An evangelical atheist might be quick to point out that the building is a living symbol of the union of Church and State that oppressed millions for centuries and that the modern world might be better off without it. The raw fact is that it was built with funds extorted from the sweat of the working people by a Church and Nobility who were glorifying themselves as much as they were honoring Jesus’s mother. This was not lost on the crowds during the French Revolution, who beheaded the Cathedral’s statues of Kings (but spared it’s Pieta). All true. In this case, however, the truth is beside the point.
I visited Notre Dame many years after leaving the Catholic Faith I was raised in. It made no difference. In that looming hall, lit by its gigantic stain glass windows, in all that echoing silence, I knelt. I couldn’t just be a tourist. The question of what I was kneeling to has been placed on the table by fire.
Notre Dame means many things symbolically. First of all – Paris. Paris is more steeped in mythology that any spot in the Western Hemisphere and Notre Dame is central to that mythology. Second perhaps only to the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame is Paris. And Paris is love, romance, illusion – the city of light. To have so massive a light go out would be unthinkable. It would shake our world. It did. Why?
The answer is painfully simple. Human beings don’t live by the sweat of our brows. That’s how we eat. We live by the strength of our symbols. Notre Dame is a symbol not only of Paris, but, perhaps more importantly, of immortality. If it had been built in the 1990’s, the fire would have grabbed the headlines but nobody would have held their breath. This Cathedral has lasted. It has survived wars, neglect and time itself. Adolph Hitler ordered it burned with the city around it and his own general refused, the mythology of beauty being stronger than the mythology of war, even for a warrior.
To the human observer, both the mountains and the church are, ultimately, works of art. And art is art because of how it speaks to us. The argument about whether the Red Rock Mountains are the work of a chance geological upheaval a few million years ago or the work of a Divine Artist I leave for another discussion. The impact is the same.
Mountains are called “cathedrals in stone”. The reality is that churches are mountains in brick and wood. From the beginnings of human religious thought, the gods came down from the mountains. Art of any sort is our attempt to make our own mountains, our own immortality.
A thousand artists took 300 years to build Notre Dame. The kings and bishops didn’t lift a finger. Beauty that endures says something to all of us. It’s what keeps us going. It’s what keeps us human. We need it now more than ever. Parts of Notre Dame are made of wood. Other parts are made of stone, stone from the mountains of France. The wood is gone as all things go in their cycle. The stone remains. New artists will rebuild the rest.
Long live Notre Dame!