflagration yesterday, I was struck by how surreally personal it felt. And in a very real way it was: As French President Emmanual Macron observed, everyone in the world watched “a part of us burn.” Notre Dame may be owned by the Catholic church and rest on French soil, but it’s one of the few places on earth that truly belongs to all of us. My parents spent their honeymoon in Paris and brought home a print of the cathedral they hung in the living room of every house we ever lived in. Notre Dame was a part of my world from the start, a place that symbolized my parents’ love, the potential of humankind, and the greatest mysteries in the world.
There’s no shortage of monumental human architectural achievements, from the Great Wall of China to the Roman Colosseum to Machu Picchu. Notre Dame is different from all of them. The cathedral is one of those places that changes you simply by virtue of seeing it in person. Despite the fact that you’re surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other visitors – in less cynical times we’d have called them pilgrims – a visit to Notre Dame is intensely intimate. Inside the church are countless alcoves and nooks where you can find yourself alone, the muted patter of conversation evaporating and leaving only you and the building in communion. It somehow manages to be simultaneously awe-inspiring and humble, the way the parabolas of its flying buttresses defy gravity and imagination even as they serve as purely functional bulwarks. The first time I saw Notre Dame, at the age of 19, I wept.
I don’t know that we have a comparable architectural impeachment in the United States. To be sure, we have transcendent places like Grand Central Station, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Capital Building. Yet it’s difficult to think of a building that calls to our sense of history, our national pride, our shared tragedies, and our human spirit all at once. A place that encapsulates who we are as a people, and equally importantly who we believe and wish ourselves to be. The Lincoln Memorial probably comes closest. Still, I’d offer that the places in this country that approach the experience of visiting Notre Dame are our natural treasures: Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, for example, or gazing in muted wonder at the summit of Denali.
Notre Dame is an endlessly generous building: Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people visited before you, the first time you see it and walk inside you feel as though you’ve discovered a great and abiding secret. One it’s been holding all these centuries just for you.
Indeed, there is generosity in the fact of the fire itself, occurring as it did coincidentally (or perhaps not) during Holy Week. The throngs of Parisians gathered on the banks of the Seine River watching the conflagration spontaneously broke into song, singing Ave Maria and other hymns as darkness fell and the fire burned brighter. Perhaps, then, the fire was a sort of sacrifice: At a moment in history where human beings once more seem intent on tearing each other down, breaking each other’s spirit, the fire at Notre Dame reminded us of what binds us together. It reminded us that there is beauty in this world worth preserving, beauty that if we are not vigilant can be lost in a blink.
A final thought: Watching those Parisians – some of the least religious people in the world these days – singing hymns reminds us that the human spirit still seeks upward. The fire was thus a reminder as well that we turn our backs on God at our peril, that human institutions will never replace divine grace. No one would stand vigil and sing ancient songs if the Department of the Interior building burned.
Notre Dame, whether we know it or not, is home to all of us. God willing, it always will be.