Last night I watched on television the Notre Dame Cathedral being engulfed in flames and was overcome with a deep sadness. I live in America, many thousands of miles away. I’d seen the Cathedral “in person” only once, on a trip to Paris in the 1970’s, but watching that extraordinary building burn yesterday I felt the loss personally. I was a little surprised by the depth of my feelings, to be frank. I am certainly not alone in this. Others who also are neither Catholic nor French have tried to describe the sense of loss and grief they were feeling to see this iconic building being destroyed. I feel an immense sympathy for the Parisians who’ve seen their city’s soul so devastated. It feels like a kind of death. Yes, the Cathedral will be rebuilt, though it take many decades to accomplish, but it will never be the same as it was, and we can’t help but mourn that.
We mourn because the Cathedral is more than just a building. It has been a powerful presence in the heart of Paris and in the consciousness of the larger world. It is powerful in its beauty, to be sure: beautiful in the art and artifacts that adorned its interior, yet far more than a museum of treasures; beautiful beyond describing in its very structure. It was itself a work of art. But it was (and is) still more than that. It has been a powerful icon of our human yearning toward the Holy, repository of the yearning and devotion that built and treasured it through so many centuries.
Building begun in 1163, completed in 1345, the Cathedral’s enduring over such a long time has been part of its power. Our human history has been sealed in its stones and in its great wooden heart as it has witnessed so many memorable events, nourished and absorbed the essence of so many prayers, the hushed whispers of so many hungering hearts, the deep silence of people overcome by an unexpected sense of the Holy, the rising joy of uplifted songs and praise to the ineffable Divine. Baptisms, births, deaths, confirmations of faith, ordinations to priesthood, civic gatherings in war and in peacetime, conferences and interfaith gatherings. Sanctuary and witness and birthing ground for hope. All these this magnificent cathedral has been.
Listening to people on television yesterday describing what the Cathedral has meant to them, I was struck to hear so many slip unconsciously into the language of personhood, as if they were speaking not of a building but of a grand, respected and beloved being, “she,” “Our Lady of Paris,” Notre Dame. Perhaps that says it all.
The rebuilt Cathedral will one day give witness to the amazing resilience of the human will and heart, and she will continue to gather to herself many powerful human-divine experiences. But she also will hold in her new wood and structures the sorrow we feel now at this devastating loss. This has become part of her history now.